Kenichi Yamamoto, the former Mazda president and chairman who died in December at 95, was not only among the most influential executives in the history of Japan's auto industry he was, in my book, the most charismatic -- with the possible exception of Soichiro Honda.
He was a pure engineer with an easy, garrulous style who took to the road and in many ways changed perceptions of Japanese cars.
"In those days, it seemed like he came to Detroit once a month," a Japanese executive who was stationed in America in the 1980s once told me.
Yamamoto is most famous for the rotary engine that Mazda built its reputation on. Indeed, if Felix Wankel was the father of the rotary, Yamamoto was the father of its practical application.
But he did much more than that during a career at Mazda (then Toyo Kogyo) that began shortly after World War II. In 1993, when I interviewed Yamamoto after he stepped down as chairman, he ticked off his proudest accomplishments. They included setting up U.S. production in Flat Rock, Mich.; establishing r&d centers in Irvine, Calif.; Oberursel, Germany; and Yokohama; and creating an independent design division within Mazda.
Yamamoto also fathered and figured in many cars during his 47 years at Mazda.
If the first RX-7 was his favorite, Yamamoto reserved a special place in his heart for the MX-5 Miata. Indeed, he is the hands-on executive who gave thumbs-up to the Miata. He understood the concept and made sure it was done right, in telling contrast with simultaneous roadster projects at other companies.
But Yamamoto always credited Mazda's American product planner and a former automotive journalist Bob Hall above all.
"Bob Hall put a fire in my mind. Bob wanted to create an open model like MG or Triumph and he insisted that it be front-engine, rear drive."
As Yamamoto told it, he was staying in a hotel in Tokyo in the early 1980s. Hall, back in Irvine, learned where the boss was and set about to have Takaharu Kobayakawa, the program leader on the RX-7 and a Yamamoto disciple, rent a British open sports car and put it into Yamamoto's hands.
"He arranged for Mr. Kobayakawa to convey a Triumph to my hotel," said Yamamoto. "I drove the car from Tokyo to Hakone. Fortunately, it was fine weather. Sunshine. I could smell the trees and the grass. I felt like I was riding a horse."
Yamamoto was sold on the concept. The Miata debuted at the 1989 Chicago show and the rest was hysteria. Though targeted at Americans, the Japanese also loved the car.
Yamamoto said he flew from Hiroshima to Tokyo soon after the Miata debuted and a stewardess came to his seat and said, "Mr. Yamamoto I have just become an owner of the (Miata) because I fell in love at first sight. I didn't even have a driver's license, but I went to driving school, got a license and got married to this car.'
"This is the kind of story that brings the greatest joy to a car creator," Yamamoto told me. "It doesn't much matter how much our company earned from the Miata."