Kenichi Yamamoto, who famously led Mazda’s “47 Ronin” team that brought the rotary engine into reality, passed away on December 20, 2017. His family made public his passing to the Japanese press on Christmas Day. Yamamoto was 95.
A bona fide legend in the automotive world and a national hero in his home country of Japan, Yamamoto has become synonymous with the rotary engine, having literally written the books on it. His life journey was one of profound inspiration, beginning with his birth in 1922.
Yamamoto was born in Kumamoto Prefecture, though he would subsequently move with his family to Hiroshima City. He graduated from the prestigious University of Tokyo in 1944 with a degree in mechanical engineering and joined the Kawanishi Aircraft Company thereafter. In 1945, he was recruited to the Japanese Navy but returned to his hometown of Hiroshima in September after it was devastated by the atomic bomb.
The atomic attack claimed the life of Yamamoto’s sister, and his family was survived by his mother. He took care of her and sought work in the utterly devastated city. Employment was extremely scarce, and the only job available after months of searching was as a line worker in Toyo Kogyo’s transmission factory. At the time, Toyo Kogyo — the predecessor and then parent company of Mazda — was restarting production of three-wheeled trucks as part of Hiroshima’s reconstruction.
Yamamoto’s job as was physically and mentally taxing, requiring day in and day out assembling of gearboxes and differentials. Constantly covered in oil, Yamamoto was far removed from actual engineering work, until one day he stumbled upon a stack of blueprints. He began examining them during his off time, carefully checking the specs and tolerances on the transmission components he was assembling. Eventually, Yamamoto’s diligence was noticed by a senior engineer, leading to an actual engineering job. Yamamoto would go on to design Mazda’s first OHV engine — at the young age of 25 no less.
By 1959, Yamamoto became deputy manager of the Engine and Vehicle Design Division. He oversaw several important Mazda projects at the time, including the K360 truck and the R360, Mazda’s first passenger car. The latter would reach nearly 65 percent market share in the kei car segment, making Mazda an important leader of mobility in post-war Japan, and Yamamoto a valuable player on Toyo Kogyo’s engineering team.
Yamamoto’s talent led Tsuneji Matsuda, president of Toyo Kogyo, to entrust him with the task of developing the rotary engine as a path to secure Mazda’s future and stake a unique place in the automotive industry by bringing to life the first all-new combustion engine since the dawn of the internal combustion itself. To this end, Matsuda instilled in Yamamoto the conviction that the Hiroshima company could and must succeed through engineering ingenuity — a noble philosophy that greatly inspired the young Yamamoto.
With a specially-chosen group of forty-seven engineers, designers, and material scientists — who came to be known as the 47 Ronin, named after the samurai of Japanese legend — in the newly established Rotary Engine Research Division. The rest, as they say, is history.
Thanks to Yamamoto, Mazda became the only automaker in the world to master the rotary engine, but his influence was felt beyond meeting this formidable engineering challenge. Over the years, Yamamoto’s influence continued to loom large within Mazda and automotive world.
He was involved in Mazda’s Phoenix Project in the 1970s to reduce the rotary’s fuel consumption by a whopping 40 percent and get its emissions to pass the Clean Air Act of 1970. He authored Rotary Engine, the engineering tome on the eponymous subject, two editions of which have been published. He would eventually become President of Mazda in 1984, Chairman until 1992, and continue to serve as an advisor to the company after his retirement. Rightfully, Yamamoto was inducted into the Japan Automotive Hall of Fame in 2007, in recognition and celebration of “his unclogging determination to take on the challenge of rotary engine development.”
More than these technical, historical, and personal achievements, however, Yamamoto was also known as the man with the unceasing sparkle in his eyes. Talk to anyone who has come into contact with him, and you will hear stories of wonder and admiration. Bob Hall, product planner for the first Mazda Miata, for instance, speaks of Yamamoto as an awe-inspiring, unsurpassed mentor. Perhaps the greatest glimpse into Yamamoto’s sphere of thought and influence comes from his own words. Writing at the launch of the RX-8, Mazda’s last production rotary, Yamamoto wrote:
I am proud to be an engineer. I am happy being a romanticist. I consider it the greatest honor to have taken part in the development of Mazda’s rotary engine, which, to my colleagues at Mazda and to me, symbolized the magnificent union of technology and romance that took place in the latter half of the [twentieth] century.
Back in 1973, there were fourteen automobile manufacturers in the world which joined the Rotary League. One by one, they dropped out of contention to make this remarkable engine a reality, but Mazda persevered and has now [as of 2003] produced more than 1.8 million vehicles powered by the rotary. As romance goes, there have been joys but pains, too…
…Our challenge has always been the creation of innovative and appealing automobiles, fully exploiting the virtues of the rotary — and what better vehicles than sports cars?
On this firm belief, we created and launched the RX-7 in 1978. I am profoundly pleased that the Mazda people have created another milestone rotary sports car, the new RX-8, the very essence of our techno-romanticist spirit.”
That “techno-romanticist spirit” Yamamoto speaks of is perhaps the greatest quality that underlies so many of the machines we love here at JNC, and not just Mazdas. It is the essential spark that led to their creation.
In Japan, Yamamoto is considered the father of the rotary engine. Though it may have been conceived by Felix Wankel, it was Yamamoto who studied, developed and nurtured it into a viable product. It was through Kenichi Yamamoto’s efforts that Mazda was able to bring it into reality, sustaining it with constant improvements for decades, and fully delivering it into people’s hands, lives, and hearts. He will be missed, but his influence will continue to be felt for many decades to come.
Some images courtesy of Mazda.