Mazda is scheduled to phase out the rotary engine this month when the last RX-8 rolls off the line in Hiroshima. Most of the engine obits cite Felix Wankel, who developed the rotary in Germany after World War II. But there was another less heralded father of the engine: Kenichi Yamamoto, who was assigned to Wankel engine development in 1963 by Tsuneji Matsuda, the son of Mazda's founder.
"I was shocked," Yamamoto said in an interview with Automotive News in 1993, when he stepped down as Mazda's chairman.
"I had a rather negative view of the rotary engine, and in 1963 Japan was being rapidly motorized. The Japanese were anxious to have any engine, so I thought 'Why should I take up the rotary engine?' "
But Mazda was on the ropes in those days and needed an innovation.
"Rather than profit, we went after an identity and independence," he said. "More than 30 companies worked on the rotary engine initially. But Mazda was unique. We stuck to it with persistence. Why? Other companies considered the rotary a source of revenue and if there was no profit, they gave up."
Yamamoto, still alive and well and living in Hiroshima, met frequently with Wankel, who died in 1988.
Said the legendary Japanese engineer in 1993: "He once said, 'Mr. Yamamoto is my most important friend because Mazda realized production of the rotary engine.'"