Mini Muscle: Rod Nielsen’s 1972 Mazda R100 was a big winner at the 2018 SEMA Show

Mini Muscle: Rod Nielsen’s 1972 Mazda R100 was a big winner at the 2018 SEMA Show

Story by: Richardt Scholz, photos by Paul Intile and Rod Nielsen

Ever since high school, Rod Nielsen has had an interest in imports and sport compact cars, having been inspired by his older brother Kevin who owned a hi-po Toyota Celica when they were in their teens. However, as their father was into North American-built muscle cars,that’s what Rod first started working on, and over time, became familiar with.Fast forward 40 years and Rod, now operating Hot Rod’s Restos in Abbotsford,BC, is building some of the most radical custom cars in Western Canada. A bitof a mad scientist when it comes to his cars, Rod is well-known on the westcoast for his award-winning domestic car creations, most notably the highly customized 1965 Mustang he dubbed ‘Rosie,’ among others.

Although completely immersed in the domestic car scene for the last 30+ years, Rod never lost his early love of imports and his desire to build his own ‘dream car.’ In 2007, after building numerous American custom cars for clients, he purchased an obscure import with the intent of building the most bad-ass custom sport compact the world had ever seen, and eventually entering the car in the prestigious SEMA ‘Battle Of The Builders’ competition.

Not satisfied starting with a more popular (and easier to get) car model for the project, Rod chose a Rotary engine-powered 1972 Mazda R100 as the foundation for his personal build. Now you’re probably wondering, what the heck is a Mazda R100? Everyone is familiar with Mazda’s more popular performance models like the RX-7, RX-8 and Miata, but the R100 has been almost forgotten, except for the true Rotary engine aficionados who consider the car THE holy grail of Mazdas and a true trendsetter in automotive engineering, primarily due to its unique powerplant. For those of you, who like myself, are unfamiliar with the Mazda Rotary-powered cars, here’s a short history lesson.

The R100 (which stands for Rotary Engine producing 100 hp) is based on the Mazda 1000/1300 and was originally sold in Japan as the Mazda ‘Familia Presto Rotary.’ At first glance, this car appears to be just another two-door commuter sedan, typical of Japanese offerings of the time. However, one thing makes the R100 stand out from the crowd – it was the first Rotary engine-powered vehicle to be mass produced for sale to the European and, later, the North American markets. But wait a minute; as it turns out, this wasn’t Mazda’s first Rotary-powered vehicle after all. That credit is reserved for the ‘Cosmo Sport.’ This two-seater sports car was available only in Japan, and when it was released in May 1967, it made Mazda the first automobile manufacturer on the planet to produce a twin-rotor Rotary engine-powered vehicle for sale to the public.

The concept of Rotary power (as opposed to traditional piston-style engines) was originally conceived by Felix Heinrich Wankel, a German engineer who began initial research and development of the powerplant in 1924. He dreamed of building an alternative to the classic piston-engine that was the norm. A completely new design capable of achieving intake, compression, combustion and exhaust, all while rotating. This was a radical departure from the normal four-stroke internal combustion engine of the time. In the Wankel Rotary engine, an orbiting rotor in the shape of a curved equilateral triangle creates the proper environment for the combustion process to take place, instead of pistons and rods moving vertically in cylinders. In theory, this new design would have significant advantages over its piston-engine counterpart including, far fewer moving parts, smoother operation at much higher RPM, less maintenance required, compact and lightweight construction, and low cost to manufacture, just to name a few.

By the mid 1950s, Wankel had finished the first operational design of his Rotary engine, and in 1957, working with NSU Moterenwork (later to become part of German automaker Audi), he successfully completed pre-production testing of his prototype. After officially announcing that the Wankel Rotary Engine was now tested and fully operational in 1959, more than 100 companies from around the world rushed to propose partnerships that would get the engine into their products. After more than a year negotiating the deal, Mazda signed a contract with NSU in July of 1961.

Ready for another twist to the story? Well, contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t Mazda or even NSU who first dropped a Rotary engine under the hood of a car. Believe it or not, it was Czechoslovakian auto maker Skoda! In the early 1960s, they swapped out the piston-engines in a limited number of Skoda 1000MB’s and installed a single-rotor Rotary engine in its place. However, these cars were never made available to the public, as they were intended for experimental purposes only. Credit for the first public offering of a Rotary-powered car goes to NSU and their Wankel Spider, the first car to be fitted with the new Rotary engine and available for sale to the public. However this first foray into the Rotary market could not be considered as mass production, as only 2,375 cars were produced in total.

