How Mazda Got Its Winged "M" Logo
A Story of Survival
Some may say Mazda's history is a "survival through innovation", but really it has been a survival through partnerships. The company is like that guy, or gal, in high school who wasn't the very top of the class in sports, theatre, or academics, but seemed to perform well enough at any and all of them. This same person more importantly seemed to be friends with everyone - very likable. Through its history several successful relationships with other manufacturers continues to bring Mazda success in the industry. More importantly, what Mazda demonstrated well in the beginning rings true throughout its history thus far - mastering the production of small stature vehicles, the Mazda MX-5 Miata is the epitome of this success. The history of Mazda has many facts documented, but the color commentary is often missing from the story line leaving much to the imagination on the "whys" of its history and logo design.
So where did the production of these small stature vehicles begin? In January 1920 Toyo Cork Kogyo Co., Ltd was founded in Hiroshima, Japan and this headquarters location would be traumatic and inspirational for the brand. At the onset the company produced machine tools starting in April 1929. A couple years later in October 1931 Mazda's first vehicle, the Mazda-Go, entered production essentially from the front end of a motorcycle and the back end of a small trailer. This combination is a small but very capable vehicle and production was initially very low, only 66 vehicles. The first sign of a partnership with another brand appeared with the Mitsubishi triple-diamond logo seen on the fuel tank of Mazda's first vehicle as it was marketed through Mitsubishi corporate sales. While continuing these small "truck" production efforts, the company also continued producing rock drills and gauge blocks. Imagine the nimble and effective spirit such a small motorcycle truck would exhibit moving materials through a production plant.
The capability of the Mazda-Go wasn't limited to the production floor. To demonstrate the endurance of their small truck, a very unique and first-of-its-kind advertising campaign was performed, yes performed, by Mazda in October 1935. Four Mazda-Go Type KC36 and one Mazda-go Type DC made an expedition from Kagoshima, Japan to Tokyo covering 2,700km in 25 days. This tour certainly brought these small vehicles to a large audience of spectators during the journey, many of whom may never had much exposure to the vehicle or the Mazda brand in this format - a small truck. This endurance promotional event would be a practice run for a difficult chapter in the history of Mazda.
Ten years after that epic journey, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan marking the end of WWII but the beginning of a significant rebuilding effort for the country, the company's headquarters, and the Mazda brand. As Mazda quotes in their heritage website, "Despite losing nearly half of the city’s population, Mazda knew it had to play an active role in the redevelopment of Hiroshima. In a spectacular show of perseverance, the Mazda-Go DA was back in production just weeks after the bombing." Within four years this three-wheel vehicle was already produced successfully enough to resume exporting vehicles to other countries including India. As devastating as the 1945 impact was to Hiroshima, it was effectively a catalyst for Mazda accelerating the development of other vehicles and partnerships. The introduction of the Mazda-Go in retrospect is symbolic of what Mazda does very well today, carving a niche producing vehicles that are relatively small in their respective classes.
To further the theory that Mazda's success has been correlated with the production of small stature vehicles consider the following examples, which also portray the partnerships Mazda has had over the years.
Mazda R360 (a 2 door FOUR passenger vehicle)
From a 3-wheel truck Mazda-Go in 1931 to the Rompera a 4-wheel light truck in 1958. But even more of a feat it's first 2-door passenger vehicle, the R360 Coupe which managed to fit 4 seats into the minuscule passenger compartment. As was the case with the Volkswagen Bug for Germany, this R360 was an opportunity for a wider population to achieve vehicle ownership in Japan.
Mazda Rotary Engine
Leveraging its experience with machine tool manufacturing offered Mazda a great alignment with Auto Union's NSU/Wankel (a second partnership) who developed the rotary engine to bring this unique engine format to market. This engine was an enigma for most manufacturers, eluding many but not Mazda who would successfully bring it to life in the iconic RX-7 & RX-8 vehicles. The complexity of this rotary engine could be evidence of "survival through innovation" however the partnership with an Auto Union brand was likely the deciding factor.
Just a year later the B1500 compact pickup truck was introduced, when trucks were typically larger and even today excessively large, Mazda kept in line with its sweet spot, smaller stature vehicles for the respective class. The B1500 is another example, a niche vehicle for those that need the utility of a pickup truck, and in small form factor.
In 1985, the second generation RX-7 is introduced and this vehicle's popularity quickly began to rise a fun sports coupe, and a year later rotary engine production reaches 1.5M.
Mazda rotary engine Savanna RX-7
Partnerships continue and this next time, in 1987, with Suzuki focused on "mini-vehicles" catering to what Mazda has done well. A year later Mazda launches a Research & Development facility in Michigan which would open doors to another partner, Ford. One of the cars that caught my eye was the Ford Probe which was a vehicle produced out of partnership with Ford.
