Takaharu ‘Koby’ Kobayakawa
It is impossible to imagine how Mazda’s image in 1976 could have been more disastrous.
Boat loads of rotary-powered RX-2, RX-3 and RX-4s were turned back across the Pacific after US sales plummeted in the wake of the first energy crisis. Two years earlier, 50 percent of all Mazdas used a rotary engine: by 1976 few people outside the company believed the gas-guzzling engine had any future at all. Mazda’s commitment to the Wankel rotary meant its conventional models were under powered and underwhelmingly boring. Worse, they rusted. Mazda was on the verge of bankruptcy. But the Sumitomo bank, large suppliers and distributors intervened, and Mazda was given another chance.
Work began on the first 323: a neat little, still rear-drive, hatchback that was actually no more than a rebodied 808. Astonishingly, it was completed in under two years. Then came the first RX-7 – still a rotary, but offering an attractive, value-for-money sports car to better the Porsche 924 – closely followed by the 626.
Mazda had an exhilarating story to tell but did not understand how to get its message across. Enter Takaharu ‘Koby’ Kobayakawa and the delicate art of public relations. Kobayakawa, with an engineering background based around the development of Mazda’s rotary engine and Cosmos coupe, had spent four years working in California as a Mazda technical representative. In May 1976, this most western of all Japanese engineers, returned to Hiroshima to set up an international press office within a newly formed public relations department. This cross-pollination between disciplines has always been one of the great strengths of the Japanese motor industry, yet its manifold benefits are rarely understood in the West.
The engineer, a naturally charming man with excellent English, gathered a small group of disparate, but uniformly young and enthusiastic people to communicate Mazda’s story. To most Western journalists, Japan was still an enigma. Mazda, led by Kobayakawa, set out to change that perception.
With each new model, key motoring writers from around the world were invited to Hiroshima to drive the cars and, more importantly, meet the people who created them. We came to know Mazda’s Miyoshi proving ground outside Hiroshima almost as well as Holden’s Lang Lang and Ford’s You Yangs. Koby was the perfect intermediary for he could talk the same motoring language, understood the nuances, and enthusiastically conveyed his love for, and knowledge of, cars.
At this stage in his career, Kobayakawa didn’t create the new models (that would come later) but he made sure the world knew a product led revival was occurring at Mazda. It is no exaggeration to say that during this era, Mazda’s international press department was the most effective in the world.
Barely 27 months after its appearance, Mazda built 890,000 323s. Compare that to 1976 when not one Mazda model sold more than 100,000 units. The RX-7 was a smash hit and quickly became the world’s best-selling sports car, only losing the title to another Mazda – the MX-5 – a decade later.
Koby spent eight-and-a-half years in the press office, becoming a friend to hundreds of journalists and, more than Toyota or Honda or Nissan, fundamentally changed the West’s perception of Japan and its cars.
Born in Tokyo on March 8, 1941, Koby grew up with his father’s MG K3 Magnette. Motoharu Kobayakawa, who rode Indian motorcycles to high school and choose to work at Nissan after graduating from university in 1933, was a car lover. Only later did the family become aware that his K3 was the original, short-wheelbase, prototype. Initially, Koby’s father was refused permission to import the car so he went directly to the Japanese Minister of Finance. Koby quotes his father, “In an interview, I told the minister that the MG K3 was not just a car but a masterpiece, selected to compete in the world’s famous races against cars like Alfa Romeo and Mercedes-Benz. He gave permission to import the car on the spot.”
The youthful Koby also rode motor bikes, developed a passion for driving and a true understanding of the intimate relationship that should exist between car and driver in a proper sports car. This despite his first two cars being a Renault 4cv and later an Austin A50.
He joined Toyo Kogyo (Mazda) in 1963, was assigned to rotary engine research and worked on various development issues as a member of the test department working on the Cosmo Sports (110S in export markets), Mazda’s first rotary car.
A prototype Cosmos was exhibited at the 1963 Tokyo Motor Show and officially announced at the following 1964 Tokyo Motor Show and introduced to the market in May 1967. Only 1176 units were built and today the car is hugely collectable. Koby’s first business trip to Europe included showing the Cosmos at the 1967 London Motor show.
“Since it was used as a press car for a while after the London show, I stayed near London for three months and went to the service department of our newly established sales company every day to maintain the press car. They conducted a driving event at a suburban circuit set by a dealer, and competing cars were brought in to provide a comparative evaluation in terms of handling, braking and performance.” but at this time After returning to Japan, I was told that this evaluation provided many improvement for the second series models.”