Then the story gets even stranger, as there were other automobile manufacturers who toyed with the idea of a Rotary Engine-powered production vehicle. Some of their names may even surprise you, including the American aircraft company Curtis-Wright which, in 1965, installed a 3,932cc twin-rotor Rotary engine into a Ford Mustang concept car. It failed to generate enough positive feedback to warrant further development, so the project was scrapped. Then there was Chevrolet’s attempt with General Motors unveiling the Corvette XP-897GT at the 1973 Auto Show in Frankfurt, Germany. Powered by a massive Chevrolet-built 4359cc Rotary engine, the car was purely experimental, built for promotional use, and never saw production.

In addition to Ford and Chevrolet’s efforts, there were many other auto builders that experimented with the installation of a Rotary engine powerplant in their products, including  Mercedes-Benz, Alfa Romeo, Citroen, Porsche, Suzuki, Toyota and even Rolls Royce, which had been developing a proposed Rotary engine-powered TANK for the British military! It was later canceled due to budget cuts. Into the ’70s and ’80s, there remained an amazing amount of interest in the Rotary engine, and Wankel himself continued to work on perfecting the design right up until 1986, when he sold his company to Daimler-Benz (maker of the Mercedes) for a reported $41 million dollars.

Now that school’s out regarding the history of the Rotary engine, lets get back to the R100. Manufactured from 1968 to 1971 (although you could still buy one from your local dealership right up until 1974 as they were originally not well received), just over 100,000 R100’s were produced for the global market and needless to say, 50 years later, very few have survived. Finding one of these now ultra-rare units (which originally sold for $2,790 US) is hard enough, but if you do, be prepared for massive sticker shock as you could easily spend $20-$30K for just a roller! Luckily for Rod, in 2007 he managed to locate the perfect donor car from a local Mazda enthusiast in Maple Ridge who, after much negotiating, agreed to part with one of his nicest R100’s.

As this would be Rod’s personal ride (and never to be sold), his vision for the build was significantly different from anything he had previously created. Unrestricted by client budget limitations or conflicting viewpoints, Rod set out to create the ultimate pocket rocket. Not wanting to follow any of the current import trends, instead he decided the R100 would showcase his unique design and engineering skills in a sport-compact package that, as he said “doesn’t follow any current trends” but instead “paid homage to the early race-inspired styling mods of the 1970s.”

With the R100 now secured, the first order of business was to completely disassemble the entire car, strip the body to bare metal and remove the floorplan and firewall (which would be relocated 12 inches rearward). This was necessary in order to accommodate a physically larger Mazda Cosmo 3-rotor 20B 2,000cc engine (as opposed to the R100’s OEM 2-rotor 10A 1,000cc powerplant) and the much larger Be Cool radiator, Vibrant intercooler assembly and oil cooler, which would all be treated with Cerakote Transfer Grey, a special heat-dissipating ceramic coating applied by Doug Poirier at Koolcoat in Langley, BC. Once this was done, Rod and crewman Steve Tarasenko took on the task of constructing a very intricate (too many bars to count) full tube chassis made from 1.625- and 1.25-inch chromoly tubing and the first of many trial fittings of the much longer, 3-rotor engine between the rails of the R100.

Built by Marko Stilinovic from Forcefed Performance in Abbotsford, the Mazda 20B 3-rotor engine has been bridge-ported and features lightened rotors, custom-built 8-litre HRR oilpan, Xcessive Manufacturing lower intake manifold, custom-made Forcefed upper turbo manifold topped off with a Rotary Works 90mm single blade throttle body. Completing the drivetrain, a Tremec T56 Magnum transmission utilizing a 7.25-inch twin-disc Competition Clutch mated to a Quicktime steel bellhousing take care of transferring power to the Winters 10-inch  quickchange limited-slip differential running 4.12 gears with a final ratio of 3.52. Once all the fitment issues were addressed, both the engine and transmission were stripped down and finished in Cerakote Glacier Gold and Prismatic Wrinkle Black ceramic coatings, again applied by Koolcoat.

