The 1920 's
Mazda began as the Toyo Cork Kogyo Co., Ltd, founded in Japan in 1920. Toyo Kogyo moved from manufacturing machine tools to vehicles, with the introduction of the Mazda-Go in 1931, although they produced weapons for the Japanese military throughout the Second World War. The company formally adopted the Mazda name in 1984, though every automobile sold from the beginning bore that name. The first four-wheel car, the Mazda R360 was introduced in 1960, followed by the Mazda Carol in 1962.
The 1960 's
The year 1960 was the birth of Mazda as an automaker. In just this decade, the marque progressed from a 16 horsepower (12 kW) keicar to a Wankel engined sports car, the Mazda Cosmo. Mazda also entered the United States market at the end of the decade.
The 1970 's
Internationally, the 1970s were the heyday of Mazda as a performance leader. The Wankel rotary engine outperformed their piston-based competitors by a large margin, and Mazda made the most of the powerplant by putting it in almost every product they sold, from the Rotary Pickup to the RX-7, and even the large Luce sedan. The only exception was the Mazda Chantez keicar, because other car makers vetoed the move.
However, the 1970s also saw Mazda's first financial crisis, which led to Ford taking a 25% stake in the company. The first RX-7 released in 1978 would be a strong image leader for Mazda, but actual sales revival would not come until the early 1980s.
The 1980 's
The 1980s saw Mazda transition from a niche Japanese player to a part of the global Ford empire. Having said that, the 80s saw the most mainstream success for Mazda. The early-80s 323 (GLC in North America) and 626 were massive hits, with the 323 taking the number one spot in Japanese car sales, overtaking the Toyota Corolla. (This is still very significant today whenever a non-Toyota tops the sales charts).
Mazda also contributed to Ford's lineup, most notably with the MX-6-based Ford Probe. Mazda also began building the new-for-1988 626/MX-6 in the United States. U.S. production was initiated via a joint venture with Ford called AutoAlliance International.
Mazda finished the decade with the revolutionary Eunos Roadster (Mazda MX-5 or Miata outside Japan) sports car (for the 1989 model year). This model revitalized the world sports car market, which was filled at the time with expensive, heavy GT cars. Despite complaints of plaigiarising the Lotus Elan, the Miata has been very successful till this day.
The 1990 's
The 1990s were a decade of decline for Mazda. Due to the high price, the third-generation RX-7 sold poorly (although continues to be a tuner car favorite), and the Miata could not sustain the company's sales. The rest of the lineup was poorly-received in the United States and Japan; their popularity in Europe didn't seem to make up for the losses.
In the late 1980s, Mazda embarked on a disastrous attempt to diversify its brand names. It chose to do so because market research revealed that the Mazda brand has the connotation of economic, budget cars both in Japan and abroad. With the aim of doubling its sales, Mazda launched three new brands in Japan, Eunos, Anfini and Autozam. Eunos was to have a counterpart overseas in the US-market Amati luxury division, and Xedos in Europe. However plans for Amati was pulled at the last minute, and the rumored V12-engined flagship was shelved.
The number of brands was also an attempt to match Toyota and Nissan, both of which had multiple chains in Japan. A common opinion is that the sheer number of models had overwhelmed the company - in 1993 Mazda sold seven models based on the 626, yet they only amounted to 1/3 the sales achieved by the comparable Toyota.
In other markets, Mazda's identity crisis saw it confused over which logo to adopt. The "Mazda" lettertype was introduced in 1975 as part of Japan's first CAD-assisted corporate identity redesign. In 1991 a new logo was introduced, but was soon swapped for a rounded-off version ("Eternal Flame") because the original had an uncomfortable resemblance to Renault's logo. The new version is consistently used in 1990s Mazdas, but never became as well known as the lettertype. To resolve this issue, Mazda commissioned for a new logo in 1998 ("Wings" or "Owl"), which it uses till this day and features in considerably larger sizes on every model.
Mazda was widely criticised in Europe for the sheer blandness of its late-1990s designs, including the last 323 and 626 which compared unfavourably to the previous models. While technically superior, the 1998 replacement for the MX-5 (Miata) lost much of the purity of the original 1989 design, which is still preferred by many enthusiasts.
Mazda and Ford continued joint efforts. In 1994, the Mazda B-Series line was split between an international (Mazda-designed) version and North American clone of the Ford Ranger. In 1998, Mazda and Ford opened a new plant in Thailand, AutoAlliance Thailand. Patterned after Mazda's Hofu plant, AAT is now an important manufacturing location for the company.
The 2000 's
2001 was a very difficult year for Mazda, as new models were in development and the company would have no new product until mid-2002. Once the new cars arrived, however, the company quickly turned around. Mazda 6/Atenza, RX-8, and Mazda 3/Axela proved popular and helped change perceptions of the brand. By 2004, Mazda had surpassed the ailing Mitsubishi in sales. The new MX-5 (the "Miata" name formerly used in North America has been dropped) debuted in autumn 2005 and is claimed to share no common parts with the previous model except for the side indicator repeaters used on European cars.