NEWS: Kenichi Yamamoto 1922-2017, Father of the Mazda Rotary
This name at first glance probably means nothing to you, and that is okay, most people aren't well versed in the names and titles of executives in the automotive world. If you have ever liked any Mazda product made in the 20th century, this man was likely responsible in some way for it's development. Kenichi Yamamoto would go down in the annuals of Japanese car culture with Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda, and Yuiichi Katayama, the father of the Z-car and American Nissan. Kenichi Yamamoto was the man behind the Mazda rotary engine and many other great Mazda cars.
Yamamoto-san was born in 1922. At a young age he moved to Hiroshima until he left for the University of Tokyo to study engineering. After he graduated in 1944 he joined the Japanese Navy until the bombing of his hometown, Hiroshima. Yamamoto-san, when he arrived his sister had died in the blast and he was left to help support his mother. Although he had a degree in engineering, the best work he could find in Hiroshima was as a line worker at the predecessor to modern Mazda, Toyo Kogyo. It was there that he would design his first engine, and Mazda's first OHV engine, from scratch at age 25.
Once he had proven himself as a competent engineer, Mazda gave him increasingly important roles within the company and in 1959 he became deputy manager of the Engine and Vehicle Design Division. The first projects Yamamoto-san had were the R360 coupe and the K360 truck, they were two of the first kei cars and went account for 65% all cars on Japanese roads at one point in the early 60s. Impressive as the kei cars were, his crowning achievement came 7 years later when he spearheaded Mazda's development of the Wankel rotary engine design.
Second to Felix Wankel himself, Yamamoto-san could be considered the man most responsible for the rotary engine as we know it. Many companies bought rights to produce the Wankel rotary engine but couldn't produce a feasible prototype. Only NSU, Norton, Suzuki, AutoVaz and Mazda actually put them on the market and of all of those brands, it was only Mazda that stuck with the engine, made it reliable and mass produced it.
After nearly 20 years of successful rotary engines and other successful products, Yamamoto-san was promoted to president of Mazda in 1984 and oversaw one of Mazda's most fortuitous periods. The era brought us the FC RX7, the 323 GTX, the JC Eunos Cosmo and I could go on. Nearly every platform Mazda produced was available with a turbocharger or 4WD. Every car made during this era had a cool variant, even the lowly grandma-spec 626 had an optional 5-speed turbocharged 5-door fastback variant. Then prior to his retirement in 1992, Yamamoto-san saw the creation of two of the most iconic Mazdas ever, the FD RX7 and the introduction of the NA Miata. It's as if everything he oversaw was gold.
After his retirement he stayed on the board of directors as an adviser. The final achievement that Yamamoto-san had was his induction to the Japan Automotive Hall of Fame in 2007. For a more in depth look at his life Japanese Nostalgic Car has an extensive write up here.
Say what you will about Mazda or the Wankel rotary engine, that engine is arguably one of the most divisive engines ever produced. What is an inarguable fact however is that Yamamoto-san has left his mark on the automotive landscape. Between creating a high volume production rotary engine and green lighting the best selling roadster of all time, Kenichi Yamamoto was one of the greatest visionaries of the automotive world. This man was at the forefront of the Japanese auto industry for nearly it's entire existence from creating a people's car for post-war Japan to Japan becoming one of the dominate car producing countries of the world in the 80's and 90's. Yamamoto-san and his revolutionary mind will be truly missed.