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60-Year-Old Kei Car from a 100-Year-Old Company: Electrified 1960 Mazda R360

Last January 30, 2020, before the COVID-19 virus became a global pandemic, Mazda Motor Corporation celebrated its 100th anniversary. Mazda began as the Toyo Cork Kogyo Co., Ltd., that was founded in January 30, 1920 in Hiroshima, Japan. The company was renamed Toyo Kogyo Co., Ltd. in 1927.

From manufacturing machine tools, the company shifted to vehicle manufacturing with the introduction of the Mazda-Go auto rickshaw in 1931. The name Mazda was derived from Ahura Mazda, or the “god of light”, in an attempt to improve the image of the compact three-wheeled work trucks. Some sources, including the company website, claims that the brand name was derived from the name of the company’s founder, Jujiro Matsuda.

During World War II, Toyo Kogyo produced weapons for the Japanese military but returned to vehicle production after the war. The company produced its first kei (small or lightweight) car in 1960, started the development of the Wankel rotary engine until Mazda became the sole manufacturer of rotary engines, and rapidly began exporting its piston- and rotary powered vehicles in 1970.

Learning valuable lessons from the 1973 Oil Crisis, Mazda installed the rotary engine in sporting cars like the RX-7, continued the development of their piston engines, and introduced the concept of “jinba itta” or “the unity between car and driver” with the launch of the 1989 MX-5 Miata, which revived the demand for small sports car. Since then, Mazda has gone from strength to strength as a car brand and as a company.

For the Mazda 100th Anniversary campaign, the company showcased their latest models finished in white with red interiors and/or red roofs, imitating the finish of an original 1960 Mazda R360. Luckily, we did a story for Power Wheels Magazine about the “Electric CuteR360 that The Philippine STAR opinion columnist, car collector and restoration-modification (restomod) advocate Cito Beltran restored and turned into an electric kei car.

Kuyang (Brother), as Cito’s close friends would call him, rescued this micro car from a junkyard, restored the body close to its original condition, and grafted some modifications to make it relevant and useable in today’s ecology-conscious world. He restored the body with its short 69-inch (1,753-millimeter) wheelbase and the interior, and then modified everything else.

The R360 came without its original 16-horsepower air-cooled 356cc V-twin engine and transmission while the suspension was also missing parts. “This car was a mess when we first got it and a lot of parts were missing”, narrated Cito. Finding a replacement engine was out of the question because of the car’s rarity. “It was a natural candidate for a conversion into an electric vehicle and we used the motor and controller from a golf cart that was donated by Blue Water Resorts.”

“We installed deep cycle batteries at the front and rear compartments to evenly distribute the weight around the car and used motorcycle wheels and tires to minimize rolling resistance”, continued Cito. “We grafted a modified chrome front bumper from an Austin Mini, restored the R360’s original headlight bezels and door handles, and fabricated whatever else was missing.”

“The previous owner welded a square frame to the windshield posts and installed a flat glass windscreen and they did the same thing to the rear window. I had those hideous frames removed, restored the metal back to its original shape, and had a curved windshield and backlight (rear window glass) made to original specifications by Unicorn Safety Glass.”

The end result is an attractive kei car that wowed a lot of admirers during the 2016 Manila International Auto Show (MIAS), even though it was inconspicuously displayed. Once junked and forgotten, this restomod Mazda R360 was granted a stay of execution by a sympathetic advocate, who turned it from a simple kei car into an electric-cute ride. It’s just a shame that the pandemic stopped all public activities because if it didn’t, we bet this 1960 R360 would be part of the Mazda 100th Anniversary celebrations here in the Philippines.