“The birth-place of valour, the country of worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.”
So wrote Robert Burns, Scotland’s most celebrated poet, in his popular 18th-century song My Heart’s in the Highlands. His paean to the stunning landscape of the northernmost reaches of mainland Britain went on to wax lyrical about the “mountains high cover’d with snow,” the “straths and green valleys,” and the “forests and wild-hanging woods.” However, as we set off from Inverness—the capital of the Scottish Highlands—I’m not sure I understand what the Bard of Ayrshire, as Burns was also known, was talking about.
A network of disappointingly urban divided highways and traffic circles take us out of this modest, far-northern city and into clear air, grassy heaths, and rolling moorland. As we pass through a series of sleepy hamlets and villages—Kirkhill, Muir of Ord, Strathpeffer—the scenery is indeed lovely, like much of the lush countryside you’ll find across the United Kingdom, but far from spectacular. Maybe I expected too much.
Luckily, there are other matters at hand to get excited about. Such as today’s mode of transportation. Virtually unknown to all but the most ardent of car-spotters, the Cosmo Sport 110S is the holy grail for Mazda fans. Powered by the first-ever production twin-rotor engine, the Cosmo was the template for every Mazda rotary-powered sports car that followed. Mazda’s confidence in itself was personified in this delicate, beautifully styled sportster.
“As we pass through a series of sleep hamlets—Kirkhill, Muir of Ord, Strathpeffer—the scenery is indeed lovely.”
The company saw rotary power as the future—”A new era comes to the world of auto technology!” trumpeted the advertisements that accompanied the Cosmo’s debut in 1967—and continued producing rotary-engined cars up until 2012, most notably the RX-7 FD and the futuristic-looking RX-8. The Cosmo itself was produced up until 1972, with just over 1,100 examples leaving the production line in Hiroshima.
But back to “our” Cosmo. This 1968 enthusiast-owned 110S—the number denoting that this was an export model—is no competition garage queen but in fact a very much “in-use” example that can also lay claim to being the only one of its kind on the road in the U.K. Owner Phil Blake, a collector of rotary-engined vehicles, makes a point of driving all his cars rather than hoarding them. He’s been kind enough to loan Zoom-Zoom his prized Cosmo.
This is how we find ourselves speeding along the A9 main road, following the path of the recently established North Coast 500 circular route around the Northern Highlands, ensconced within the snug cabin of one of the rarest Japanese cars ever made.
So far the surroundings may be a little lackluster, but the driving experience is anything but. The Cosmo’s two-rotor powerplant boasts just 491cc x 2, but was capable of putting out 110hp when new. Our car may not have the full complement of horses—it is, after all, 48 years old and still on the original engine—but it hurries along with vigor, its raspy exhaust note just adding to the feeling of speed, while skinny tires glue the car to the road surprisingly well considering their size. The Cosmo feels taut, planted, and nimble.
As we travel further away from Inverness and further into Scotland’s northern wilderness, the purpose of this trip starts to take shape. While the Cosmo is most definitely welded to the past, so too is the increasingly rugged terrain that surrounds us. And we’re not talking about the Highlands themselves, more the rural Scotland of 2016. All the things we take for granted in the modern world—the internet, Starbucks—are conspicuous by their absence up here. The people are friendly, but few and far between, and you get the impression that they have other, possibly more important, things on their minds.
Considering the relatively small size of the British mainland, the Northern Highlands of Scotland are vast, covering an area of 5,200 square miles, with a population of less than 90,000.
Much of this land is therefore uninhabited, unless you count the endless legions of lethargic sheep that graze on scrubby fields or amble stupidly out onto the barren roads. In many ways it’s like going back 50 years, to a time before cars came with ABS, airbags, and satnav. Our Cosmo, approaching its 50th birthday, obviously has none of these driving aids, and we plan to adhere to our “old-school” theme by not using any modern devices for the duration of our journey. We’ll stick to maps of the printed variety.
Formally established as a tourist route late in 2014, the North Coast 500 has been pitched as Scotland’s answer to Route 66. I suspect that we’ll encounter fewer diners, giant ketchup bottles, and dinosaur museums than the classic American road trip might offer, but the NC500 is already starting to come into its own as we peel off the A9 and head towards the town of Achnasheen, the first port of call as we arrive in the Wester Ross region of Ross-shire.
From there we journey southwest, taking in spectacular views of shimmering Loch Carron and the neighboring Loch Kishorn before arriving at the entrance to the spectacular pass to the Applecross peninsula, called Bealach na Ba—also known as “The Pass of the Cattle”—a winding single track road that takes us 2,000 feet up and over numerous corries and crags, with jaw-dropping views over the Inner Sound and across to the island of Raasay.
We’re lucky that the Cosmo is on the diminutive side as large vehicles, coaches and recreational vehicles aren’t welcome here. The road, scarcely wider than a suburban driveway, is challenging, to say the least.
