They say you should never meet your heroes. In my time interviewing major sporting figures, I generally haven’t found that to be the case. Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Jackie Stewart, soon-to-be-Sir Lewis Hamilton, Colin McRae, Tiger Woods — on his first-ever visit to Scotland — and Jack Nicklaus. A few of the heroes I’ve interviewed, and all who were a delight to meet, and immediately made me feel at ease and comfortable. But what about an inanimate object? What about meeting your "hero" car?
For more years than I care to admit — or even remember, it’s that long — I have coveted a Mazda Cosmo 110S. They’re as rare as hen’s teeth, so owning one has always been out of the question. Even moreso now when, thanks to just 1,176 being built up to the end of its five-year production run in 1972, good ones now sell for around €80,000. And that’s if you can even find one.
So you can imagine how much I had to pinch myself when the email from Mazda popped into my inbox offering me the chance to drive one in Germany.
Yes it meant getting up at 5am and heading to a near-deserted, Covid-conscious Heathrow for a flight; but those concessions were a price most people would be willing to pay to meet a hero.
Mazda Series II Cosmo Sport 110S (1971)
- Price: New, £2606; Now, Circa £70,000
- Engine: 982cc, 10A twin-rotor Wankel
- Power: 129bhp
- Torque: 76lb ft
- Transmission: 5-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
- Top speed: 124mph
- 0-62mph: 8.8 seconds
I defy anyone not to fall for the seductive looks of the Cosmo. The car I drove was a 1971 car, making it it a Series II Cosmo. The car’s styling is credited to Mazda's then-chief stylist Heiji Kobayashi. And while there are clear Italian-influenced lines reminiscent of contemporary Alfa Romeos of the time — certainly when viewed from the front and side — the Cosmo was actually penned, then essentially hand-built, at Mazda's Hiroshima factory.
But while the Cosmo’s curvaceous futuristic, Space Age look was, and remains, headturning, it is perhaps what lies under the long, sleek bonnet which is perhaps its biggest legacy. This was the first Mazda powered by a Wankel rotary engine. Over the following decades, this novel powerplant became synonymous with the Japanese carmaker.
Despite the event taking place in Germany, this car is part of the company's UK-based fleet of historic vehicles. As a result, it’s been meticulously cared for.
As I mentioned previously, it’s a Series II Cosmo, meaning it’s the more powerful version of the 982cc twin-rotor engine, developing 129bhp. That 129bhp is delivered at a whopping 7,500rpm.
To put that in perspective, while the figure remains a high rev limit for a current modern-day car, back in the Sixties only the likes of competition motorcycles competing in the Isle of Man TT races revved as high. This was state-of-the-art technology for a sportscar.
It’s also diminutive. I’d seen one in the metal before, when Mazda placed one alongside what in many ways is its modern-day equivalent, the MX-5. But I’d forgotten how small it is.
It stands just 3ft 6in tall, an as a result you sit very low in the cabin. I’m a slim 5ft 8in, and even I had to work hard to fold myself into the drivers seat. But my acrobatics were nothing compared to watching a couple of my 6ft 4in-plus colleagues somehow manage to contort themselves into the cabin. And those efforts became all the more humorous given the fact the drive was on one of the hottest days of the year. Oh! And of course, there was no aircon in the Cosmo.
Once settled in the rather upright but beautiful houndstooth driver’s seat, and having run my fingers round the skinny wood-rimmed Nardi steering wheel, it quickly becomes clear how contemporary the cabin is. In essence, it delivers on the design template lots of cars have followed. The radio is where you would expect it to be; same goes for the ventilation; there are large, clear dials in front of the driver; everything is clearly labelled; and the delicate little metal key slots into the ignition barrel, which again is exactly where you would expect it to be.
This may be a car of the Sixties and early Seventies, but thankfully, despite its classic age, its starting procedure is — at least in principal — simple. Turn the key; fire the engine up, balance the choke and off you go. Well, perhaps that was how it was when new.
Remember, this little beauty is 49 years old. So it has, like so many of its age — be it mechanical or human — its own little foibles. For the rotary engine to catch, it’s right foot flat to the floor, then turn the ignition key. Even with that it takes a while for the engine to churn into life; and then it buzzes rather angrily, like a demented wasp, as it warms through.
And of course, having been told by the Mazda crew to make sure I “keep the revs up” as I pull away … I rather embarrassingly stall in front of the assembled onlookers. Lesson learned. Handbrake back on; accelerator pinned to the floor; key turn; demented wasp back again; some delicate choke work; and this time the engine’s revved like it’s the start of a BTCC race. And we’re off.
Only problem; I’m still in the hotel car park and need to stop before I join the main road. Thankfully there’s a friendly Mazda person who stops the oncoming traffic, allowing me to continue my progress without stopping.
It’s amazing how quickly your head learns the subtleties of the pressures required to balance the revs, clutch and gearshift. Pretty soon I’m stopping at junctions, taking off without even a stutter, and thoroughly enjoying myself.
It’s not a quiet experience. There’s a raw pleasure in the way the Cosmo accompanies the experience with its own rhapsody of snarls and fruity rasps as the engine goes about its business. There’s also the smell; oh the smell of an old engine doing what it was built to do. It’s heaven.
And it’s fast; sneakily so. Though never approaching anywhere near the 7,000rpm where peak power is supposedly delivered (a caring doff of the cap to its advancing years), the little Cosmo — which tips the scales at 940kg — fairly skips along at a brisk pace, never once struggling to keep pace with modern traffic.And on a section of empty, beautifully smooth, winding road, the Cosmo was in its element. Well balanced, composed, precise gearshift and with pinsharp steering, I didn’t want to look at my watch to see how long I had remaining with the car before I had to return it to Mazda.
Delicate and petite on its 15-inch wheels, certainly when compared to modern day alternatives, and with a style which remains as eye-catching and alluring as the day it left the showroom, the little Cosmo has aged beautifully. Once again, the point was proved that meeting your heroes can deliver memorable moments.