1975 Mazda REPU: Could a Taste of the Past Be a Hint of the Future?

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The cabin was shaking, but I wasn't sure if that was the pickup truck or my hands. I was nervous — it's not every day you get to drive a piece of history, especially not history belonging to someone who has meticulously restored and added to it.

Hidden at Mazda's Research and Development facility in Irvine, Calif., is a cadre of vehicles representative of Mazda's history. Everything from race cars to Miata concepts to the last RX-8 ever imported to North America and representing the final rotary-engine car to make it to these shores.

I was there to drive a historic Mazda rotary-engine vehicle from a different era: the 1975 Mazda Rotary Pickup known as the REPU. Yes, Mazda made a rotary pickup and with the 50th anniversary of the rotary engine occurring in 2017, it was time to try it out.

Vitals

  • Powertrain: 110-horsepower (@6,000 rpm), 1.3-liter rotary engine; 117 pounds-feet of torque (@3,500 rpm); five-speed manual; rear-wheel drive
  • Dimensions: 173 inches long, 67 inches wide, 61 inches high
  • Wheelbase: 104 inches
  • Weight: 2,825 pounds (manual)
  • Suspension: wishbone front/leaf spring rear
  • MSRP in 1974: $3,500

Mazda partnered with Ford in the 1970s to produce the Ford Courier, which was based on the Mazda B-Series pickup. From that partnership, Mazda decided to build its own pickup with the Wankel rotary engine out of the RX-4 and the REPU was born (the REPU came standard with a four-speed manual). About 15,000 were sold in the U.S. and Canada between 1974 and 1977.

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The pickup I drove was far from being a stock version. It had a Racing Beat cat-back racing exhaust, so it sounded like an angry swarm of bees, and also featured a five-speed manual lifted out of a late '70s or early '80s RX-7. It also had manual steering, manual windows, a bench and my favorite touch, the words "Rotary Power" painted in white on the back of the tailgate.

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Driving it was a unique experience; it had quicker acceleration out of 1st and 2nd gear than I expected given that a lot of the power doesn't come until higher in the rev band. The clutch and shift action also took some time to get used since it was equipped with a long-stem shifter, something I haven't used in quite a while. However, once I adjusted to the manual steering, I had an excellent time. When it was introduced, Mazda called the REPU the "pickup with pickup" and all these years later — with a few modifications — that claim still holds true. It isn't fast by modern standards, but the engine revs quickly to get up into power and its light weight made it feel more spritely than I thought it would. The suspension was still pretty tight after all these years, making it a fun little thing to drive — something that isn't true of all vintage vehicles.

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Driving the REPU involved a bit of nostalgia for me because in high school I drove a 1989 Mitsubishi Mighty Max that also had a five-speed manual, manual steering and a bench. These trucks were unassuming in the right ways; they were simple, utilitarian and most of all, affordable. Adjust the 1975 REPU for inflation and its cost today would be around $16,700, which is far south of the pickups sold in the U.S. today.

After my time in the REPU was up I got to thinking: Can a truck like this be viable again? Could we see a rotary engine in a small, affordable truck that's built for the street?

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Regarding the first question, word on the street is that Mazda has been working on bringing back the rotary engine for a few years (we haven't seen one in a Mazda vehicle since the discontinuation of the RX-8 in 2012). The latest news is that it won't actually power a car; instead it will serve as a range extender for a forthcoming Mazda electric vehicle.

I posed the question to PickupTrucks.com Editor Mark Williams and to his credit, he didn't laugh me out of the room. He did point to the rotary engine's lack of torque delivery and the fact that it was pretty complicated, which makes maintenance more difficult. He said there are some benefits to the rotary engine: It doesn't take up much room in the engine bay and it revs quickly. But those issues probably disqualify the Wankel from truck duty.