It’s also two-way, so we have to keep our eyes away from the ocean views as much as we can before dropping down into the beautiful village of Applecross. From here we take in more awe-inspiring vistas as we hug the coastline heading around the shores of Loch Torridon before following the road as it widens and takes in numerous lochs—Maree, Gairloch, and Ewe—on the way up to the town of Ullapool, the most bustling in Wester Ross. The frequency of the changing landscape, and weather, is what impresses most along the west coast of the NC500.
The 1968 Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S featured belongs to devoted rotor-head Phil Blake, from Suffolk. Phil has owned the car for over 15 years and it’s the pride of an extensive collection of rotary-engined cars, which also includes a Savanna RX-7, Eunos Cosmo, and an RX-8—alongside 15 NSU Ro80s. “I first saw a Cosmo more than 30 years ago and I still can’t quite believe that I own one,” he smiles. At the time of writing his was the only road-legal Cosmo in the U.K., and, as values of this rare classic have soared, it was truly inspiring to get behind the wheel and experience the feeling of being a “Cosmo pilot.”
One moment it’s as if we’re on the lush coastline of Cornwall with shaggy Highland cattle roaming across our path, the next we could be driving under the umbrella of a Scandinavian treeline, then traversing scrubby treeless plains in the middle of a fleeting snowstorm. Turn another corner and we’re on the Western Slope of Colorado, all the while being sternly watched over by the monolithic snow-capped mountains of Beinn Alligin, Liathach, and Beinn Eighe.
It’s only when a bright red Royal Mail delivery van appears in the distance that we’re reminded of where we are. For a fair few miles before that we haven’t been quite sure what country, or indeed what planet, we’ve been driving through.
We head north, into the majestic Sutherland region, which makes up a significant chunk of the Northern Highlands. As the roads widen and the sheep retreat to the moors, we’re able to open up the Cosmo for the first time in a good half day of somewhat nervous driving. You sit low in the Cosmo, using the front-mounted mirrors to position yourself on the road, with your hands on the huge, three-spoked burnished wood steering wheel. The interior’s houndstooth cloth seats, aircraft-style toggle switches, and big dials only add to the classic driving experience. The four-speed gearbox is stiff on start-up, but once the Cosmo has warmed up every change is fluid.
“The tortuous Applecross Pass is a test for the Cosmo, but the incredible views over the inner sound are well worth the effort.”
The 110S thrives on revs—as with most rotary engines low-range torque is in short supply—pulling eagerly from 3,000 rpm all the way up to its 7,000 rpm redline. Braking and steering are both effective and charmingly non-power assisted.
As we pass through Durness—the most remote and least populated county in the U.K.—the road cuts across endless ranges of rolling quartzite hills and blankets of peaty moorland, the Cosmo skipping and shimmying over the rough surfaces of the coarse bitumen.
We accelerate off along the east coast of Sutherland, passing the ancient sites of Iron Age houses, Bronze Age monuments and brochs and tiny isolated hamlets with Old Norse place names. It’s hard to understand how communities survived here in this weather-ravaged, topographically challenging part of the world. Existing here today looks hard enough.
We make our way across the moors towards the region of Caithness and the east coast of the NC500 route—known as the extreme edge of Europe—and the vistas flatten out, with the odd sturdy house dotting the mottled, camouflage-hued landscape. We visit John O’Groats, at the northernmost end of the British Isles, before putting the Cosmo under its weatherproof cover for an overnight stay in the age-old fishing port of Wick.
As our journey continues the next morning the wildness of the terrain subsides further, giving way to verdant valleys and a softer coastline, replete with calming sandy beaches and carpets of wildflowers.
The roads, too, become markedly less dramatic, as the A99 wends its way through the wonderfully named villages of Thrumster, Ulbster, and Lybster before joining the A9 again and spiriting us along 30 miles of stunning coast road to Brora, where the old stone walls flanking the tarmac give way to divided roads and traffic circles that punctuate the remainder of our journey through the Easter Ross region via Tain and Invergordon.
Our Highlands trip concludes as we pass the Cromarty Firth, with the fertile agricultural land of the Black Isle peninsula to our left, and make our approach back into Inverness, where our journey started.
Our seemingly fragile, near-50-year-old Cosmo has 500 additional miles on its clock. And, apart from a slight reluctance to start one frosty morning, it hasn’t missed a beat. The Cosmo’s ride may have been a bit on the bumpy side at times, and its cabin a little noisier than that of a modern car, but this ultra-rare sports coupe performed as well as the NC500 route impressed.
Easy to navigate using just a simple map and easily accessible to all but the most lumpen of vehicles, this trouble-free Scottish itinerary has taken us along some of the finest coastline in the world and through the shadows of the most dramatic mountain ranges that Great Britain has to offer. The opportunities to stop and marvel at the local wildlife, the historical monuments, and the jaw-slackening views have been endless. Diverse scenery, wild terrain, mind-bending topography. The Northern Highlands has it all.
Apologies are due to Robert Burns. I get it.