The Mazda RX-8 Died and the Tesla Model S Was Born on the Same Day 10 Years Ago
The course of automotive history changed dramatically on a random day in June of 2012.
On June 22, 2012—10 years ago this week—the last Mazda RX-8 rolled off an assembly line in Hiroshima, Japan. Later that day, a launch party kicked off for the Tesla Model S, the company’s first mass-production model, in Fremont, California. Even if you don’t find industrial symbolism compelling, you have to admit this was quite a day for divining the future of the auto business.
It’s hard to imagine another pair of events that signified upheaval as acutely as these two did. It’s as if, on a single day, the last IBM Selectric III typewriter was boxed up just as Steve Jobs stepped on stage to announce the Apple II. Or, for our purposes, imagine Henry Ford had launched the Model T just as the last Norfolk Trotter was born. Something like that.
Of course, the significance of the RX-8 ending on the same day the first Tesla sedans were delivered is more concentrated in the enthusiast’s mind, with the RX-8 (and the RX-7 before it) being synonymous with the Wankel rotary engine. Developed at NSU, one of Audi’s proto brands, and commercialized at Mazda, the compact, lightweight, and refined rotary was the only internal combustion technology other than piston engines that made it to mass production in passenger vehicles. The runner-up in this category, the gas turbine, found its way into prototypes from several automakers, but landed short of the assembly line.
Still, the rotary wasn’t just another way to burn fuel noisily; it led an enthusiast movement. Rotary bros, by nature of their devotion to a reality separate from the one in which their inline-six and V8 friends lived, were the original Tesla bros, minus the cultish adherence to a human figurehead. That is, unlike Elon Musk’s legions—who can recite his every meme and shitpost by heart—most rotary bros couldn’t pick out Felix Wankel, the rotary’s designer, from a crowd of Ruth Bader Ginsburg impersonators.
Mazda’s own devotion to Wankel’s engine was one of the great industrial love stories of the 20th century. First powering its Cosmo 110S sports car in 1967, the rotary was Mazda’s endeavor to set itself apart from other Japanese manufacturers. It became the company’s technical signature and corporate logo, appearing in most standard models throughout the 1970s, as well as a pickup truck, a bus for the Japanese market, and its groundbreaking RX-7 sports car. Many automakers tried to commercialize the rotary engine in the ‘60s and ‘70s, including AMC and General Motors; famously, Mazda was the only one to make it work.
For the most part, Mazda’s engineering gambit paid off. What the company lacked in sales volume it gained in a following of fans that shared its affection for such an evocative, if finicky, piece of tech, out of phase with other automakers’ increasingly homogeneous and regulation-driven development strategies.
The rotary did have a few motorsport victories to help it sell T-shirts. A circuit-prepped RX-7 won the 24 Hours of Spa endurance race outright in 1981, making Mazda the first Japanese manufacturer to do so, although the rotary’s real moment of glory came in 1991, when a bonkers four-rotor 787B prototype race car demolished the pack at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, leading race organizers to ban all but piston engines in future events. Even Mazda admits, “Without the rotary engine, there would probably be no Mazda.”
The rotary engine was eventually done in by its design: unequal thermal expansion, the oil-destroying heat it generated, and the inability of its poor fuel efficiency and emissions—which Mazda engineers eventually overcame somewhat—meeting California's low emissions vehicle (LEV) standards with the last-gen RX-8’s Renesis engine. Also unable to reach Euro 5 emissions regulations, Mazda retired the rotary. The pride of Wankel lives on in the hearts and garages of enthusiasts, a huge number of whom celebrate 7's Day each year on July 7, as if the RX-7 was the motoring equivalent of St. Patrick. (Sadly for RX-8 lovers, that model doesn’t get the same turnout on August 8, but it’s always a delight to see one on the road today.)
It’s likely most rotary-engine fans were unaware the Tesla Motors Club online forum was abuzz on the evening of June 21, 2012, the day before Tesla’s party in Fremont. Tesla forum members were giddy with anticipation. One named BYT_P1837 posted this:
“I am super SUPER excited…There is also a ton of apprehension, tension, fear, almost like a first date with the woman of your DREAMS! It's hard to put into words!”
Others, like a user named Steph, were chastising their peers who didn’t seem amped enough: "I think lots of people here are not as excited as they should be. I don't feel the excitement…I have the impression of being the only one so horny about this event I can't stay in place."
If rotary-engine fans had been watching the goings-on at Tesla Motors Club, they would have witnessed a new car culture being born. Tesla fans were being just as ardent and nerdy. They had the same streaks of purism and intolerance to the less serious among them as enthusiasts on other car forums did but traded none of the stories the car crowd had canonized for a century: no Enzo Ferrari, no Carroll Shelby, no Ayrton Senna. Some were openly hostile, rejecting legacy car culture as an entrenched hegemony beholden to the oil industry, willfully ignorant of the climate crisis, and sympathetic to genocide by roadway accident. Others wondered why so many auto journalists were shit-talking their cars’ panel gaps. And what the hell were “panel gaps” anyway? We’re beta testing over here!
There’s no question that Tesla fans, by redefining the terms of automotive enthusiasm, opened a new front in the motoring wars that once were reserved for traditional battles like Chevy versus Ford, Porsche versus Ferrari, and Toyota versus Honda, even if their idea of a rivalry was Tesla versus everyone else. What’s more, since Tesla doesn’t compete in motorsports, the bullshit doesn’t stop when the flag drops, as the saying goes; the bullshit continues indefinitely. Tesla fans’ joie de guerre is legendary, and they leave no slight to Tesla, Elon, or EVs in general, even the most off-handed ones, unanswered on Twitter. It’s kind of sweet, actually.
June 22, 2012 may have been the moment car culture bifurcated, but also when its past—full of oddballs and questionable decision-making, and happy engineering accidents—dissolved into history. We were fading into a new, more standardized future comprising of high-torque, turbocharged engines; a few gas-electric hybrids; and Tesla revising the EV market around neck-snapping acceleration, the promise of self-driving, and a software-directed experience updated wirelessly. We may never see weirdness like the rotary engine again.
It’s hard to posit that day as “the day internal combustion died” or anything that extreme; the rotary engine had been disproven as the future of engines many decades prior. But the thrilling, high-revving, naturally aspirated machines that haunted our dreams for so many years, engines that by 2012 were making their final appearances in cars like the Lexus LFA, Ferrari 458, Porsche 911, and BMW M3, are now fading into the sunset. Those cars would soon take on a new, less rev-happy, more “streetable” power ethos, as Tesla created its own inertia that accelerated the adoption of EVs and bent the desires of tech investors to its will.
Remember this date. To some, it will live in infamy. To others, it will live in whatever the opposite of that is.
Mike Spinelli has covered cars and car culture in print, online, and on family cable TV, which is as glamorous as premade pancake batter. Send him tips, comments, and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.