The question of viability is a bit more complicated. I side with those who would love to see rotary-engine trucks return. The cheapest truck you can buy today is the Nissan Frontier, which our friends at Cars.com reviewed recently. A 2018 model starts at just $19,965 (including destination charges), but that price jumps quickly once you add options. It's also due for an update that will likely raise its price by a fair margin.

I think there's a place in the U.S. for a simple truck like the Mazda; overseas automakers already build them, but getting them here seems to be a tricky proposition. I live in a big city and I'd love to own a truck that's better suited to urban life; even a Toyota Tacoma is too big for some Los Angeles parking lots. A small pickup with a manual transmission and a tiny bed would be ideal for me.

Williams also thinks there might be a place for a small pickup in the current market — something affordable with cargo-carrying/hauling flexibility (he thought drop sides would be helpful), though it would have limited applications as a work truck.

Here's to hoping that my day of driving the past was a preview of a smaller future.

Cars.com photos by Brian Wong

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Comments

back in the late 1970s, I worked for a guy in the port who had one of these. It was the truck everybody ran for if they had to run down to a ship for a quick trip.

It was a rocket. Could not keep a clutch in it though!

The rotary is VERY cool on paper and delivers excellent power for its weight and size and fewer moving parts are always a good idea. BUUTTT it burns oil which hurts its emissions making it difficult to sell. Its more expensive, finding people to work on them and parts is a terror. It has no real advantage in mileage... Its day was short and the theory was better than the reality.

Modern Small turbo, DOHC, DI, 4 and 6 cylinders have surpassed it in MPG, emissions, and cost while closing the power to weight ratio advantage the Rotary had.

I don't see the advantage in a return other than weight distribution and novelty... which is mostly what it was at the end.

@Brian Wong
Mazda is developing a Rotary engine as a range extender for its EV’s. ISUZU is developing the Next Mazda Pickup Truck. . Mazda is having an input. Mazda divorced it’s association with Ford when developing it’s next Pickup Truck

Love those tail lights, and that color, and of course the option of an affordable small simple truck like that. Yet shills and busybodies, statist nannies and eco fascists ruined the regular cab short bed compact pickup, affordable or otherwise.

I love little trucks like these! They were perfect for using around the property and in and out of the chicken houses and barns. Even down in the garden. We had a little black 2200, I think a '88 model? Before they were re-badged Fords.
A true small truck not mid size. They were fun!

I had a Brand New 74 Datsun pu I paid $2050 which included the optional rear bumper. Also had a 88 Dodge D50 $3,600 which was the brother to the mighty max. Those where is simplier times

Move those tail lights up 8-10 inches higher and you got the tail end of a Corvette.

Neat little truck. I had a 85 Mitsubishi Mighty Max regular cab 4 speed manual. Great little truck which fit most of my needs while fun to drive. I would like to see a new version of the compact truck on the market but I will not hold my breath.

Reminds me of my old Ford Courier I had, which had less issues than my current Ford.

I do believe somebody finally gets it; a truck doesn't have to be a Road Whale™ to be utilitarian.

Mazda seems to always be the forgotten Japanese brand. My wife bought a Mazda 6 on Saturday. It’s really a very nice car. She had a Fusion and loved it. I encouraged her to drive the 6 since she likes to drive. While the Fusion did have a bit more power it could not compare to the driving dynamics of the 6 nor the deal she got from Mazda. The Fusion was a fine handling car and fun 2.0 AWD. The Mazda is a drivers car

Mazda seems to always be the forgotten Japanese brand. My wife bought a Mazda 6 on Saturday. It’s really a very nice car. She had a Fusion and loved it. I encouraged her to drive the 6 since she likes to drive. While the Fusion did have a bit more power it could not compare to the driving dynamics of the 6 nor the deal she got from Mazda. The Fusion was a fine handling car and fun 2.0 AWD. The Mazda is a drivers car

@Vulpine--I get it, but unless Hyundai makes something similar to the compact pickups of the past like their Santa Cruz then I don't see it happening. With all the safety features required a truck like this would be heavier. I would like at least a decent size bed similar to the length of these or at least a 6 foot long bed. I don't need or want another crew cab but I would take an extended or regular cab. I am going to hold onto my S-10 for at least another 4 to 5 years--it is at least closer to the size of the older compact pickups.

