TOKYO - Kohei Matsuda, a former president and chairman of what now is Mazda Motor Corp. and champion of the rotary engine, died July 10. He was 80.
Matsuda joined what was then Toyo Kogyo Corp. as a vice president in 1961, after several years at Mazda dealerships. He became the third president of the carmaker in November 1970, when his father, the previous president, died.
He led the Hiroshima company to several milestones.
In 1963, when individuals were displacing companies as Japan's main car buyers, his idea for an affordable 660cc minicar propelled Mazda to a commanding 60 percent share of the segment.
He later pushed the internationalization of the Mazda brand, signing tie-ups to sell diesel engines to Perkins Engines Co. Ltd. in England and small commercial vehicles to Ford Motor Co. The latter was the start of a relationship that continues today, with Ford now owning 33.4 percent of Mazda.
But Matsuda will be remembered mainly for his belief in the rotary engine.
He bet the company's future on the revolutionary powerplant despite numerous doubters.
All seemed well at first, as the high-output rotary engine was ideal for a series of sports cars, culminating in the popular RX-7.
But the two oil crises uncovered the rotary's major weakness: It was not fuel efficient.
Toyo Kogyo plunged into the red, and Matsuda eventually stepped aside and let managers from Sumitomo Bank Ltd. take over the running of his family's car company.
He moved up to the largely ceremonial post of chairman in 1977 and became an adviser to the company in 1980.
In addition to his work at the automaker, Matsuda was president of a professional baseball team, the Hiroshima Carp, for many years.