Kenichi Yamamoto, the man behind Mazda's iconic rotary engine, has passed away at the age of 95, Japanese Nostalgic Car reported on Monday. Yamamoto wasn't only the man behind the brand's rotary engine, but he also helped ensure Mazda's future in the aftermath of World War II.
After co-managing an airplane factory during WWII, Yamamoto returned to his home in Hiroshima to find his residence destroyed, his sister dead, and his father ill from radiation. He began work at one of the only companies to survive the Hiroshima bombing, Toyo Kogyo, a local truck and artillery maker, to support his family. The company quickly promoted Yamamoto to begin work on a new engine for its new three-wheeled truck, which would be sold under the Mazda brand.
Toyo Kogyo released its first car, the Mazda R360, in 1960, and Yamamoto became involved in a technical partnership with Germany's NSU to develop the rotary engine. In 1964, his work came to a crescendo with the Cosmo Sport prototype, which featured a twin-rotor engine. However, Japan discounted Mazda as a domestic vehicle producer after it declared Nissan, Toyota, and Isuzu its only carmakers. Astoundingly, Yamamoto approached Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry with the Cosmo Sport and the rotary engine to convince it Mazda was a legitimate carmaker. It worked.
Yamamoto climbed the ranks at Mazda through research and development and eventually became president in 1985. He's also the man who gave the Mazda MX-5 Miata the green light for production. He retired from the Japanese automaker in 1992, a year after the 787B stormed Le Mans with a rotary-powered victory.
The legendary figure leaves behind an incredible legacy. The rotary engine found its way into numerous Mazda vehicles, and helped define the RX-7, which remains one of the brand's most iconic vehicles. The rotary engine is on hiatus at Mazda, but the company hasn't halted development. One day, Yamamoto's peculiar powertrain could find new life.