@Grnzel1
Not exactly forgotten in Australia. This is the Mazda BT-50 as big as a 2003 Ford F150

https://www.carsguide.com.au/car-reviews/2016-mazda-bt-50-xtr-4x4-dual-cab-ute-review-road-test-39779

@ Jeff S
Not the small Tucson based Pickup( You may ask what happened too it.it appears the US gent behind it in Hyundai US, has left.
Now this is the next rumour .
https://www.carsguide.com.au/car-news/hyundai-hilux-rival-confirmed-for-post-2020-58926

@Robert Ryan--Then that answers the question of what has happened to the Santa Cruz. The bed on the Santa Cruz is a little too small for what I would use it for. I wouldn't mind something the size of the Santa Cruz without the 4 doors and extend the bed to where the rear doors are.

I was looking at your link on the Mazda BT-50. I don't really want to pay as much for one of those or more than a full size truck. Your prices in Australia a very high unless the value of the Australian currency is much much higher. 57k is high and 25k is still high for a base truck.

I wouldn't minds more choice in the US but with the new Ranger coming soon at least will be more choice. I could be satisfied with anyone of the current midsize pickups offered in the US.

@Jeff S: "Then that answers the question of what has happened to the Santa Cruz. The bed on the Santa Cruz is a little too small for what I would use it for. I wouldn't mind something the size of the Santa Cruz without the 4 doors and extend the bed to where the rear doors are"

---- The existing size as an extended cab would be the most ideal CURRENT model for my wants and needs, at least for now. My wife and I have discussed buying a camper rig of some sort so I may need to consider something bigger with a 5000# towing capacity.

@Vulpine

You, sir, are guilty of over-thinking it.

Just get a bleeping truck and stop worrying about it. Toyota, Nissan, GM (and soon Ford) all have excellent mid size trucks that will do 90 percent of what you want to do with it.

PUTC has written extensively on the topic. Any one of the above referenced models will out last you if you take proper care of it.

Rotary motor is too ineficient to ever come back..
And
No one will make a small truck like that,with regular cab bc they couldnt charge enough to make it profitable..

@Vulpine--I might be interested in you old Ranger when you decide to get a new truck. I promised my nephew and his wife my S-10 and my extra tools when he builds a steel building as a workshop and to store his vehicles He wants my truck to keep.

@papajim--Agree any of the current midsize truck offerings are excellent choices and with proper maintenance and care will last many many years. My S-10 if 19 years old (I have had it since new) and it has been an excellent vehicle. I could take any of the current new midsize truck offerings and drive them for at least 10 years with proper maintenance and few problems. I have my favorites but I could easily live with any of them and that would include the upcoming Ranger I see older Rangers, Colorados, S-10s, Tacomas, and Frontiers with 200k miles and over still running and used daily.

@Jeff S

apart from collisions, it is abuse and neglect that kills old trucks.

It sure isn't hard work. My S10 that was crushed in a wreck after almost 200k miles was still running strong on simple oil changes and tires, despite being used as a commuter in a very congested suburban environment.

Nothing but hard stop/go driving for 10 years. My old green Ranger made 250k miles, although it had a lot more light duty highway miles than the S10 did.

People worry too much

@papajim--Precisely. There are many vehicles that are still running when they are junked but because of owner neglect or being totaled by insurance companies because it is less expensive to payoff as a loss since the repair costs exceed the value. Also in the East and the Midwest the tin worm eventually gets destroys bodies. It just boils down to if a vehicle is worth keeping up or if the owner wants a newer vehicle. In the long run if the body is still solid and the maintenance has been kept up it usually is worth holding onto for a few more years. Not saying one should keep the same vehicle forever but most vehicles are designed to run much longer than they actually do.



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