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Features / 02-14-19

A Rotary Heart

We spend the day and learn a lifetime’s worth with Nobuhiro Yamamoto


By Carl S. Cunanan Photos by Author and Mike Jesalva

 

Early on a Saturday morning, we drove into a gas station on the South Luzon Expressway. We were there to spend the day hanging out with someone considered to be the father of the Miata. Nobuhiro Yamamoto was in Manila to be with the Miata Club of the Philippines to hand out and to get behind the wheel of a racer, and to generally talk about all things Mazda. As we drove in, past a collection of different Miatas (predominantly the original NAs and the most recent NDs), we came upon him bending over and kind of twisting around as he looked into Miata trunks. He was signing the cars for some very excited owners. And there was a line.

So we just watched. We watched someone diligently going from car to car, chatting a bit with each driver then bending over to sign the car, usually on the lower part of the trunk lid. We saw that he wasn’t just doing his signature, but something somewhat different for each car it seemed. In Japanese as well as in English. We, later on, asked him what he was writing, and he explained that what he wrote was dependent on what the “motto” of the car itself was. But that didn’t seem fully accurate, as he often wrote different notes as well as the motto itself. He wasn’t just signing and handing off, he was paying attention to the owner, and the car, and giving insight. He told stories. He asked questions. He was clearly an enthusiastic fan.

After meeting up, the collection of little sports cars grew as they headed to Santa Rosa for breakfast. Story-telling continued, and questions were asked and answered going both ways between the Mazda MX-5 Ambassador and the fans in the crowded room. It was clear we had more questions to ask, but it was also clear that we didn’t want to interrupt the Miata Club of the Philippines members present (of which I am one) and the like-minded Mr. Yamamoto.

We got the chance to go more in-depth over a quiet lunch. Once again though, the questions and answers went back and forth. My love for the brand came when I saw a little sports car slicing through the mountains of Japan late at night, I answered his question. As a kid, he, in turn, told me, he loved the feel and sound and rush of all things motoring since he got his first taste. He excitedly cites the time when, still in high school, he read an article about a small company’s daring use of a rotary engine in a new production car. The Mazda R100, in Japan the Familia Rotary Coupe, got him thinking. He found a book on rotary engine and soon realized that he had found his direction in life. He wanted to create things. He joined Mazda in 1973 and got assigned to Research and Development. Since he was obsessed with the rotary powerplant, which led him into the company motorsports program as well. Having become rather successful at that, he eventually became Program Manager for the MX-5 project. It was at this point in the story that he gives me his second card.

He gave me his first card, standard Mazda Global black on white with slight splashes of color, earlier in the day. As our conversation became more and more animated (meaning I forget what we had for lunch), he gives me his other card. Bright, colorful, with photos of the first generation Miata and his title of ambassador for the car. He talks about the initial ideas for the car, a rather purist homage to the sports cars of the enthusiast world’s dreams and wishes. More about balance and weight than about power and luxury. Heavy on emotion and interaction, not so much on high technology. that first one. Since then, each model has had its own soul and not always one that enthusiasts agreed with. But the car and the team behind it reignited a love for sports cars at a time when hot hatches and sports saloons were threatening to rid the world of two-seaters. The format of low weight balanced as well as possible, the engine in the front powering wheels in the rear took, and kept taking. Each of the three models since that first one (the NA, NB, NC, and now ND) had to keep those ideas in mind. Which wasn’t always easy, and indeed many feel they strayed at first. The latest edition, the ND, is perhaps the best example yet, showing clearly that the team was able to stick to their guns. The fact that this man travels the world just talking to enthusiasts about that one model line shows it all.

OK, it doesn’t show it all. Our third stint with Yamamoto-san was at a dinner and presentation to the different Mazda-associated car clubs and the press. I was expecting him to be swamped once again by fans, which he was until he broke away to prepare his presentation on the Miata and the Miata Cup racing series. As he was doing so, I walked by and tried to quietly take a quick peek at his computer. Then I lost all subtlety by saying, “Whoa, the 787B!” He turned, and a big smile came onto his face. Later on, he took over my notebook.

He took over my notebook because he was discussing the legendary Mazda 787B racecar. The prototype that took the 24 Hours of Le Mans win in 1991. First time ever for a rotary engine, but now remember what first caught the eye of the young Nobuhiro. We all know the story of the win, well at least most of us gearheads do. Upstart Japanese team challenging the European stalwarts with a technology no one else used. Their single lap pace was off at first, but they proved to be reliable. Now comes the part where goosebumps come in. After one race where the team didn’t perform as well as they wanted, the drivers came in sat down with the lead engineer, Nobuhiro Yamamoto. The pilots said the car was great, but they needed more. Give them this much more power, this much less weight, this much better fuel consumption, they said, and they would give him the trophy.

So he took my notebook. I was scrambling trying to write down everything he was excitedly saying, how the engineering team sat down that night after that race and decided they could stepladder up to the needed additional power. My non-technical mind was clearly not directing my hands very well, so he took over mid-page and explained how they decided that night that they would do what they were told wasn’t possible. They didn’t win at first, but by late afternoon of 1991 in Le Sarthe, France, the beautiful green and red 787B prototype racer with the Mazda name on it crossed the line first. That feat only went to one other Japanese carmaker, the giant Toyota, in 2018 after years of tear-filled almost-finishes. It remains as of 2018 the only win ever by something other than your usual engine design. Remember, hybrids so far have used the standard reciprocating engine design but supported by electrics.

The question many people ask about Mazda is, will they ever use the rotary platform again? There’s a lot going against it, and it takes a serious amount of commitment to achieve somewhat small gains as perceived by the general public and even most enthusiasts. Even Wikipedia states that the 1991 Mazda win at Le Mans is “a record likely never to be repeated.”

But ask that question of Nobuhiro Yamamoto, ask him of the future of the design that enchanted him as a child, ask him about doing something most people say won’t work. Then see what he does.