Cork makes a return to prominence in Mazda’s latest SUV—a fitting tribute to a material that is key to the evolution of the company.
Story Shogo Hagiwara
Mention the word “cork” and wine is probably the first thing that springs to mind. Using it in the cabin of a car may sound a bit out of the ordinary, but it all makes perfect sense for Mazda, as the company began its life as a cork manufacturer known as Toyo Cork Kogyo in 1920. There are two main reasons why Mazda’s former incarnation had cork as a main pillar of its business. Back then, there were cork trees in abundance in the region around Hiroshima. The local shipbuilding industry was in full swing and sourced cork from those trees to produce materials for wooden ships. Cork manufacturing was an obvious business to pursue.
Mazda’s founder, Jujiro Matsuda, joined Toyo Cork Kogyo as a board member after returning to his native city of Hiroshima, having cut his teeth on the road in engineering. Although his expertise was in machinery, he quickly proved his worth with many great ideas, one of which was the production of pressed cork boards. Despite some initial setbacks, Matsuda—who would eventually take the post of president—succeeded in bringing out new products in the form of insulation and cushioning materials, and got Toyo Cork Kogyo’s business back on track. After renaming the company Toyo Kogyo in 1927, he went into machinery manufacturing, which ultimately led to the production of three-wheeled trucks, building the basis of the Mazda we know today.
An abundance of cork trees around Hiroshima saw Mazda start out as cork manufacturer Toyo Cork Kogyo in 1920.
As this part of the company grew, Matsuda reluctantly decided to offload the cork element of the business and Uchiyama Manufacturing Corp, another cork manufacturer based in Okayama, east of Hiroshima, took it off Toyo Kogyo’s hands in 1944. As well as assuming control of the cork manufacturing factories and machines, Uchiyama requested that Toyo Kogyo invest in the business, which led to the formation of Toyo Cork. Given these origins, it seems fitting that the design team of the Mazda MX-30 turned to cork and the present day Uchiyama Kogyo company when looking for a new material to use in the brand’s latest SUV.
Chief designer Yoichi Matsuda says: “When Toyo Cork Kogyo was created, technologies in plastics and rubber had not been developed as far as they are today, so cork was used as an alternative material for gaskets and walls back then. But after World War II, the technologies started to greatly improve to produce rubber and plastics on an industrial scale while cork was gradually taking a back seat.”
The cork used in the Mazda MX-30’s interior (above) is provided by Uchiyama Manufacturing, which purchased its cork manufacturing business from Toyo Kogyo in 1944.
With cork occupying such a special place in Mazda’s history, it is only right that Matsuda and his team ended up using it as part of the new car’s interior design. But the task was easier said than done. The cabin can be a very harsh environment. For example, it can be exceptionally hot in summer, with ultraviolet rays constantly flooding in. Cork simply isn’t suited to those extreme conditions. “It presented a whole new challenge for us,” Matsuda recalls.
“We had to fulfill all the requirements, such as durability, texture, and look, using cork in the interior.” But safe in the knowledge that he had Uchiyama Kogyo to turn to for help, Matsuda was certain his team could deliver—and in the MX-30, it has done just that, ensuring the significance of cork to Mazda lives on in style. With 2020 Mazda’s centenary, the timing of cork’s return to prominence is perfect—a reminder of the company’s history as it prepares for the next 100 years. You can imagine Mazda’s founder, Jujiro Matsuda, looking on in approval.