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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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?
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