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Rotaries Around the World Part 1 - Rotaries Down Under
Submitted by SuperUser on Wednesday, March 1, 2000 - 12:00am

The Lands Down Under, Australia and New Zealand, are filled with wide open spaces, natural wonders, crystal clear waters, and Rotorheads! To Americans, Australians and their cousins New Zealanders appear a little eccentric. Imports like Yahoo Serious (Young Einstein), Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dundee), Men At Work (Down Under) make us up north wonder if that hole in the ozone has scrambled the brains down there. One thing is sure, Australians and New Zealanders have a unique tastes. Conduct a quick search on the internet for "Rotary Engine", "Mazda RX-7"(or RX-5, RX-4, RX-3, RX-2, R100,) "Cosmo"," 3 Rotor," or any other combination that will get results pertaining to this engine. The results of this search will contain a surprising number of URLs from down under. In the access logs of this server even, Australian based hits are the second most frequently loged domain (.au), behind the US (.com, .net, .org, .edu) and nearly three times more as many hits than Japan. So what is the deal? I had the opportunity to talk with Bob Bilton and David Morris about all things Rotary in Australian and New Zealand. Bob Bilton, from Auckland NZ, worked for Mazda for Many years. "In the years I worked with Mazda I found them a great family to belong to, superb engineers but without marketing skills." Today he has his own business as a marketing consultant and he also teaches marketing part-time at the University of Auckland. Dave Morris, from Sydney AU, has been studying the Wankel Rotary since 1985. "Through extensive research, personal interviews and hands-on experience, [David] has aquired the most comprehensive information on all the world's rotary engine machinery within Australia." Dave incorporated DMRH Special Vehicles after writing about the rotary (freelance journalism) and watching others try (in the wrond directions) to get these cars the reputation they deserved. In addition, DMRH (David Morris Rotary Historian). "DMRH has freelance contracted itself to various magazines throughout Australasia and has experience with professional video production xscrxipting. (Re: Motoring videos) I have had a few Australian friends over the years, exchange students in high school, and class mates in college, but none of them were Rotorheads. They did, however, know about the rotary, and loved the Mazda RX series. The opportunity these two gentelmen presented me to ask about the rotary and Australia/New Zealand is unique. I want to start by explaining the Australian and New Zealand situation the way it was explained to me. Australia is much further away from New Zealand than many Northern Hemisphere people tend to perceive, as Bob explains. There is 1500 miles of wide, deep, wild ocean between Australia and New Zealand. "We are Boston to their L.A., Oregon State to their Florida, the Rockies to their [Appalachians]." Australia is a much bigger market, much more protected than New Zealand. Due to this, Australia has a manufacturing industry to protect and tegulate imports down to thess than 1% of the total sales market (Industry Figures 1998). New Zealand gave up this protection of their industry after years of trying to make their unique situation work. Both Mazda Australia and New Zealand used racing to promote Rotaries to a wider audience than the racing buffs, so they have a large pool of enthusiasm as well. In addition they have long distances to cover where the rotary shines at ideal rpm, smooth and quiet. But Australia with its image of the outback is in reality an urban country with the population concentrated in the larger cities of Sydney,Perth, Brisbane, and Melbourne. Bob explains: "I know that the proportion of rotaries sold to city dwellers in Australia [is] much higher than in NZ. Rural vehicle[s] in Australia are large cars or diesel four wheel drives as their long distance driving is over flat straight roads demands comfort." With all the websites out there, such as 3rotor.com you would think the whole population of the down under were driving rotaries. In fact, they do drive different cars than the US Detroit Irons. The styling of Aussie cars is predominately influenced by Japan with very few American cars on the roads. Dave comments "the European flavor denotes luxury and style. Cheapies are associated with car companies from Korea and Maylasia." This is really no shock, as Australia is a commonwealth of the United Kingdom. When asked, Dave and Bob responded with the following: (Dave) "Australian's have always liked the "UnderDog" and that is what the rotary is. As well as this, by nature there is always a certain percentage of people that like to be different to the rest so that caters for some more popularity. These cars provide cheap "Bang for your bucks" when compared to some other types of engines & the noise sounds "Oh-so-sweet". Another possability is that due to cars being more expensive here than in the US (1995 RX-7, US=$35000, Aussie=$80000), we tend to keep them longer than you guys would. As a result, RX-2's 3's 4's 5's etc manage to last on the roads until the younger guys could get a hold of them & preserve them with there attention to detail & modifications." (Bob)New Zealand is an under populated (less than 4 million people) strip of islands with extremely varied geography, containing some very good driving roads. There are plenty of opportunities to stretch the rotary's legs on fast and flowing rural roads. For example there is a wonderful high country road near my hometown in the South Island highcountry, where it is possible to maintain speeds more than 100 mph for extended periods because the traffic is so light. The highway flows between the foothills under the shadow of a mountain range, plenty of forward vision, very little other traffic. Such roads provide opportunities to explore the rotary engines most favourable characteristics and leaves the drivers trembling with excitement.

