Kenichi Yamamoto, father of Mazda’s rotary and a one-time boss of the company, has passed away at the age of 95. While the rotary may not have been invented by Kenichi Yamamoto, no other person is more responsible for putting the unique combustion engine on the road.
Road & Track’s Chris Perkins wrote a wonderful summary of his rather amazing life, which can originally be found HERE. I have put it below for Kenichi Yamamoto’s memory, however all credit goes to R&T and Mr. Perkins:
“Yamamoto was born in Hiroshima in 1922, and according to Automotive News, graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in 1944. From there, he co-managed an airplane factory during the War, and returned home at the urging of a letter from his mother in September 1945, one month after Japan surrendered.
Upon arriving in Hiroshima, he found his home destroyed, his younger sister dead, and his father displaying signs of radiation sickness. To support his family, he took up a job at Toyo Kogyo, a local truck and artillery maker that was one of the few companies to survive the bombing of Hiroshima. Yamamoto started as a factory worker building transmissions, but within two years, was promoted to management and began work on a new engine for Toyo Kogyo’s three-wheeled truck, which was sold under the Mazda brand.
Toyo Kogyo released its first real car, the Mazda R360 in 1960, and in 1961, began a technical partnership with German automaker NSU, which was developing the rotary engine for production car use. Yamamoto was put in charge of a team at Mazda that later became known as the 47 Samurai, who developed rotary engines. In 1964, Mazda presented a prototype of the Cosmo Sport, a two-seater powered by a twin-rotor engine. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is the car that ensured Mazda’s future.
In the 1960s, Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) determined that Toyota, Nissan, and Isuzu would be the country’s sole carmakers. That didn’t prohibit Toyo Kogyo from making cars outright, but it made doing so extremely difficult. Yamamoto used the Cosmo Sport and its innovative technology to convince the MITI to give Toyo Kogyo’s Mazda a shot. Thankfully, it worked.
The Cosmo Sport reached production in 1967, becoming the first road car with twin-rotor power, and Yamamoto and the 47 Samurai continued development of the rotary. Mazda put rotaries in nearly every car it sold during the 1970s, but the engine hit its stride in its RX series of sports cars. The original RX-7 of 1978 cemented the rotary’s place in the automotive world, and helped Mazda become a major player in the US market.
Yamamoto rose up Mazda’s ranks, becoming its head of R&D in the late 1970s, president in 1985, and chairman in 1987. In 1978, Bob Hall, then a journalist with Motor Trend and later Autoweek suggested to Yamamoto that Mazda build a two-seat roadster in the classic European style. Three years later, Hall joined Mazda as a product planner in California, and Yamamoto suggested that he start research into his two-seat roadster.
When he became president in 1985, Yamamoto set the wheels in motion to get the Miata into production. Hall, along with engineer Toshihiko Hirai and designer Tom Matano then got to work making their sports car a reality.
Under Yamamoto’s leadership, Mazda saw its greatest motorsport achievement—outright victory at Le Mans in 1991 with the four-rotor powered 787B sports car. To this day, Mazda remains the only Japanese automaker to win the race, and the 787B is the only non-piston engine car to do so. Yamamoto retired from Mazda a year later.
Today, Mazda doesn’t offer a rotary-powered car, but it still has a team dedicated to researching this engine type. And, the spirit of Yamamoto and the 47 Samurai is echoed in the company’s new Skyactiv-X engine, the first gas-powered production-car engine to use compression ignition. And of course, the Miata is alive and well today, with over a million units sold.
Yamamoto helped save and defined the soul of Mazda, and while he may be gone, the company once known as Toyo Kogyo lives up to his ideals.”