From a basement full of one-off test mules and old race cars to offices and work spaces littered with used parts and mementoes, it is obvious that Mazda's North American R&D centre is home to a small band of car nuts of the first order.
The majority of the 70 or so young engineers, technicians and designers who each working day walk through doors marked "Secure, Do Not Enter,", do it again at night and on weekends to work on pet projects from tweaking or repairing an old RX-7 or Miata race car or restoring one of the many significant-to-Mazda cars in the growing collection in that basement.
I noticed used struts and steering racks on desks, well-used rotary engines in various stages of assembly, or dis-assembly, banged-up body parts hanging on walls and trophy or model cases everywhere.
Also common are framed photos of R&D employees in race suits with big smiles on their faces, holding a chintzy plastic trophy standing in front of nasty-looking race cars.
And those cars! Proteges, Miatas, RX-7s, etc., none looking like much was spent on appearance. No big sponsor logos or elaborate paint jobs, no fancy polished alloy wheels. Lots of grease, dents and signs of lots of wear. One has the exhaust system pointed up out of the engine compartment because there was no room for the big turbo attached – the hood of that same Miata served as the roof.
Grassroots racing and innovation are the common thread. The folks building and racing these cars are looking for an edge through engineering and thinking outside the box, not from signing a big cheque. That turbocharger was one example; another was a suspension strut with a fitting allowing the oil inside to be replaced with something. "The rules say you must retain the original suspension components. They preclude mechanical alterations but don't prevent me from using thicker oil to stiffen things up," one engineer told me.
This building was one of, if not the first, design and R&D centre established in North America by an import manufacture when it was built in 1987. The personal project of noted Mazda design chief Sam Mitano, it contains full design, fabrication, paint, mechanical and other facilities allowing vehicles to be taken from the design and clay model stage through to complete rolling prototype models to be shipped to Japan for consideration or wild one-off design studies for the auto show circuit.
Virtually every other major auto company now has similar, if not as complete, facilities in the area. But in addition to being the first, Mazda is unique in the role the people here play in product. Several of Mazda's more significant vehicles got their start here and every one of Mazda's current and upcoming vehicles has been influenced by this merry band of enthusiasts.
Kelvin Hirashi, the director of R&D Engineering West, recalls those days. "I've been here since 1990. That was the era of really creative and dynamic people, an era of energy. The MX-3, MX-5 and RX-7 all started from here. This was where the notions were formed and pursued. We convinced Japan to do these products."
The man speaks with authority and knowledge, but more importantly a level of enthusiasm rarely encountered at this level in this business. His office is littered with parts from various race cars; some of his scale-model collection and the driver's door from a winning club racecar hangs on the wall.
Kelvin is typical of the engineers and technicians at work around him. "Everyone has an engineering story, we have a culture of engineering, a level of enthusiasm and passion unusual in this industry. That is something we look for when hiring for our group here. We look for those who will respond to difficult times, that is when the 'Mazdaness' comes out."
He talks about the company's ability to proceed where others have given up. "We are competing with bigger brands, we have to do more with less." He calls it the "rotary spirit" of never giving up. He equates the drive for further advancement of the internal combustion engine – SkyActiv – to the company's refusal to quit when the first eight attempts to compete at the 24 hours of LeMans race failed. The ninth effort yielded an historic overall win.
"This company has gone through a lot, but each time we find the engineering spirit to rise above the problems. We have a culture of overcoming obstacles. Instead of walking away, we find a way through or around it. We found a way to have an internal combustion engine run with a 14:1 compression ratio on regular fuel without blowing up. Everyone has direct injection. Ours has six different events. Others operate at 1,800 psi, ours at 3,000," he said.
Mazda found a way to operate on diesel fuel at compression ratios others thought impossible. This lower compression allowed it to develop lighter parts and have the engine rev much higher. Mazda will field a race car with a diesel engine in 2013 for a North American series. It will have a diesel engine at Le Mans.
Kelvin said Audi has been very supportive in this area. "Audi appreciates us bringing a diesel to competition. It approached us offering support. They believe diesels are the way to go. People associate diesels with fuel economy; our SkyActiv diesel will be about performance."
In the main floor workshop, a variety of current and camouflaged future vehicle are undergoing tests, including a next-generation Mazda6 and the next CX-9. Both are being evaluated for changes deemed necessary for North America.
Who would you rather have working on your next car – this group or a bunch of suits from the marketing department?