Dave can vouch for that. "New Zealand's rural roads are excellent fot this thing. New Zealand is an agricultrual country. While there is huge agriculture in Australia, per captia, New Zealand is much more rural."
(Bob)Mazda earned a wonderful reputation for the B-series trucks among the farming community. The B1600 was capable of idling is 1st gear across farm fields while the farmer feed his livestock hay while walking alongside or standing on the rear tray. No other small truck would do this. They all required a driver as well as someone to toss the feed to the animals. This quirk provided Mazda with a strong rural base. This proved important for the rotary, for people who drove on open roads were better able to appreciate the rotary than urban dwellers who found the hesitant pickup from a trailing throttle and thirst for fuel much more obvious Through this quirk, Mazda developed a reputation for mechanical superiority. Another unusual feature of the NZ car driver is a high mechanical aptitude. Cars remained in short supply in NZ from WW2 until 1985. We had no alternative but to keep old cars running. Most of us spent our youth fixing the worn out cars, the only ones we could afford. Scratch most motor-racing team's teams around the world and you'll find New Zealanders handling wrenches - that is one by-product of this circumstance. Another was an immediate fascination with the concept of the rotary engine. We did not need clever commercials that said the rotary goes Hummmmm when other engines go Boing Boing. New Zealanders accepted the lovely mechanical simplicity of the rotary concept. Many of the first rotaries to arrive in NZ where stripped down so interested people and dealers staff could become familiar with their workings.
Because of this background, and good publicity on rotaries coming from the USA I might add, we [sold]l all the rotaries we could get until the first oil crisis... then we could not give them away. In America, Rotaries never really caught on. Save the few die hard Rotorheads. But down under, the rest of the world's perception is they have so many different veriaties of Rotaries, they are almost as common as the every day Mazdas. The Eunos Cosmo, (yes the one with the 3 rotor 20B monster Rotary Engine) and a whole slew of other rotaries have showed up on webpages. We never got these models up here in the States, for that matter, most had never heard of a Cosmo before 3rotor.com. Dave explains the real situation of rotary cars in Australia.
(Dave) The US has it better than [Australia], believe me. You guys got extra versions of the RX-3 and RX-4 such as the wagon plus the series III RX-4 (1976-1978). You also got the Rotary Pickup [REPU]. We never got the HB (82-88) or the JC (90-95) rotary version Cosmo's officially. They have all been privately imported.I started up my business and I am trying to get as many [imported] as customers will pay for.
