Back in 1957, German engineer Felix Wankel displayed a prototype for a new internal combustion engine that used spinning rotors instead of reciprocating pistons to complete each engine cycle. The design allowed for a lightweight and compact engine with less moving parts that provided much smoother operation than conventional powerplants, especially at higher revs. On a side note, it's rumored that Felix Wankel never possessed a driver’s license despite all his involvement with automobiles.
Fast forward 50 years and the Wankel rotary lives on, powering modern cars like the Mazda RX-8. But despite numerous manufacturers licensing the design and building several concepts cars over the decades, only Mazda sold rotary powered cars to the public in large numbers.
The first car to be powered by a rotary engine was a modified 1960 Prinz from German carmaker NSU, and the first production model was the NSU Wankel Spider of 1964. Following the launch of this car, the technology started to gain popularity and it wasn’t long until mainstream carmakers such as Citroën, Daimler-Benz, Alfa-Romeo and Mazda joined the rotary bandwagon.
Unfortunately, the initial designs were unreliable and there was a general lack of understanding on how to maintain the engines. This combined with other disadvantages such as the higher fuel-consumption, poor seals and incomplete combustion problems led to most manufacturers abandoning the design. We hope that Mazda will stick with the unique powerplant for its next generation of RX models.