Born, raised and terminated during the Asian bubble economy- the story of Mazda’s shortlived design and performance skunkworks.
In Tokyo’s Setagaya ward stands a building that is hard to miss, thanks to its highly unusual appearance. Currently occupied by a funeral company, it originally served as the headquarters and showroom for M2, Mazda’s creator of limited-edition specials and prototypes. The eye-catching structure, designed by architect Kengo Kuma, is made out of reinforced concrete, although it is executed in such a way that it resembles masonry construction. A gigantic central Ionic column dominates the view and contains an atrium plus a glazed elevator shaft. Clearly, this was no ordinary showroom but then M2 was no ordinary outfit.
Established in 1990, M2 was no doubt partly inspired by competitor Nissan’s ‘Pike Factory’ success in selling uniquely styled limited editions such as the BE-1, PAO and S-Cargo. These were based on Nissan’s regular offerings and sold through the Cherry Stores network.
Masakatsu Kato, one of the leading figures behind the wildly succesful 1989 type NA MX-5, was appointed boss of Mazda’s new sub-division. M2’s location in ‘happening’ Tokyo, far away from the parent company’s headquarters in Hiroshima, underlined its independent spirit. The M2 moniker may lead one to think it was a sporting division along the lines of BMW’s well-known Motorsport GmbH but, if anything, M2 gravitated more towards another Munich offspring, BMW Individual. In any case, M2 was unique in always having some of its designers and engineers present in the Tokyo showroom in order to interact with and gather direct feedback from interested prospective customers.
M2 also invited domestic Mazda clubs to come and show off some of their modified vehicles, which created a two-way street of ideas and suggestions. There was also an on-site fabrication shop enabling visitors to observe the manufacturing process with their own eyes. Moreover, one-off concept cars commissioned by Mazda’s head office and designed and built by M2 were put on display in the showroom at regular intervals. Long before the expression became mainstream, M2 was engaged in a form of what we now call crowd-sourcing, albeit not for funds but rather for ideas.
With Kato at the helm, it was not surprising that the first M2 products to break cover were based on Mazda’s then brand-new hit, the MX-5. The M2-1001, unofficially known as the ‘Clubman’, was presented in late 1991. Aimed at the track day enthusiast, the M2-1001 was powered by a tuned 130bhp version of the B6-ZE engine coupled to a lightweight flywheel and HKS performance exhaust. A stiffened chassis and suspension, four-point roll cage, Momo steering wheel, unique instrument panel gauges and racing bucket seats were some of the deviations from the standard car, as were the Panasport light alloy wheels, vintage style aluminium rear view mirror and fuel filler cap, plus a different nosecone with two additional driving lights.
Available only in a special midnight blue paint colour, a limited number of 300 cars was manufactured and sold at roughly the same price as a new Nissan Fairlady Z (300ZX) which was serious money for a small four-cylinder roadster. Nevertheless, demand was so strong that interested parties had to register for a lottery organised by M2 to find out if they were lucky enough to get their hands on one. The winning customers received their cars starting in March 1992.
For its second special, the M2-1002, the MX-5 was again used as the starting point but the modifications now went in a very different direction. There were no mechanical upgrades this time: the M2-1002’s objective was luxury. The interior was covered in ivory coloured leather, apart from the dashboard which was trimmed in dark blue hide to eliminate unwanted reflections in the windshield. The wood used in the centre console, gearshift knob and handbrake lever was furnished by Yamaha. The same dark blue was again the only available colour, but the M2-1002 was given a contrasting tan coloured soft top.
Slightly less expensive compared to its predecessor, the M2-1002 was again offered in a limited series of 300 vehicles, but severe cracks were starting to appear in the bubble economy by the end of 1992 which clearly had a detrimental effect on demand: after just one hundred cars were sold, the M2-1002 project was quietly cancelled. This setback also meant that the planned M2-1003, of which the prototype had already been finalised, never reached production.
The failing domestic economy notwithstanding, M2 produced two more variations of the MX-5 in 1992, although both were destined to remain one-off prototypes. The muscular M2-1006 was powered by a tuned version of the Mazda 929’s three-litre V6, delivering 220bhp in this guise. Easily distinguished from the regular MX-5, the M2-1006 featured noticeably wider front and rear wings; the latter housing the entire rear subframe and suspension sourced from the Mazda RX-7. Not entirely unexpectedly, it is reported that the M2-1006 was quite a handful when driven in anger.
Looking from certain angles as if it might have been a product of carrozzeria Zagato, the hardtop coupé M2-1008 had lost the pop-up lights and featured Kammback styling at the stern. Although neither car made it to any kind of production phase, the M2-1008’s hardtop roof styling obviously influenced the later and quite rare coupé version of the second (NB) generation MX-5.
A creation of Mazda’s Tokyo skunkworks that did lead to a limited edition production run of 100 cars in 1994 was the M2-1015. This was based on the Autozam AZ-1 which, it could be argued, was already unusual enough as it was. The modifications performed by M2 were limited to optical changes only; a different bonnet with two additional large headlights and a larger rear spoiler at the back. Three more extensively modified one-offs based on the AZ-1 were the M2-1014, fitted with a totally different body in a very ‘industrial’ style that vaguely suggested some offroad capability, the WRC- inspired M-1015A, and the M-1015B which had removable roof/door panels that effectively turned it into a T-bar convertible with gullwing doors.
Mazda’s range-topping sports model, the type FD RX-7, also became a recipient of the M2 treatment: the M2-1020 was created to celebrate the RX-7’s third win of Australia’s famous Bathurst twelve-hour race. In the spirit of these racing achievements, the M2-1020 received a more powerful engine, special performance exhaust, BBS alloy wheels, adjustable dampers and racing style bucket seats plus a unique carbonfibre bodykit and aluminium bonnet. The intention was to sell a limited run in 1995, but that never came to be as M2 was closed down and only two are known to exist. Mazda Australia would, however, sell a very similar looking limited edition of the RX-7 that same year under the suffix ‘SP’.
Before the end came, in February 1994 M2 produced one last hurrah in the form of the MX-5 based M2-1028. This went back both in spirit and execution to the M2-1001 that started it all. Nicknamed the ‘Street Competition’, the M2-1028 was powered by a 140bhp version of the MX-5’s 1.8-litre four, fitted with a lightened flywheel. An aluminium bootlid and racing seats with fibreglass shells were further deviations from the standard car, as were the roll cage, lowered sports suspension and a special lightweight hardtop (the canvas top was deleted). The number of cars to be built – and they all found owners – was again set at 300, but this time customers were offered a choice in terms of colour: white was added to the traditional dark blue.
During its few years of existence, M2 manufactured roughly thirty different individual vehicles based on mainstream production Mazda models. These covered the automotive gamut from an ‘Urban SUV’ concept ( the M2-1009), a WRC competition version of the 323 (the M2-1005/1023), a four-door sports sedan based on RX-7 mechanicals* (the M2-1007), a wheelchair-accessible MX-5 Roadster (the M2-1031) to a luxury MPV (the M2-1012), a mobile flower stall (the M2-1004) and many more.
The quickly worsening economic environment caused Mazda to shut down M2 in 1995, but Mazda took heart from the fact that intensive contact with an enthusiastic customer base ultimately benefitted the parent company as well. The distinctive M2 building served as a regular Mazda showroom for some years after the closure of M2, after which Mazda sold the building in 2002.
* This project did not progress past the stage of a 1:5 scale model.