Jundla's Journal

March, 2006

The Survival of a Spirit

Behind its public face, Mazda hides a tragic character, a spirit that had ideas and Utopian dreams in its youth but was slapped around by reality. Mazda's had a tough life, its dreams mostly on hold. What lies in its heart seems irrelevant to everyone. Other makers seem to be the achievers, indulging their own passions at will while Mazda struggle decade after decade just to survive. I can just imagine the giddy euphoria of the early rotary days and the collapse of the dream when the 1973 oil crisis decimated rotary sales and sent Mazda into a crisis of its own.

Mazda was forced to approach Ford about a partnership proposal from the latter that it had rejected just two years earlier. Ford wasn't interested now but the second oil crisis led to a 1979 deal wherein Ford got a 25% stake in return for cash. It was time for Mazda to grow up. The rotary experiment hadn't worked out. Now, with Ford's money in hand, Mazda got down to the business of being normal and started making formulaic Japanese cars. But that inner flame kept flickering through the 1980s with the RX-7s and development of the MX-5. For Mazda insiders these must have been of great emotional importance, symbolizing the preservation of the dream.

Mazda spent the 1980s making dull, committee-think zombie-mobiles designed by engineers working under the whip of marketers wielding MBAs and pretty segmentation spreadsheets but with no instinct for product or brand strategy. It seemed to work well and by 1990 Mazda had rediscovered its confidence. The MX-5 had won big, Mazda cars were as good as anybody else's, the next RX-7 would be amazing, and the company's dazzling new found panache would be seen in the new 929.

Confident of itself and of its future, Mazda decided to make a play for big growth. 11 new models were developed, including the Lexus fighting Amati line, and big investments were made in new manufacturing and distribution capacity. Hundreds of millions of Dollars were spent.

It was not to be. As the 1973 oil crisis ended the first high, so a super strong yen and an economic recession in the major car markets ended the second one in 1992. It was a disaster. By 1996, debt had reached $4 billion, vehicle output was down 42% from 1990 levels and losses were in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Ford executives wondered if they should cut and run, as Daimler Chrysler later did with Mitsubishi, but decided that Mazda was worth saving. Ford put in $481 Million, raising its stake to 33.4%, and took control of Mazda. The ignominy of it! Over a decade spent paying the dues, exuberant passions kept in check, a responsible course attempted, only to see it end like this. The dream had never been in worse shape, its hopes never dimmer.

Happily, under Ford's firm hand, Mazda has been forced to synergize with the former in ways that were a central argument for the partnership but which Mazda had resisted ever since 1979. Its formidable engineering talents have been put to use developing platforms for much greater global reach than any previous Mazda models. There are now economies of scale in engineering, manufacturing, and parts sourcing of a magnitude beyond anything Mazda could have dreamt of previously. Thanks to Ford, Mazda is thriving again with big profits and solid growth.

Wonderfully, Ford realizes that the Mazda dream is central to brand and has to be infused in everything company does instead of being restricted to sports cars. So now we have Zoom-Zoom and the push to associate "fun to drive" with the Mazda brand, across the entire model range. The rotary has been resurrected and the MX-5 got a new lease on life because Ford realized that they embody the Mazda dream, that the volume money makers have to draw their life force from them. The dream is now more vivid than it has been at any time since 1973.

The RX-8 is a very important car for Mazda not only because it is emblematic of Mazda's spirit but also of its survival despite everything. This time however, its not the same sort of rulebook-tossing as it was with the MX-5. The MX-5 was a confident arrow, a type of car that that not only had gone had gone extinct but one that wasn't interested in fitting into the marketer's perception of what people were buying. The MX-5 strode out there on its own and let people discover that here was a car to want for its own sake. The RX-8 is certainly not that. Its an RX-7 that's trying hard to be relevant. The 1990 MX-5 didn't care what else you owned or what else you could buy. The RX-8 does.

It's a lesson well learned, I think. In the past Mazda thought that because people buy Hondas and Toyotas "just coz", they'd buy Mazda too. They didn't. The public either buys cheap or it buys the default. Mazda wasn't giving people any reason to buy its somnambulant 626s and other anonymous whatnots. Now it is, and that reason is Zoom-Zoom.

It's a decent start but there is a long way to go yet. Fans of the MX-5 and RX-7 might feel the spirit of Mazda in their bosoms but the general public doesn't yet. If Mazda doesn't start vacillating the next time the market turns down, and every subsequent time, in another 20 years it just might become a quintessential "fun to drive" car company. For now, other brands are capturing more attention than Mazda when it comes to sportiness, even if they don't have an across-the-range consistency. Enthusiasts look to Civic Si, WRX, SRT4, etcetera. Mazda needs cars that garner public attention as those do and it has to keep them coming.

The dream is alive, the spirit is strong and the future looks good, but there is much work to do yet, many years of unrelenting effort ahead. The laurels are yet to be earned. Happily, this is the best chance since the halcyon days of the Cosmo Sport that Mazda has had to indulge its passions. Its been a long time coming and it must feel good to the Mazda old timers. Its been a difficult life, but now the flower is finally going to bloom, be tragic no more.



Past articles from Jundla...

  1. Introducing Jundla
  2. In With the New

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