Mazda hit a huge milestone this year, commemorating the 50th anniversary of its rotary engine. With many bumps in the road and failure not an option, Mazda was finally successful in creating the world's first rotary-powered car in 1967—an event that kickstarted its rotary legacy.
To celebrate such an occasion, we tagged along with Mazda on Touge California, a rally-style event hosted by Japanese Nostalgic Car that took us through 200-miles of scenic back roads and mountain passes in Southern California. This year's rally was the third annual event and gathered almost 30 pre-'80s Japanese classics from manufacturers that included not only Mazda but Toyota and Nissan as well. Unlike other forms of motorsports, this rally doesn't award points towards a championship or any trophies, but instead offers more of a curated driving experience for the driver/navigator team and just getting to the finish line is the goal.
I was lucky enough to get paired up with Jeff Glucker from Hooniverse, and although we've never met before, we had the whole day to get to know each other. I knew it was going to be a fun and safe day with him when we got to talking about driving within our limits, knowing how to have fun behind the wheel with a passenger, and more specifically, to not be "that guy" who does something boneheaded and ends up not getting invited back next time. We definitely need more good people like Jeff.
Our journey started early in the morning at Mazda R&D in Irvine, California, where we were first greeted by a '72 Mazda Cosmo Sport - the world's first production rotary-engined car. Owned by eclectic car collector Myron Vernis, he shipped his car all the way from Ohio to be a part of this epic rally.
To get the full driving-focused brand experience, Mazda brought out a '95 FD RX-7, '88 FC RX-7 Turbo II, '92 Eunos Cosmo, and '78 Rotary Pickup from their heritage collection for lucky journalists to drive in the 200-plus mile rally. *Eurobeat intensifies*
Cruising through back roads to get to the start of the rally in MX-5 Miatas before we got to transition to each of the four heritage collection cars.
Two-hours after departing Mazda R&D, we reached El Cajon Mountain in central San Diego County, which was the start of the rally where most of the participants were already assembled. Japanese classics like a '79 Mazda RX-7, '71 Nissan Bluebird 510, '79 Toyota Celica Sunchaser, and '72 Nissan Skyline Hakosuka, to name a few, graced us with their presence.
After a brief but thorough drivers meeting, each pair of co-drivers received a route book with very detailed instructions to follow to get to each checkpoint throughout the rally. There were no addresses so we couldn't cheat using a GPS, so it was very important for the navigator to pay close attention to the instructions for a safe and successful drive.
This '89 Toyota Century was boss enough to make the cut even though it wasn't a pre-'80s model.
A pony-packed 2JZ-engine was swapped into this immaculate '77 Toyota Celica.
Period-correct tunes for a proper rally with his Michael Jackson 8-track cassette in this '73 Toyota Corolla TE27 "Mango".
Since Jeff piloted the MX-5 from Irvine to San Diego, he graciously let me get into the driver's seat of the '95 FD RX-7 first. I did not hesitate, hopped right in, and started making myself feel more comfortable behind the wheel of the '90s icon for the first stint of the rally.
Practically new, with less than 28,000 miles on the dash, it was a little less guilty-feeling to be more aggressive on the throttle and let the twin-turbos spool, providing that power punch on the straights and exiting corners. It was my first time driving an FD, and it was definitely a lot of fun. I expected it to be a little more nimble and tighter in the corners, but it was still an enjoyable experience and a check off of my bucket list full of cars to drive. After driving through the Lake Jennings and Western Granitic Foothills, we made it to the first checkpoint at a small gas station in Descanso.
This '73 Toyota Corolla TE27 and '78 Mazda Rotary Pickup fueled-up since we all were warned that gas station sightings were not going to be frequent.
Vernis topping off the oil in his Cosmo before starting the next stage of the rally.
Things got interesting heading into the second stage when we were introduced to the Oakzanita Touge - the first touge stage in the rally. These touge stages were the twisty and windy parts of the rally that let us have some fun. During this stage, my co-driver and I were in charge of the REPU (rotary engine pick up). Probably not the best vehicle out of the four heritage collection cars for challenging roads with loads of free play in the steering and no air-conditioning for the heat, but it was almost exactly what I expected from a truck that's almost 40 years old! Windows down with my arm resting on the door when not rowing through the upgraded five-speed gearbox, that truck was probably the most enjoyable vehicle to drive and definitely put the biggest smile on my face.
A pair of Datsun beauties taking a break from driving in the 100+ degree heat and climbing all the way up to 4,900 feet to complete the Cuyamaca Touge portion of the rally.
The '88 Turbo II FC RX-7 was the penultimate car in our rotation in the rally. Another iconic car that any Initial D fan would point to and shout "White Comet of Akagi", this rotary-powered coupe was another treat to drive. Quite amazed at how much power comes from the tiny 1.3 Mazda Wankel engine which was engineered way back in the '80s.
The temperature and adrenaline were high as we went through the hairiest part of the drive known as the Wilson Valley Touge. We were warned about this section at the drivers meeting, and Jeff and I weren't going to be "that guy", so we took that all-downhill portion conservatively to bring the right-hand drive Eunos Cosmo we were driving back in one piece.
Eunos was Mazda's upscale brand in Japan that didn't last very long and the Cosmos was their flagship luxury coupe. This three-rotor, twin-turbo, 2.0 powered right-hand-drive machine could be really comfortable to drive with its plush leather seats and 4-speed automatic transmission or easily a quiet sleeper with sporty-feeling suspension and a surprising amount of torque. It was also the first non-manual car we'd driven all day.
Everyone made it out of Wilson Valley safely and we were all making our way through Temecula towards Lake Elsinore. Jeff really wanted to be behind the wheel for the Ortega Touge since he's had a bit of seat time on that road and wanted to experience what it would be like with the steering wheel on the other side of the dashboard.
Typical Laguna Beach traffic provided a slower-paced drive through the congested roads of Orange County before we hit the finish line back at Mazda R&D to complete the journey. Even though I've lived in Los Angeles all of my life, a lot of those roads were brand new to me and I thought it was a wonderful experience despite the summer heat.
Definitely the type of guests I enjoy hanging out with at a reception dinner.
Touge California was a success and teams were awarded with "I Survived the Touge California" stickers.
For dessert, everyone was treated to a tour of Mazda's curated collection downstairs in the basement filled with rarities that would make any car nerd drool.
Congratulations Mazda on celebrating your 50-year legacy of rotary power and to many more years of success and innovation to come!