Mazda gives its Bertone-designed MX-81 Aria concept a full restoration

Mazda’s Italian division has restored one of the most significant concept cars in the company’s history. Presented in 1981, the MX-81 Aria inaugurated the MX prefix that has denoted four generations of the world’s favorite roadster.

MX stands for Mazda eXperimental, a fitting name for the wedge-shaped MX-81 presented at the 1981 edition of the Tokyo auto show. It was designed and built by Bertone using underpinnings borrowed from the 323 hatchback. The similarities between the two cars ended there; the concept looked like nothing else Mazda had ever built.

Bertone’s influence on the MX-81 is evident. It bears a striking resemblance to the Volvo Tundra concept presented in 1979, rejected by the Swedish firm’s executive team, and later used to shape the Citroën BX. It’s characterized by sharp lines and numerous angles that create a wedge-shaped silhouette, oversized side windows, and a roof line positioned at the intersection of coupes and shooting brakes. It’s not difficult to imagine a toned-down version of the MX-81 in a Mazda showroom; its design accurately previewed the trends that shaped cars during the 1980s.

It was even more futuristic inside, where the driver sat on a rotating seat and faced a square-shaped steering wheel framed by buttons and mounted in front of a television-like screen. The center stack housed a cassette player, a graphic equalizer and the controls for the climate control system, while some of the gauges were located on the left side of the steering wheel. Automatic air conditioning was important considering the size of the MX-81’s windows.

Mazda had already worked with Italian design houses — Giorgetto Giugiaro drew the Familia (1963) and the Luce (1966) — but it chose not to move forward with the MX-81 project. It put the concept in storage and moved on.

“I went to see for myself what condition the car was in,” said Nobuhiro Yamamoto, a retired Mazda engineer and designer. “It was stored at Mazda’s headquarters in the Fuchizaki district, on the other side of the river from where I worked. We then decided we would ship the MX-81 to Italy. We were going to get it restored to its former glory.”

Turin-based Superstile was selected to perform the restoration. Mazda didn’t release images showing what shape the concept was in when it arrived in Italy, but photos taken during the refurbishment suggest nearly every part of the car was brought to like-new condition. After the coupe was completely taken apart, it received a fresh coat of paint and new upholstery on most of its interior panels. Whether the four-cylinder engine was rebuilt isn’t clear.

Mazda’s Italian division took the freshly-restored MX-81 to the cathedral in downtown Milan to recreate the photos released to the media in 1981. It hasn’t revealed what the future holds for the concept, but we’re hoping and crossing our fingers that the MX-81 isn’t going to spend the next 40 years squirreled away in a warehouse. 

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