Project X: Forty-seven Rotary Engineers



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World famous automakers compete with their technology at the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race.
In 1991, a Japanese racing team challenged this race. The car's engine was a rotary engine. For 200 years, it had been the dream engine. The engine was developed for mass production by the "47 rotary engineers" who pledged the recovery of their ruined hometown, Hiroshima. However, it was a long and hard road to succeed in its development.
In 1973, the nightmare of the oil crisis troubled Japan. The rotary engine, generating High power, consumed more gasoline than other engines. It was criticised as a "gas guzzler" and left unsold. However, the 47 engineers never gave up. They began to improve the engine to rebuild its reputation.
There were racing drivers who had been attracted by the engine who sacrificed everything for the rotary engine.
(Terada)

I wanted to be in the limelight of an international car race with the only rotary engine in the world, and I wanted to wave the national flag of Japan to the world.


(Narrator)

This is the drama of 47 engineers and a young racing driver who strived for victory at Le Mans to rid the bad image that had been attached to the rotary engine.

-Studio-


(Male)

Winning victory at Le Mans. Tonight, we report the second part of the development of the rotary engine that was once heralded as the dream engine.


(Female)

There is a terrific car here in the studio.


(Male)

This is the winning car at the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race in June 1991. The victory was the first for a Japanese automaker. This is the rotary engine. It is a powerful engine with 700 horsepower and a maximum speed of more than 300km/h.


(Female)

These men faced a lot of difficulties in rebuilding the reputation of the rotary engine.


(Male)

There was a racing driver, 47 engineers who developed the engine, and a race manager who devoted himself to Le Mans.


(Female)

They began the challenge to win at Le Mans


(Male)

In 1974, the world including Hiroshima was hard hit by the oil crisis. Mazda was in serious financial difficulties. Rotary-engine cars were left unsold and the company ran up a deficit of 17.3 billion yen. Yamamoto had a difficult time, as he and the 47 engineers were blamed for the crisis. The large-scale restructuring drove most of the engineers to Mazda dealers in Japan. Exhausted from sales, some attempted suicide.


The rotary engine was criticised as it was the "devil's engine." Its development was discontinued, and the 47 engineers were devastated.
The company argued whether or not the development should be continued at a management meeting. Yamamoto intended to hand in his resignation to the board of directors, to take responsibility for what had happened. One director who was dispatched from the bank said to Yamamoto, “Your resignation means that the development of the rotary engine was a mistake." Yamamoto thought that he must not betray customers of rotary-engine cars.
(Yamamoto)

By showing the real power of the engine again, I wanted to dispel its bad reputation. This was my revenge.


(Narrator)

At the end of the debate, they decided to continue development. The engineers promised to rid the engine of its bad reputation. The "phoenix project" began.
There was one man who had a strong interest in the rotary engine. He was 27-year-old Yoriro Terada. Terada became a contract driver for Mazda at the age of 25. He drove a rotary engine car for the first time at the Fuji Speedway Circuit. The power and speed that he had never before experienced captivated him.
(Terada)

It was really fast. The engine seemed to rotate endlessly. I forgot the red zone. There was no vibration and I was totally immersed in the rotary.


(Narrator)

Terada was born in Kobe. His father died when he was small, and his mother used to take him to the Suzuka Circuit to cheer him up. His father loved car races more than anything.
Terada went to Tokyo at the age of 17. With the rotary engine car, he had his first victory at a major race. He wished to save the engine from the threat of being discontinued. The engineers worked on the phoenix project. Their goal was to improve fuel efficiency by 40%.
Since the rotary engine generates high power, it consumes a great deal of gasoline. The goal was to increase fuel efficiency while keeping the power of the engine. Tomoo Tadokoro, one of the 47 engineers, was in charge of the combustion chamber. He was enthusiastic about realising this goal.
(Tadokoro)

I believed that if we challenged something earnestly, we could realise it. I wanted the chance.


(Narrator)

Tadokoro was always thinking about improving fuel efficiency. When he saw his wife cooking one day, his eyes were fixed on an instantaneous water heater. He wondered why water could be heated with a little amount of gas so quickly. Then he took the heater apart.
(Mrs, Tadokoro)

I wondered what he was doing, I didn't tell him that the heater was out of order, but he was taking it apart. I thought he was going crazy. But he wasn't.


(Narrator)

He thought up many ideas for the engine. Having made modifications on the engine nearly 1,000 times, they had trial runs repeatedly. In 1978 they finished developing a new engine with its fuel efficiency being improved by 40%. It was installed in a new car.

Yojiro Terada, the racing driver, was very happy with the new engine. He was dreaming of a wild plan then. It was to challenge the world's most prestigious race – Le Mans – the race that he used to watch on TV with his father.
Le Mans 24-hour endurance race is the ultimate race where fuel efficiency and engine performance are tested. Victory at Le Mans would rid the rotary's bad reputation of "gas guzzler."
(Terada)

Completing the race at Le Mans I thought would prove the reliability, endurance and power of the engine more effectively than any advertisement or well-known experts’ praise.

(Narrator)

Terada sought support from the company, but was rejected. The company was facing financial difficulties and had no budget to send a team to Le Mans. Though Yamamoto showed a strong interest in the challenge to Le Mans, he couldn't do anything. However, he decided to make the challenge at any cost. He fought alone.

-Studio-
(Female)

This is the new rotary engine car.
(Male)

Take a look at the engine. Its fuel efficiency was improved by 40%. Mr. Terada was going to challenge Le Mans with this car. Let's look at the track. The circuit length is 13.6km. The car that does the most number of laps in 24 hours wins. The race is very severe. According to the rules, a car will only be recognised as completing the race if it is running at 4:00pm, 24 hours after the start. Victory goes to the car with the best fuel efficiency and durability. Porsche and Ferrari, after having won at Le Mans, held established positions in the automobile world.


(Narrator)

Le Mans is a small town located 200km southwest of Paris. In June 1979, Terada went to this town with his team and a remodelled 285 horsepower RX-7. The team consisted of 10 members. Terada raised funds from various companies. He had lots of things to do including the purchasing of airline tickets and booking of hotels.




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