RIP Kenichi Yamamoto, Father of the Mazda Rotary Engine, 1922-2017

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.

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11 Responses to RIP Kenichi Yamamoto, Father of the Mazda Rotary Engine, 1922-2017

  1. Bob says:

    Thanks for posting this article. Before I ever bought a rotary engined sports car I knew the name of Kenichi Yamamato and his accomplishments at Mazda. Every automobile manufacturer needs someone like Kenichi Yamamato and I am thankful to have been drawn into the sphere of rotary engine ownership.

  2. Nathan says:

    May he rest in peace. He is true automotive legend.

    Thanks for the write-up, Dave!

  3. Bob R. Cheek says:

    Thank you ….You made it happen…
    You’ll be missed……Mr..
    Yamamato was great honor Thank you..
    May you rest with the Auto.makers
    Of the World


  4. Leon Dixon says:

    I first met Mr. Yamamoto in the 1980s when I was working for Mazda Corporation via Mazda (North America), Inc. in California. This was prior to my positions with the original Mazda R&D (North America).

    Mr. Yamamoto was a very gracious gentleman and he always called me “the man who wears many hats” (in reference to the fact that I performed many functions beyond my job title at the time). I still have photos of us shaking hands and chatting back then. To this day I believe I still have rotors somewhere in my warehouse that Mr. Yamamoto signed.

    I am sad to read of his passing, but glad that I got to meet Mr. Yamamoto and talk on occasion both in the USA and in Hiroshima, Japan. He made certain not only that the rotary engine was reality in production, but also that it was eventually bulletproof. Because of Mr. Yamamoto and those inspired by his great leadership and ingenuity, he made the Mazda rotary engine a force to be reckoned with in racing as well as on the street. A true genius in every sense of the word.

  5. james says:

    A great sendoff for a great man.

  6. Pete wong says:

    Rip kenichi Yamamoto. I sincerely hope Mazda respects what he did and builds upon the rich legacy he and his team achieved during his tenure. Although some years have passed, If today’s mazda management could show even 10% of the passion and committed in the way Yamamoto-San did, we’d see another rotary in the Mazda fleet, and hopefully an option across the range. Mazda today is nothing; its lost its soul, having for all intents abandoned the rotary, despite teasing us year on year with auto show visions, that always get good coverage, but fail to get beyond the shows closure. We also need Mazda to get back on track with a wec rotary program.

  7. Ralph Thomas says:

    As a race driver of the three-time IMSA Camel Light championship race car ARGO/Mazda while racing the car in vintage racing I can attest to the durability of the Mazda rotary engine. We raced the Argo two straight season, ran every race of each year, every session of every race and every lap of each session and won both endurance championships without removing the engine from the car once! In addition to the three IMSA championships, the ARGO won seven historic endurance championship. A true test of endurance and reliability. it is a tribute to Mr. Yamamoto.

  8. Tom Westmacott says:

    RIP Kenichi Yamamoto. Congratulations on a life well lived, and thank you for the RE.

    Usually technological progress is considered an impersonal force. Either a particular new technology breaks through and everyone adopts it, or it goes nowhere.

    The rotary is an exceptional case where one company and one man made the difference – without Yamamoto-san, the rotary would have slipped beneath the waves of time leaving barely a trace of an obscure, short-lived German marque. Yet thanks to Mazda’s efforts a worldwide fanbase has sprung up around this unique, characterful engine and the lightweight, agile cars it powered, and the orange-and-green Le Mans winner is merely the tip of the rotary’s glorious history on track.

    The rotary isn’t just smooth, the lack of vibration makes it feel happy and natural to use all the revs, all the time, pinging the buzzer on every upchange. Rather than a reluctant donkey that needs prodding, the rotary leaps forwards with the unrestrained joy of a young puppy, giving its power freely.

    As an engineer, Yamamoto-san’s lateral thinking and refusal to admit defeat is an inspiration to me. As a driver, the rich, smooth, joyful power delivery of my FD3S’s 13B-REW is an endless pleasure.

  9. ken says:

    It is men like Kenichi Yamamoto who teach the rest of us how to be better human beings. Remember “we do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard” to quote another great leader.

  10. Victor Bedrio says:

    Kenichi Yamamoto was a automotive legend in his commitment to the development of the rotary engine. I first heard of Yamamoto in the mid 1970’s on his improvements on the rotary engine’s fuel economy. I always felt that Yamamoto was a humble man who didn’t let his great achievements overwhelm his ego. He chose to address the problems with a tenacious personality. He chose to address the rotary’s problems even when the rest of the world’s carmakers dropped the rotary engine developments. He was in my opinion, a great man who with his engineering team stood alone with the development of the rotary engine.

  11. Negishi no Keibajo says:

    While known for his flashier accomplishments, I thank him for providing the landscape of my youth. We lived in an area where there were still small family farms in the neighborhood in Kamakura. The sight of the Mazda three wheeled truck is indelibly etched in my memory. Later, a neighbor purchased a Cosmo which seemed absolutely out of this world. Best of all, however is to see such an inspirational individual to so many. Great machines conceived by even greater people. RIP Mr. Yamamoto.

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