Running on E85, the Ethanol-blended fuel is supplied courtesy of an Aeromotive 340gph high-pressure fuel pump controlled by an Automotive Extreme Flow regulator, and feeding the Full Function Engineering fuel rails which distribute the ‘flex fuel’ to six injectors via a two-stage (1,300cc Primary / 2,000cc Secondary) Fuel Injector Connection system. Improving power output is the responsibility of a single Borg Warner S400 SX-E 72mm turbocharger equipped with a Turbosmart 60mm wastegate and dual Race Port blow-off valves.

Moving to the underside of the car, Rod hand-built a custom free-flowing exhaust system using Vibrant 4-inch round and oval tubing, mufflers and V-band clamps to take care of flushing out the spent gases. In street trim, this engine combo made an impressive 700 horsepower at 7,300 rpm and 18 psi boost. But when you turn it up, this nasty micro-muscle car makes an astonishing 1,000 horsepower (to the rear wheels!) at 9,500+ rpm running 32 psi boost in full ‘race’ trim.

Once fabrication relating to the powertrain installation was concluded, Rod turned his attention to the research and development of the car’s suspension, incorporating a vastly improved braking system and a totally unique rear wheel combination. Up front, ride quality is handled with the inclusion of BSB Manufacturing spindles, Joe’s Racing Control Arms and QA1 low-friction ball joints. Out back, the Z-Link suspension features BSB ‘bird cages,’ link bar, panhard bar and third link. All four corners include Willwood Starlite hubs and QA1 four-way adjustable shocks with 2.5-inch high-travel coil-over springs. As the car’s original braking system was completely inadequate for the power produced by the incoming engine, Willwood was called upon to provide the necessary stopping power, incorporating their 11.75-inch GT36 rotors, forged Dynapro 6-piston calipers and polymatrix BP-20 brake pads. All of this supported with six (yes I said six) Falken Azenis 205/40ZR16 tires rolling on 16×8-inch Bogart rims up front and hooking up power to the pavement out back, via an ingenious proprietary ‘TwinRim’ (patent pending) dual-tire 3-piece 16x8x8-inch wheel designed and built by Rod.

Now that the preliminary foundation for the car was sorted out, Rod and Steve began work on dropping what was left of the Mazda’s original body onto the now rolling chassis. Next, he custom-built the one-off fibreglass fender flares, hood, front facia, ‘whale-tail’ rear wing and bumper, finishing the basic exterior shell of the car. With the construction and trial fittings of all major components complete, the car was disassembled for final fitment, refinement, prep and paint. After countless hours working the body, the car was painted in Sherwin Williams custom white pearl with DFX5 glitter in Intercoat clear. The wide racing stripe is painted in House Of Kolor Candy Cobalt blue over top of gold glitter flake, revealing a long parade of sponsor logos. All finishes were applied using SATA paint guns and equipment, with the artwork and logo transfer meticulously executed by Rick Wojdak at Axe Graphics.

Moving inside to the interior of the R100 reveals the true genius (or maybe absolute madness) of its creator. It’s like Disneyland for fans of radical custom car design, engineering and fabrication. There’s way too many cool aspects of the interior for me to mention them all here but for example, moving the firewall back one foot required Rod to also move the Kirkey Racing seats back almost to where the rear seat once was (like an Import version of an old A/FX car) achieving a near-perfect 48/52 weight distribution in the process. This also necessitated the fabrication of a new custom dash which he fitted with a 7-inch LTC display, instrument panel, and ECU with Turbosmart E-boost2 boost control. And all that tubing we spoke about earlier is painted with Sherwin-Williams Blue Lightning with a mat finish clear that looks fantastic in the car. Two other things really stand out when inspecting the cockpit of the pocket-rocket; first the transmission is completely exposed with the operation of the S1 Sequential shifter and crazy tall ASD Motorsports hydraulic drift brake clearly visible for all to see. And second is Rod’s signature mod, the clear acrylic molded rear window in the floorboard allowing complete viewing of the quick-change differential and rear suspension.

By October 2017, a total of 5,000+ hours had been invested in the creation of this bad-ass Mazda, and with the car now complete, Rod was itching to take it to the 2017 SEMA Show for its debut. However, this was not to be. Due to a screw-up with the Broker taking care of the U.S. border paperwork, Rod was not permitted to take the car across the line because of U.S. commercial transport regulations. This was a major disappointment for Rod as he wanted to enter the R100 in the uber popular SEMA Battle Of The Builders, but that would have to wait until 2018. For those of you who haven’t heard, the annual Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show, held the first week of November each year in Las Vegas, has over the past 50+ years become the world’s largest gathering of people, cars and manufacturers dedicated to the aftermarket specialty vehicle industry (last year’s event attracted more than 150,000 attendees from around the world).

