Hiroshima is a company town. Mazda is the region’s biggest employer and the car maker bankrolls the city’s professional baseball team, the Hiroshima Carp. The company was instrumental in rebuilding Hiroshima after the atomic bombing in 1945. Only days after the blast leveled the industrial base of the city, the Mazda assembly line was back up and running. Space was cleared in the company headquarters for the Hiroshima prefectural government. Japan tends to be parochial when it comes to its automobiles and it will not take long in Hiroshima to know you are in Mazda country.
Car companies have historically taken the name of their founder – Louis Chevrolet, Ferdinand Porsche, Soichiro Honda, Charles Rolls and Henry Royce. Mazda, however, takes its name from the Persian god of light, intelligence and wisdom, Ahura Mazda. That is because the business began life as a cork company. Founder Jujiro Matsuda started his working life in 1889 as an apprentice to a blacksmith. In his thirties he invented an industrial pump and gained control of the foundry. During World War I his Matsuda Works churned out military supplies for Russia and manufactured the Type 99 rifle for the Japanese army.
In 1921 Matsuda returned to his home town to take over the operations of a struggling artificial cork manufacturer named Toyo Kogyo. He was not able to revive the company and redirected its efforts into tools. In 1931 Toyo Kogyo introduced its first motor vehicle, a motorized tricycle with a small pick-up bed on the rear. The autorickshaw was called a Mazdago and was sold by Mitsubishi; it puttered around Japanese streets with a single cylinder, air-cooled engine that cranked out 13 horsepower. The company would not adopt the name Mazda until 1984.
You will learn all this at the Mazda Museum, which is at the car manufacturer’s global Hiroshima headquarters. The museum is actually deep in the bowels of the enormous Mazda factory. Unlike most of Japan’s car company museums, you cannot just walk in off the street like at a traditional showroom and kick the tires – a tour must be arranged ahead of time. But it is free, easy to arrange and available in Japanese or English.
The tour starts with a short bus ride from the corporate office to the waterfront manufacturing facility. Inside the gleaming entrance hall are the latest models and award-winning Mazdas of the past. Upstairs in the history room are an array of Mazdagos arranged in front of a circular timeline depicting the Mazda models of yesteryear. On the floor are such curiosities as Mazda’s first passenger car, the 1960 R360 Coupe, and the award-winning Familia from the same era that boasted an all-aluminum four cylinder engine. This vehicle marked the company’s transition from microcars to family sedans.
An entire section of the museum is devoted to the rotary engine, the pride and joy of Mazda in the automotive world. The technology room takes the visitor through the entire automobile production process from first design to final assembly. The tour winds down with a trip to an observation deck overlooking the actual assembly line. Before you leave, you can check out prototypes for the future and browse the gift shop for Mazda memorabilia and swag from the Hiroshima Carp.