The culmination of their efforts with small stature vehicles grabbed hold in 1989 with the introduction of Mazda's first roadster, the MX-5 Miata. This vehicle really set the tone and provided street credibility for constructing cars with a "dedicated pursuit of driving pleasure" to be referred to later in the phrase "zoom zoom". The Miata was launched first in America and was an instant hit and perhaps acknowledged by many as one of the predominant small roadsters in history. Many emulated it, but the small scale of this vehicle was difficult to replicate.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
There were many partnerships and those mentioned are just a few highlights. Here is a visual of the relationships that make up the history of Mazda.
A Brand Image Evolution
For a brand with such visually distinct vehicles due primarily to their size, the history of the logo, or rather the permanence of a singular logo, is a bit surprising. One will notice that the block style typeface of MAZDA is the most predominant brand logo through its history. As speculation, perhaps it is representative of its machine tool production roots with very precise lines but large block construction, this is still uncertain.
The earlier logos appeared to have more style in the font for the name or in the use of the letter M as in the case of the script style name and the triple layer M to depict Japanese mountain ranges.
One of Mazda's earlier logos around 1936 was ahead of its time by about 30 years. The M logo encapsulated within a triangle with curved sides is a foreshadowing of the rotary engine architecture. Had Mazda pursued more widespread use of the rotary engine and succeeded in a longer portion of its history perhaps that would have been a terrific logo for their use throughout time.
The numerous partnerships Mazda has had over its history did not include Citroen, one of its partners. Every once in a while even the kid who gets along with everyone comes into a bit of a conflict. Mazda introduced a diamond shaped logo in 1975, but had to be adapted at Citroen's request as it appeared too similar to their logo. With that being said they kept the "flame shaped" logo in a similar fashion but more rounded edges. This has imagery representative of the sun and a flame. The sun is inline with Japan's flag of the red sun. After the logo was curved to appease Citroen the imagery of wings, sun, and circle of light is more apparent.
And this brings us to the most current logo a rounded box with wings in the middle. After closer examination one may soon see the shape of an "M" made up of the wings in the center of the logo and then blending into the sides of the box. This has been around since 1991 and is still used in conjunction with the block text of the Mazda name.
Without the success from partnerships the company logo might not have had the opportunity to evolve over time and it's history of creating small stature vehicles that are light in the foot has a comfortable symbolism with the wings that can be found from time to time.
A Commentary on the Brand
Mazda is a solid brand with fun cars that are attractive to many customers. The partnerships that helped bring these vehicles to market should be celebrated in an industry with brands dying off every year, it seems. The congeniality of the Mazda brand has enabled its success by finding partnerships to collaborate on vehicles where many other brands insisted on going it alone ending up in ruins.
The free spirit imagery of the winged-M logo adorned on successful cars like the MX-5 Miata certainly is an ideal match. Adding into that imagery the "zoom zoom" energy subtly alludes to its longtime pursuit of driving pleasure. Mazda should be on the one hand careful not to be all things for all automotive vehicle size segments nor to all buyers. It can appeal to a wide swath of the customer spectrum while making compact cars and small trucks with great value and appealing performance.
Perhaps Mazda should revisit the legendary trek of its Mazda-Go vehicles. With the GoPro, YouTube, and social media environment today there might be a fantastic opportunity build on this brand imagery and involve its customers through interactive real-life driving treks. After a little brainstorming there might be ways to convert a buyer's mindset from looking at a Mazda vehicle for getting from point A to point B and rather pursue an adventure in the vehicle as well.
A focus on partnerships may be good for Mazda in annual financial reports and board room discussions and not so much for selling cars to the consumer. Equally, a focus on innovation may become problematic for Mazda with buyers. One feature of Mazda technology that has baffled me is not so much the implementation as it is the naming. "Skyactiv" technology is an enigma to me, and perhaps that was the point in coming up with that term. To me Skyactiv makes me first think of satellite GPS, maybe even a step further into the future with autonomous vehicles guided by GPS, or perhaps auto-sensing windshield wipers actively scanning the sky in search of the first raindrop. But this technology is actually focused on engine efficiency. According to Mazda's website Skyactiv technology is "a new-generation highly-efficient direct-injection gasoline engine that achieves the world's highest gasoline engine compression ratio of 14.0:1". Skyactiv is a cute name but I think distracts the audience as to what it achieves and allows Mazda to lose a key opportunity to leverage its machine tool manufacturing heritage.
With such a legacy in machine tool manufacturing, rotary engine production, and now a highly-efficient injection engine it makes perfect sense that Mazda would be capable of this and perhaps "survival through innovation" is demonstrated here. The branding of their name in block letters and the naming for this new engine technology both could have used a little more time and creative input. Compare this to BMW's "EfficientDynamics" terminology which seems to be more on point with a similar endeavor to Mazda's Skyactiv efforts and a clearer name. Despite this current dilemma for me, Mazda's future success will not likely end here. There will be many more technologies and vehicles down the road for Mazda and perhaps focusing on the strength in developing cars that are small, light-footed, and well machined will continue to add value down that path especially with the Miata as its flagship vehicle.
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Jim & Jared