The design for the rotary engine (also called the Wankel Rotary) was first pioneered by former Nazi scientist Felix Wankel in the early 1950s. Mazda started using an engine of that design in 1967 with the Mazda Cosmo Sport. Unlike a standard engine, the 13B uses an oval-shaped combustion chamber and a triangle-shaped rotor. On each corner or lobe of the triangle are rubber seals. When those seals meet the side of the chamber, it causes combustion and the rotor to spin, giving power to the transmission. To the driver, a rotary-powered car doesn’t operate any differently. When you mash down the pedal, the vehicle moves forward.
The 13B is so revered today partly because it was different from the inline-6 or V-8 powerplants everyone is used to. It also put Mazda on the map as a major automaker, and Mazda itself even acknowledges that the company wouldn’t exist as it does without the rotary. In addition to sports cars, the 13B powered everything from compact pickups to buses.
Rotary-powered Mazda RX-7s have broken six figures at auction. Aside from auction results, the cars themselves are serious performers. A Car and Driver review from 1984 found that the 13B-powered RX-7 was placid to drive, yet quick when it needed to be, and torquey through every gear.
The 13B can be credited as powering incredibly competent cars and keeping a significant automaker alive.