If there is one thing that makes the automotive business more endearing than one that sells toothpaste is that it is full of colourful personalities whose passion and work shines through the success – or failure – of any one car they were responsible for.
However, in a business made of enthusiasts, very rarely would you single-out an individual to credit with shaping the fortunes and identity of an entire company. That one individual is Kenichi Yamamoto who sadly passed away on December 20, 2017, at the age of 95. And the company he shaped was Mazda.
History will remember him as the father of Mazda’s rotary engines, and the company’s president from 1984 till 1992, but those titles don’t fully encompass the scale of his legacy.
It wasn’t just the divisive engine you can thank him for. He was also responsible for very nearly everything we know and love Mazda for today.
To give you a bit of context, in the 1960s Toyo Kogyo, the company who made tiny Mazda three-wheeled trucks and cars, was led by Tsuneji Matsuda, son of the company’s founder, Jujiro Matsuda. Tsuneji was known to be a forward-thinking fellow. He was credited with installing the first computer system in Hiroshima in 1958, at a time when computer giants only thought the world only needed five computers, and he came to know of this strange new engine developed by a German engineer named Felix Wankel.
In the mid-1961, merely a year after launching its first car, the R360, Toyo Kogyo began a technical partnership with German automaker NSU to develop a rotary engine for a production car. Not only did Tsuneji see potential in Wankel’s rotary engine design, he saw it as a path to secure the company’s future as a differentiator to the rest of Japan’s automakers.
That being said, at this stage the engine was far from ready for the market as the Germans themselves had difficulty trying to figure out how to stop the rotor from ruining its own housing.
For that, Tsuneji turned to one of his engineers, a young mechanical engineer from the Japanese Navy named Kenichi Yamamoto.
Yamamoto returned to Hiroshima shortly after the atomic bomb wiped out the city – claiming the lives of his sister and father – and managed to find work in the ruined city as a line worker on Toyo Kogyo’s transmission factory. His assiduity in examining the blueprints of the components he was assembling, and engineering qualifications soon caught the eye of his superiors, who promoted him to an engineering position.
Yamamoto would go on to design the company’s first OHV engine, and later oversee the development of the K360 truck and the R360. Clearly, Tsuneji saw in Yamamoto the right man for the job of realising his rotary vision.
Tsuneji put Yamamoto in charge of the Rotary Engine Research Division, which comprised of 47 specially-picked engineers, designers, and material scientists, who later came to be known as the 47 Ronin, named after the 18th-century disenfranchised samurai of Japanese antiquity.
Though NSU would jump the gun to deliver the world’s first production car with a Wankel rotary engine in 1964, the Germans never could solve the engine’s infamous apex seal problem, which resulted in terrible fuel economy and poor engine reliability, tarnishing the engine’s reputation and ultimately undoing NSU in the end.
Back home, Toyo Kogyo’s fortunes weren’t looking too bright either. Around the time the company entered into its partnership with NSU, the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry specified that Toyota, Nissan, and Isuzu were designated as the country’s carmakers. This meant that Toyo Kogyo, which wasn’t on the ministry’s sights, wasn’t going to get much government support, which in turn, meant that financial aid wasn’t going to be easy to obtain.
Tsuneji and Yamamoto, adamant that the Mazda brand should stand for engineering ingenuity, hedged their hopes on the undeveloped engine to save the company. In 1963 the company debuted the Cosmo concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show and used it, with its brand spanking new rotary engine, as a demonstrator of the company’s engineering capabilities to the public and institutions alike. Their hard work paid off as the Ministry of International Trade and Industry decided to back the company, thus securing its future.
That same year things were also looking up as engineers were having a breakthrough in the engine’s apex seal development. Following further refining of the crucial component, Toyo Kogyo released the Cosmo 110S sports car, its first rotary-powered car.
For a fledging carmaker, and one which wasn’t even worthy of making the shortlist in the government eyes a few years ago, the Cosmo 110S debut as the second most expensive sports car in the Japanese market, just behind the Toyota 2000GT, which you would have to admit, takes a decent pair of plums to pull off.
