Remembering a Legend: Yutaka Katayama | Auto Finance News | Auto Finance News

Remembering a Legend: Yutaka Katayama

Yutaka Katayama, memorialized in 1990s Nissan commercials as “Mr. K,” died late last week at the age of 105. Mr. Katayama is widely credited as having been the driving force behind American acceptance of Japanese-made cars and trucks in the 1960s and 1970s.

Though it is only a dim memory now, there was a time when Japanese cars were almost invisible to Americans and derided as cheap and substandard. In 1960, if you wanted a small car, you bought a Rambler, a Ford Falcon or — if you were really adventurous — a European car like a Renault or a VW Beetle. Early efforts by Datsun and Toyota looked far less sure of themselves and considerable post-ww2 stigma still applied to anything Japanese.

Into this landscape stepped Yutaka Katayama. Born in 1909, he graduated from Kieo University in 1935 and became a marketing executive for Nissan. Despite the rarity of cars in pre-ww2 Japan, Katayama had grown up with cars in his family and his blood. He had built his own small sports car in 1951 and helped found Japan’s first sports car club and what became the Tokyo Motor Show later that decade.

Repeated conflicts with unions and Nissan’s conservative management – he abhorred cronyism and his bold publicity schemes terrified management, who were worried about the cars not living up to his promises — got him exiled to the tiny Datsun operation in the United States in 1960.

Katayama was essentially starting from scratch. Early tasks included delivering vehicles and marketing materials to new dealers in person – often after going door-to-door to recruit them. He personally canvassed used-car lots, repair shops, and other businesses and turned them into Datsun franchises.

Katayama gradually built up a dealer network and was constantly calling Japan to improve the products – or at least better tailor them for Americans. Datsuns then were lightly modified versions of cars designed for Japan’s high fuel prices, low speed limits, and slow roads.

Datsun 510 for 1968His promotion work began to prove successful. Largely thanks to his efforts, Datsun sales grew from 1,436 cars and trucks in 1961 to more than 45,000 in 1967. The first fruits of his product requests had come in the form of the Datsun SPL311 roadster and popular light pickups. The best was still to come.

Seeking to improve Datsun’s lineup, Katayama suggested that the design benchmark for the company’s upcoming 1968 compact car be the BMW 1602. Nissan balked at many of his suggestions, but that did not deter his lobbying to improve the car. Eventually, he found an ally in the form of Japanese Nissan exec Seiichi Matsumura, who helped make his ideas reality.

Thus was born the Datsun 510 – the first widely desirable Japanese mainstream car sold in the USA. When the cars arrived, Katayama went on an advertising blitz and got the cars into racing – where they started winning in the SCCA Trans-am series. The 510 did a great deal to transform American opinions of Japanese cars.

In 1970, Katayama’s crowning achievement arrived.

Nissan had been working on a “halo car” since the early sixties, at first with Yamaha as a partner. When that didn’t work out, Yamaha went to Toyota and those partners produced the stunning Toyota 2000GT. Nissan still wanted to produce something similar, but which would be more tied to other production models.

Katayama sensed that an affordable GT that positioned between the established MG/Triumph-style roadsters and the bigger, more expensive Jaguars and Corvettes might be a hit with Americans, and worked directly with the design team to realize that vision.

Nissan management wanted to call the car “Fairlady” as it had with the roadsters, but Katayama suggested an alphanumeric – the 240Z – would fare better against bolder names like “Firebird.”

Katayama with his 240Z, in the early seventies. (Photo: Nissan).

Katayama with his 240Z, in the early seventies. (Photo: Nissan).

The 240Z was the first Japanese car to prove that Japanese cars could be as good or better than counterparts from Europe or the United States, and it put Datsun on the map globally.

By 1973, Datsun was selling over 230,000 cars a year in the United States, and the halo effect of the 240z had gotten many people into the showroom who might not have considered a Datsun previously.

In 1975, Mr. Katayama was recalled to Japan – his high profile, disdain for internal politics, and constant requests had irked upper management, and he was given a new position at a subsidiary. He retired two years later.

Ever the maverick, he was often outspoken about Nissan’s choices after his retirement – he opposed renaming the cars Nissan in 1984, then later criticized the choice of moving Nissan’s U.S. headquarters from California to Tennessee in 2005 as potentially drawing the company’s attention away from car culture. Inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1998, Katayama remained active in Datsun clubs for decades. His autograph was almost always accompanied by the words “Love Cars! Love People! Love Life!”

He is survived by his wife, four children, 11 grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren — and a legacy of Japanese cars as a pervasive sight on American roads.

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