In November of 2017, his plans to take the R100 scuttled, Rod decided to travel to Fontana, California to attend the 20th-annual Seven Stock, a major international Rotary-only event. (Note: because this event is open to the public and not a trade show, Rod did not require a broker or have to deal with the commercial paperwork headache in order to bring the R100 into the U.S.) Sponsored by Mazda USA, over 400+ Rotary engine-powered vehicles from around the world were present for the weekend event. Rod’s R100, one of only five in attendance, was a huge hit, earning him the ‘Best Old School Rotary’ award. In the spring of 2018, the B.C. Classic & Custom Car Show in Abbotsford would be the R100’s next showing. Again the R100 was popular with fans, sponsors and judges alike, winning his class, the JMI ‘Radical Ride’ Sponsors Pick award, and the Outstanding Competition Vehicle In Show. Later, in late May and June, it was off to Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton for the Driven Sport Compact series events where, despite stiff competition, the R100 dominated, taking top honours and Best In Show awards at all three events!

In October of 2018, with all the correct paperwork in hand, Rod was finally able to take the R100 to SEMA, and thanks to Tire Stickers, his SEMA Show appearance sponsor, compete in the Battle Of The Builders competition. Out of thousands of custom vehicles on display, approximately 380 eventually qualified for the competition. On Tuesday, the first day of the event, Rod was told by SEMA officials that the first stage of judging was complete and the R100 had been selected for the Top 40. The next day, Jim Holloway, one of the owners of Mothers Wax, announced that the R100 was one of 12 cars in the show to be selected to receive the prestigious Mothers Choice Award for design, engineering and automotive excellence. That was a nice surprise for Rod, as he didn’t expect to be competing for anything but the ‘Battle.’ Later that day, the SEMA officials returned to inform Rod that the R100 had progressed to the Top 12, making him the only Canadian builder remaining in competition. The last stage of the competition would be the most difficult as the remaining 12 builders themselves would now be called upon to select the Final 4 winners in the Hot Rod, Truck, Sport Compact and Young Gun classes, along with the Grand Champion (and no, you can’t vote for yourself).

Now this is a big deal for Canada, and many Canadians I spoke to at SEMA were all pulling for Rod to win. In this world of information overload, it’s rare to see Canadians getting major credit for their work, so this was our chance to shine. It’s not the first time though, as some of Canada’s top custom car builders are based right here in Western Canada and have received recognition for their work including JF Kustoms, winner of the 2015 Ridler Award, and Jellybean AutoCrafters, who built the 2011 Hilton Head Concours d’Elegance winner. But this was the first time a Canadian, out of a field of hundreds of top custom car builders from all over North America, had reached this level in competition.

On Friday, November 2, the last day of SEMA and with the Top 12 cars now moved to the SEMA Ignited staging area (SEMA Ignited is the official after party / cruise through Las Vegas immediately following the closing of the show) the builders gathered to vote for the Final4. When the dust settled, amidst much fanfare and television cameras, Rod Nielsen was selected as one of the Final 4 and crowned the 2018 SEMA Show Battle Of The Builders Sport Compact Class Champion! For Rod, all the blood,sweat and tears had finally paid off.

If you were not able to attend this year’s event and witness Rod’s incredible win for yourself, no problem as the 2018 SEMA Battle Of The Builders one-hour TV show will air on Monday January 7 at 10 pm on Velocity TV. If you miss it, again no worries, they’ll be rebroadcasting the show twice a month for the balance of the year. And if you live in B.C. in the greater Vancouver / Fraser Valley area, then you can check out the car in person at VIP Mazda in the Abbotsford Automall from December 7 to 17, when the R100 will be featured in their showroom for 10 days.

So now that Rod has achieved his goal, we asked what’s next for the R100? Which he replied “My car’s not just for show, it’s a race car designed and engineered to perform at the track and that’s exactly what I plan to do with it”. So don’t be surprised to see the R100 next year at Mission Raceway Park ripping up the strip at a Street Legal event, or up at Area 27 in the Okanagan, turning corners on the road course. No matter where the R100 goes next, one thing’s for sure – if you see it, be prepared to be amazed!

Big thanks to Paul Intile for providing us with his photos. To see more of Paul’s work, visit his website at