Project X: Forty-seven Rotary Engineers

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Yamamoto went to the sea. He said to himself that he would help the city and would not escape anymore.

When owning a car was becoming popular in Japan in 1960's, passenger cars were put on the market one after another. New cars from two major automakers, Toyota and Nissan, were quite popular. Toyo Kogyo's main products were still three-wheel trucks. There was no increase in sales. The entry into a four-wheel market was an urgent matter, Tsuneji Matsuda, aged 63, led the company. He was well known as "Honda in the east and Matsuda in the west." He was an obstinate man.
Matsuda put Yamamoto in charge of the development of a new car. Having transferred to the design department, Yamamoto was a leading engineer. He was 36 years old and admired as a leader by young employees for both his hard work and kindness.
"Lowest-priced cars by mass production"
Yamamoto designed an effective and functional car. About 17,000 cars were sold. Just after Toyo Kogyo’s entry into the four-wheel field, one MITI’s policy shocked the Japanese car industry. The policy was to encourage the reorganisation of the car industry into three groups in preparation for the liberalisation of import. Matsuda feared that large manufacturers such as Toyota and Nissan would absorb the company. One day, he received incredible news that a German automaker had succeeded in developing a prototype of the rotary engine. It was a dream engine that was small, high-powered and smooth. Researchers in the world, including James Watt who invented the steam engine, made a challenge to develop the rotary engine in vain. If Mazda quickly succeeded in making the prototype fit for practical use, the engine could be the most powerful product and they could keep their independence. Matsuda went to Germany at once.
The top-rank automakers like Mercedes and Porsche rushed to the company in Germany for an agreement. The condition for the agreement was 280 million yen, which was equivalent to the monthly pay of 8000 employees. Matsuda had no time to hesitate. He signed the contract on the third day of negotiations.

Yamamoto was appointed leader of the development. At the time no one knew those who were involved in the development of the rotary engine would lead a life full of unexpected events.


As for ordinary piston engines, there is some energy loss in the process of conversion from reciprocal motion into rotational motion. As you see, the Triangular rotor rotates in the cocoon-shaped case. This system is very efficient because it directly utilises the rotational motion as a source of power. This makes it possible to generate great power with a small-sized engine. This however, has to rotate thousands of times a minute. The engine required advanced technologies because it was quite difficult to achieve smooth rotation and to ensure the durability for tens of thousands of kilometres.


Lets take a look at the efforts for the rotary engine development. Top-rank automakers such as Mercedes, Porsche, and Rolls Royce competed fiercely for the first mass-production of the rotary engine. There were various problems in developing the rotary engine.


The atmosphere was tense in Toyo Kogyo in the fall of 1962. Yamamoto had mixed feelings of apprehension and expectation about his involvement in the development of the rotary engine. He recruited project members, but experienced engineers hesitated because the development of the engine seemed too difficult. But there was one young engineer who decided to join the project at once.

His name was Kazuo Takada. His elder brother was also on engineer Toyo Kogyo, but had been killed by the bomb. Kazuo Takada wanted to realise his own dream.

Engineers pursue dreams. Because I could imagine the delight of achieving it, I thought how wonderful it would be if I could develop the engine.


Takashi Kuroda learned all the design skills from Yamamoto and respected him. He was sure that he could succeed if he worked with Yamamoto.

I had a strong desire to strive for my dream of developing a new engine that could compete with reciprocal engines.


Forty-seven young engineers gathered under Yamamoto. They were called the "47 rotary engineers" after the legendary 47 Samurai warriors in Ako in the Tokugawa period. Yamamoto pledged “We are going to show the engineering skills of the recovered Hiroshima.”
(Hiroshi Ozeki)

He told us lo work creatively and aggressively. He also advised us never to give up, which I think was important. According to him, that was the rotary spirit.


They started to test a prototype engine made in West Germany with great expectation. But the engine had a lot of defects.

It gave out clouds of white smoke suddenly. The engine oil leaked into the engine. This was called "Click-clack Mountain" after a well-known Japanese fairy tale. The engine was said to rotate smoothly, but it was found that there was obvious shaking at low engine speed. This was called the "electric massager."

We were startled. Although we heard that it was an excellent engine, there were no clear solutions to these problems. We were shocked to know that the engine still had various problems.


A more serious problem was identified. The engine suddenly stopped after 20,000km. After dismantling the engine, there were numerous scratches inside. They were "chatter marks." The scratches were formed from the frictional vibration between the rotor and the engine wall. The engine finally stopped after gasoline leaked out from the scratches.

Yamamoto went home at six o'clock everyday. His subordinates wondered why. After coming home he said to Sumiko, his wife, "This will be a fierce struggle." and went to his room. He thought about the problems one by one till morning everyday. He drastically lost weight. However, his attitude toward the project was an incentive to Takada.
Takada was in charge of "chatter marks." Having sought the company's permission, he took a model of the rotary engine home with him. He continued to rotate the engine, determined to remove the marks.

I asked my wife to take care of everything including our children, since I was concentrating on the chatter marks all day long.

(Takada's Wife)

Looking hard at the ceiling, he kept on thinking. I always studied his countenance so as not to disturb him.


Yasuo Tatsutomi, Rotary Engine Research Department. As a young engineer, he was working on the "Click-clack Mountain." He was still looking for reasons to prevent the oil leakage that caused the white smoke. He visited the test bench and looked into the exhaust pipe everyday. His face was covered with soot from the smoke. He fell ill. He completed more than a thousand drawings. However, he was still unable lo solve "Click-clack Mountain."

I was disappointed everyday. I thought of a new idea and I tested it. The results were terrible. Then I came home, drank a lot, and went to sleep.


Failed solutions piled up in the laboratory. The "'Click-clack Mountain." "electric massager” and "chatter marks." Everyone was giving up on the dream. Experts repeatedly said the rotary engine was impossible and confusing.
The young engineers were quite restless. Yamamoto, the leader of the project, could not give any detailed directions to them. "We can't save the company if this situation continues." He blamed himself. He finally got a stomach ulcer.

A living body suffers from stress. I did my best. I lost all my teeth and l had to wear full dentures when I was still young.


Yamamoto decided to resign and visited Matsuda. Yamamoto said, ''This project is endless, it is beyond my ability." He was prepared that the short-tempered President would be angry and to part on bad terms. Matsuda said. "You are the only person who can succeed in this project, because you love our hometown." Matsuda had lost his younger brother in the bombing.

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