Outside of Japan, Kenichi Yamamoto isn’t a household name. Not the way Henry Ford and Carroll Shelby and Lee Iacocca are. Yet most people who enter the auto industry don’t get to produce one of the greatest alternative engines ever made, or oversee the development of one of the most beloved sports cars of all time. Kenichi Yamamoto got to do both.
Yamamoto died this week at the age of 95, according to news reports. His life and career saw him rise from the literal ashes of post-World War II Hiroshima to key roles within Mazda, and along the way, he would help the automaker rise in much the same way.
Along the way he brought the world Mazda’s Wankel rotary engine—and Mazda remains the only car company to ever really get it right—and the MX-5 Miata. On two fronts, Yamamoto helped make Mazda the company it is today and inspired generations of enthusiasts along the way.
Like many in Japan who came of age in the aftermath of WWII, Yamamoto didn’t have it easy. As a 1995 profile by Automotive News recounts, he graduated university in 1944, and briefly oversaw a fighter airplane factory. The year after that, his hometown of Hiroshima was essentially wiped out by a horrifying new kind of weapon the world had never seen before: