At the intersection of Italian design and Japanese technology, Mazda unveiled the MX-81 Aria concept at the 1981 Tokyo Motor Show. It was Mazda’s first model to receive the MX badge (for Mazda eXperimental), a moniker the Japanese automaker would reserve for vehicles that pushed boundaries, and the futuristic MX-81 set the standard.
Marc Deschamps, head of design at Turin-based coachbuilder Bertone, designed the MX-81 and borrowed styling cues from the 1979 Volvo Tundra concept. The prolific Italian designer Marcello Gandini had created the wedge-shaped Volvo concept, which Volvo ultimately rejected. The collaboration with Bertone began in the early 1960s when Mazda hired Giorgetto Giugiaro to work on the first-generation Familia and Luce 1500 show car.
Painted in an attractive gold hue, the futuristic Bertone-designed MX-81 was based on the Mazda 323 and powered by a 1.5-liter turbocharged engine generating around 130 hp. Italian design flair and Japanese engineering resulted in a minimalist yet eccentric four-seater coupe.
It featured a large and airy greenhouse, pop-up headlamps, aerodynamic wheels, retractable wipers, and vertical taillights mounted on the C-pillars. The windows were flush with the body, helping with aero. Interesting quirks included the fixed side windows with a small glass section that you could lower from inside (a bit like the Subaru SVX, a Giugiaro design from decades later), an all-glass rear hatch, and a single driver-side mirror.
Inside, front rotating seats done up in leather upholstery finished with multi-tone suede scream Saturday Night Fever. But the biggest highlight was the rectangular, Formula 1-inspired steering wheel that had built-in controls for the turn signals, wipers, horn, and headlights. Another spectacular feature was the mini CRT color television embedded in the middle of the steering wheel, which displayed all information and replaced traditional gauges.
After its debut at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1981, the MX-81 Aria concept went into storage at a warehouse facility in Mazda’s Hiroshima headquarters. The standard procedure following the showing of a prototype was to destroy the car. However, in a strange turn of events, the MX-81 escaped that fate and remarkably survived. Mazda searched its archives and confirmed that the MX-81 had remained stored for approximately 39 years before being rediscovered.
In late 2019, Mazda Italy sent rotary engine developer and MX-5 program manager Nobuhiro Yamamoto an email inquiring about the long-forgotten concept car, which they planned to use for the MX-30 launch, the company’s first mass-produced electric vehicle. Celebrating its centenary in 2020, this was the perfect opportunity for Mazda to share the story of Italian influence on Japanese design. This led Yamamoto to go hunting, and he rediscovered MX-81 on February 14, 2020.
When Yamamoto found the MX-81 underneath a dusty blue tarpaulin cover, he also discovered the MX-02, MX-03, and RE-Evolve. Hidden from public view for almost four decades, the MX-81 had minimal body damage and was still in good condition.
The MX-81 immediately went through a mechanical inspection at the Mazda headquarters in Hiroshima. A complete overhaul consisted of taking apart the engine and restoring all components, including the radiator, water pump, and gas tank. Also updated were the electrical system, battery, steering, and brakes. For the first time in 39 years, Mazda restarted the MX-81 and took it for a test drive on the track.
Within three weeks of resurfacing and being mechanically restored, the four-seater coupe made its way across the ocean from Japan to Italy for the bodywork. Once it arrived in the town of Moncalieri, SuperStile took delivery to perform the second phase of the restoration process. A company specializing in a wide range of automotive services, SuperStile preserved most of the original materials while keeping some signs of wear.
Part two of the restoration involved scanning and comparing the MX-81 body at several points and then replicating it. SuperStile developed the correct color for the paint and restored the panels to their original state. Any upholstery damage from humidity was removed. The pop-up headlamps received new glass and were repaired so they functioned correctly.
Aside from concepts and racing cars, only a few models have ever worn the MX badge, including the MX-3, MX-6, the iconic MX-5 Miata, and all-new MX-30 electric crossover. To celebrate 60 years of Italian design influence on the brand, Mazda staged the fully restored MX-81 Aria concept and MX-30 in front of the Milan Cathedral at Piazza del Duomo. It was a recreation of the famous photograph of the same MX-81 taken nearly 40 years ago.
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