After four decades of high-revving fun, Mazda Motor Corp. celebrates the 40th anniversary of its iconic rotary engine.

Created by German Felix Wankel in 1957 and first launched in the Mazda Cosmo Sport on May 30, 1967, the quirky powerplant has found a home in nearly 2 million Mazda vehicles since.

And despite several past efforts by competing auto makers to perfect the technology, only Mazda has embraced the rotary with a long-term focus, allowing it to play a critical role in the creation of the brand's sporty image and performance focus.

“From humble beginnings in the 1950s to a very bright hydrogen-fueled future, the rotary engine represents Mazda as a company that follows the road less traveled, and makes its own successes where others have failed,” says Mazda North American Operations President and CEO Jim O'Sullivan.

The rotary first made its way to the U.S. in 1970 under the hood of the R100 coupe. Several other rotary-powered vehicles, including a pickup truck, were rolled out throughout the decade, culminating with the first RX-7 sports car in 1979.

Subsequent generations of the lightweight performance car were launched in 1986 and 1993, with the twin-turbocharged, third-generation model widely considered one of the best sports cars ever produced.

The innovative engine, now called Renesis, was brought into the modern era with the '03 RX-8 4-door sports car, a combination that recently has proved very successful in Grand-Am Rolex GT series competition in the U.S.

Other motorsports accomplishments for the Wankel engine include powering the Star Mazda Championship open-wheel racing series in the U.S. and scoring the only overall win for a Japanese auto maker in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, a feat accomplished in 1991 with the 4-rotor 787B Group C prototype.

Due to the 787B's dominance that year, the sanctioning body for the race reconfigured the rules, excluding rotary-powered vehicles from competing ever since.

Moving forward, Mazda is investing heavily in hydrogen-fueled rotaries, including hybrid-electric variants, and currently has hydrogen-powered RX-8s undergoing on-road testing in Japan, the auto maker says.

Although hydrogen Wankel engines must wait for various technologies to improve and a refueling infrastructure to materialize, the next batch of advancements for the rotary likely will come as the RX-8 is updated and/or replaced towards the end of the decade.