After World War II, Japan was eager to get its citizens on wheels, so the government established the kei car standard which limited the size of the car and the engine in return for lower taxes and registration costs. Upping the engine displacement to 360 cc (22 cubic inches) in 1955 resulted in a flurry of new models. Machine-tool manufacturer Toyo Kogyo had built the Mazda-Go three-wheel motorcycle since 1931, but it wasn’t until 1960 that the company introduced their first car, the Mazda R360.
With no ability to expand the engine beyond the government mandate, Mazda set about improving performance by reducing weight—the beginning of the “gram strategy” that has served the company so well in the decades since. The engineers used aluminum for the hood and cylinder heads and magnesium for the transmission housing and oil pan. The rear window was made of Plexiglas. The resulting car weighed just 838 lb, some 81 lb lighter than the competing Subaru 360. Its upright, leaned-back styling was what we might call a-dork-able—certainly a damn sight (heh) better than the Subaru 360, which would be advertised in the United States as “cheap and ugly”.
While most of the R360’s competitors were powered by smoky two-stroke engines, Mazda developed a 356-cc four-cycle V-twin that they mounted in the back of the R360. With 16 horsepower, the Mazda R360 could reach 56 mph, which was rapid enough given Japan’s low speed limits. Along with a three-speed manual transmission, Mazda offered a two-speed “semi-automatic” with a torque converter that still required shifting but didn’t have a clutch pedal. Mazda did their best to up the fun factor with rack-and-pinion steering and a four-wheel independent suspension.
The Mazda R360 went on sale in May of 1960 at a price of ¥300,000—about $830 at the time—and it was an instant hit. By the end of the year, according to Mazda, the R360 had picked up two-thirds of Japan’s kei car market and 15 percent of total domestic automotive sales.
Mazda would continue to innovate. Two years later they introduced the Carol, a larger four-door car that stayed under the displacement limit with a 358 cc four-cylinder engine, one of the tiniest automotive four-pots ever produced. The R360 would get this engine in 1964 and remain in production through 1966. You can see the R360, the Carol, and more classic Mazdas in our gallery from Frey’s Classic Mazda Museum (located, of all places, in Augsburg, Germany).
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The Mazda R360 was never sold in America, but several have made their way to our shores, including some left-hand drive examples that were built for American servicemen stationed in Japan. Your chances of driving an original R360 are pretty slim, but you can still experience the ethos it helped to establish in Mazda’s modern-day cars.
1960 Mazda R360 Quick Facts
- Engine: 356cc four-stroke V-twin, 16 hp
- Transmission: Three-speed manual or two-speed semi-automatic
- Layout: Two-door, two-passenger, rear-engine, RWD coupe
- Weight: 838 lb
- Years produced: 1960-1966
- Price when new: $830
- 0-60 mph: Not possible
- Top speed: 56 mph