Toyo Kogyo might have only made 1519 examples of the Cosmo in its five-year production run, but the engine would go on to define Mazda’s identity in the 1970s, finding its way into everything from family cars to pick-up trucks and even into a bus, all because it was the 1970s when oil and drugs were pretty abundant.
While giants like Mercedes-Benz toyed with the development of their own rotary engine and subsequently gave up on it for being too troublesome, Yamamoto continued to refine the rotary engine, improving its fuel consumption by 40 percent and cleaning up its emissions to pass the American Clean Air Act of 1970.
Unfortunately for the rotary engine, the brand’s dependency on it as a unique selling point, together with the company’s over-reliance on the American market and production inefficiencies led to one hell of a hangover for the company when the 1973 oil crisis rolled in. With nearly their entire product line sporting a rotary engine, Mazda was choked by the end of cheap oil, bringing the company to the verge of bankruptcy in 1975, only to be bailed out by the Sumitomo Bank.
Nevertheless, a fault not of his own making, Yamamoto continued on as the head of R&D in the late 1970s, where he oversaw the development of many of Mazda’s successful compact cars, which includes the Familia and Capella. Oh, and he didn’t abandon the rotary dream either, as he continued its legacy with the iconic RX-series of sports cars, a legacy which culminated in the 1991 787B Le Mans racer, still the only Japanese and rotary-powered racer to take home a 24 Hours at LeMans outright victory.
It was around this time that Yamamoto met with an American journalist Bob Hall, and anyone with a modicum of interest in automotive history can immediately recite the events of this fateful meeting in 1979. Yamamoto, the thin, passionate man that he is, asks the journalist what he would like to see Mazda build next, to which he replies, “a lightweight affordable sports car”.
Three years later, in 1982, Hall met Yamamoto again, this time as a product planner in the company, and Yamamoto encouraged him to submit his proposal to the planning department.
Three years later, after ascending to the position of president, Yamamoto used his authority to urge the board to approve of a “Lightweight Sports Car” model to slot below the pricier “Super Sports Car” model, the RX-7, a niche project many thought wouldn’t have much – if any – merit to it. And with that, he set in motion another chapter in the brand’s history just as he had more than 20 years ago with the rotary engine.
The car that resulted was, of course, the MX-5.
Revere it or ridicule it, the MX-5 was a seminal car in automotive history. It revived the affordable sports car market, which was killed off by the British industry’s own ineptitude in the late-70s and early-80s, and became the tentpole from which Mazda’s philosophy would be based on.
Key to the MX-5’s appeal was its philosophy of “Jinba-Ittai” a four-character Japanese phrase that roughly translates into “horse and rider becoming one”, which is used to describe a riders’ technique when performing Yabusame, a Japanese ritual which involves shooting an arrow from the back of a galloping horse. Just as this philosophy resonated with the hundreds of thousands of MX-5 owners, turning it into the world’s most successful roadster, Mazda saw it as a guiding principle on which it would mould the rest of its products. The RX-7 might have been faster and more exclusive, but the MX-5 was more approachable, more understandable, more identifiable to a wider audience through a wider range of products.
This principle continues to define everything the company has put their mind towards, as evident from its now iconic “Zoom-Zoom” branding to its Skyactiv branding which aims to achieve better fuel efficiency whilst maintaining the use of lighter and more responsive naturally-aspirated engines, pursuing lightweight construction, and focusing on driver-centric improvements such as a more responsive automatic transmission.
In today’s environment, where most carmakers are content with preaching brand image and lifestyles, Mazda’s fixation on driver-centric development from everything from its compact car to its large SUV models makes little sense in its end of the market.
It doesn’t until you trace that impartible passion back to that thin, passionate engineer who returned to an annihilated city and took up the challenge of bringing a potentially ruinous engineering avenue to fruition. His strive and passion for engineering ingenuity in the face of seemingly impossible odds is still seen today with the development of Mazda’s upcoming Skyactiv-X compression ignition petrol engine. His defining achievement may have been an impossible engine, but his greatest legacy was defining the rest of Mazda itself.
For that, we thank you, Kenichi Yamamoto, from the bottom of our hearts. Vale.