Japan is a "throw away" society. They have NO appreciation for the "different" rotaries such as the Cosmo & Luce series. They will preserve the RX-7, but only when numbers have depleted to a stage that there price soars. This is only just starting to happen for the "series-I" RX-7 of 78-80. So, Japan is the only place on the planet that the 3 rotor 20B powered Cosmo was sold out of the dealer. The Right Hand Drive, and comparatively lax import laws made it easier to import a Cosmo and other Rotaries into Australia. The US has quite strict import laws, not only would a Cosmo need to be crash tested, but it would also need to be EPA certified for emmisions, and to top it all off, the stering would need to be relocated onto the left hand side. For these reasons, Australia has more Cosmos, Luces, and other varities of Mazda Rotaries than here in the US. However, all of them were imported, so the number is significantly less than if they were to be sold at Mazda dealerships. New Zealand does not impose any unique regulations on motor vehicles. They accept the Japanese standards for safety and exhaust emission specifications, so no car is barred from entry to NZ. New Zealanders are generally early adoptors of technology. From microwave ovens to computers, cellphones and rotary engines we have a history of quickly adopting new technology. So then why is the Rotary not sold at Mazda Dealers? Bob, who was a marketing manager for Mazda New Zealand,explains: Research showed that the rotary was loved by a few, but the fall in demand had killed the used car value, so the rotary lovers could not justify the trade-in gap when they came to buy. Amplifying the difference was a penalty sales tax that the government imposed on gas guzzlers to lower the demand for these cars. Clearly we had address the used rotary situation to have any chance to improve the ability to sell new rotary powered cars. More research indicated that in spite of the pervading gloom surrounding driving in general there was a group of people who loved to drive and that these people were used car buyers. In addition the motor trade in general were relunctant to trade used rotary engined cars. To impove the credibility for rotaries within the trade and to develop a positive image for the rotary as an affordable performance car, Mazda New Zealand turned to a young man called Rod Millen, who was enjoying some success with an RX3 rally car. We put together a Mazda Dealer Rally team to challenge for the New Zealand championship. Rallying is a high profile sport in New Zealand, our country roads made ideal rally roads and huge crowds turn out to spectate at major events. Also TV coverage was very good. Using an RX-3 he developed without help from the factory Millen won the NZ Rally Championship three years in a row. This was an amazing result as the prime competition was a partially Ford factory backed team using the Ford Escort rally car which was the World Champion at the time. This David verses Goliath act was backed up with intense promotions to the used car trade. It did not take long for the demand for used rotaries picked up and we began moving our constipated inventory of new cars. During the second year we sent our service manager to England to inspect their inventory of unsold RX3s with the view of replenishing stock, but unfortunately the condition of the cars was not acceptable. After 3 years we had lifted demand for used rotaries to the extent that the ratio of used to new price was the highest in the world according to Hiroshima. As a result I was asked to make many presentations of our program to Mazda distributors around the world and Rod Millen was tempted to rally in the USA. Although Rod and I still maintain contact, the last worked together was when I played a role with him the Mazda Asia Pacific Rally Team during 1979-82, but of course he is now aligned with Toyota. Most manufacturer marketing is aimed at new car sales or brand awareness but. Mazda NZ drilled down to all levels of the auto market to enhance the confidence in rotaries while simaltaneously promoting to those segments of new and used car market with a preference for performance. This left a lasting positive percepetion of rotaries. Since 1984 car shortages have become a thing of the past. New Zealand has adopted radical economic free market policies. Nowadays we may well have one of the most open markets in the world, similar to Hong Kong and Singapore. The NZ car market has become completely deregulated. Car assembly plants that were once protected by tariffs and licensing have all been closed. All our new cars are imported fully assembled and every manufacturer who exports is represented here. There is also freedom to import used cars - so many of our used cars come from Japan (steering wheels on the same side helps here) which is why we see the odd Cosmos 20B on the roads. Used car values are very low because it is cheaper to import a car from Japan than it is to buy trade-ins. Over 120,000 used cars from other countries arrive here annually. We enjoy auto selection overkill. The auto industry is hard pressed to cope with the huge variety of models, especially rare models such as Cosmo because the electronics require special diagonosis and the handbooks are all in Japanese! Once again the skills and innovations of NZ auto service people are being tested, so I think we shall continue to be a breeding ground for race mechanics for many years to come! Today, Mazda New Zealand not sold new RX7s for some years now because the demand is being met with used cars at a fraction of the price, so we can still see plenty of evidence of rotary enthusiasm on the streets. There are some beautifully maintained RX3s and RX7s about, there is a special racing classes for the original RX7s. So the rotary has a firm reputation as being a big bang for the buck. The future does look bright for Rotorheads in the lands down under, and the rest of the world for that matter, with the new RX-EVOLV concept and the Renesis Rotary Engine. Mazda says a new Rotary engine car is on the way. They are pumping resources into development and engineering for the Renesis and the RX-EVOLV. Hopefully, people all over the world will be able to enjoy the new engine, in a smartly styled car.
Credits: I would like to thank Dave Morris and Bob Bilton for all the wonderful information they provided. This story could not have taken off the ground without their help. Also thanks to Lance Warren for 3rotor.com Notes:
  • 3 ROTOR.COM belongs to Lance Warren.
  • All images in the story are courtesy of Dave Morris

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