In January 1986, after his time running the international press department, Koby accepted the plum job of project manager RX-7. His first task was to develop a convertible version of the second-generation model. Then he began the mission to build a third generation of the unique rotary sports car. There was a faction within Mazda that argued in favour of a bigger car, more of a luxury grand tourer. Koby resisted the pressure and set out to make the new model lighter, smaller and more powerful.
Koby brought with him a ruthless focus on lightness. He led his engineers on an expedition to Los Angeles, where they inspected the only flying example of the legendary Mitsubishi Zero WW2 fighter. They also pored over Zero wreckages in Japan, inspecting the details of how the plane was built to be so much lighter than contemporary Western planes.
Koby quickly realised that Jiro Horikoshi, the Zero’s designer, went to great lengths to build the lightest possible airframe, knowing the real key to light weight was relentless attention to detail (sounds exactly like Gordon Murray). Inspired by this example, the Mazda team established ‘Operation Zero’ to minimize the weight of the new RX-7.
Koby intended Mazda to be seen as the world leader in sports car: “And to achieve that goal we need a distinctive product,” he told me over 30-years ago. Intrinsic to any RX-7 is its engine. Koby proudly told me, “We wouldn’t consider an RX-7 without the rotary engine. It distinguishes us from all others.”
Launched at the 1991 Tokyo motor show, the new RX-7 was lighter, shorter, lower and more powerful. Koby told me, “We wanted to retain the RX-7’s role as a pure sports car rather than an overweight grand tourer. We’re extremely happy with the result”.
Mazda used high-pressure castings for the aluminium wheels. Each weighed just eight kgs – “I think they were the lightest alloy wheels in the world” – they took mass out of the suspension and used a Bose sound system that weighed eight kgs instead of the normal 30kg. In all they saved 110kg so that at 1260kg the new FD model was 70kg lighter than its predecessor. As project leader, Koby admitted he considered using a three-rotor engine. “But the results with the sequential twin turbo were so good there was no need. The power-to-weight ratio is better than the Honda NS-X”.
The press loved the car for the integrity of its design and engineering, and the beauty of its styling. In the early 1990s the FD RX-7 was considered one of the world’s finest handling and best balance sports cars, no doubt due in part to its front-mid engine, 50:50 weight distribution and extremely low centre of gravity. Car & Driver magazine named the FD RX-7 one of its 10 Best in 1993, 1994 and 1995 every year it was sold in the USA. Road & Track declared, “The ace in Mazda’s sleeve is the RX-7, a car once touted as the purest, most exhilarating sports car in the world.”
Many senior Mazda executives, able to choose from any of the marque’s models, gravitated to the RX-7. Moray Callum, the Scot who ran Mazda Design from 2001 to 2006, flaunting company rules, retained his RX-7 for four years after production ceased in 2002.
Perhaps the car was too pure for sales never approached the success of the two previous generations: SA 471,018, FC 272,027. However, it was also more expensive than its predecessors and exceeded the Japanese 1700mm width requirement which added to the car’s annual tax on the domestic market. When production ended in 2002 Mazda had built only 68,589 of the now highly collectible third-generation.
Kobayakawa, who also headed Mazda’s motor sport operations, was at le Mans in June 1991 a Japanese car – a rotary Mazda 787B – won the Le Mans 24-hour race for the first time, beating Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot and Porsche. Koby confesses it was the proudest day of his life.
By 1993 Koby was running Mazda’s corporate communications based in Tokyo, before a surprising move back to Hiroshima to become general manager of Mazda’s design department. When Ford effectively took control of Mazda in 1996, Koby was sent to the USA to become vice-president of R&D in North America and he lived in California until his retirement in 2001.
Koby soon launched a new career as a motoring writer and became a member of the Automotive Researchers’ and Journalists of Japan, being inducted into the Japanese Automotive Hall of Fame in 2019.
He wrote some motoring books and now contributes regularly to the Miki Shobo automotive website. Through this period he mostly drove Mazdas though he did enjoy two Porsches for a short time: a 356B and 911.
Sadly, especially so for one who loves driving, Koby suffered a brain infraction in 2017 and, as a result, had an accident that forced him to stop driving his RX-8. A charming, enthusiastic, intelligent and humble man, I am proud to call Koby a friend.