25 February 2015

Yutaka Katayama: 1909-2015

Mr. K changed the way Americans look at Japanese cars

“My commitment to stand behind Datsun gained the trust of dealers and sold cars. My motto was: Dealers make money first, and then we make money.” – Yutaka Katayama, former president of Nissan Motor Corporation USA

Peter Brock and Yutaka Katayama were automotive legends long before they met – Brock, designer of the iconic Daytona Coupe that gave the U.S. its first victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1964, and Katayama, the charismatic “Mr. K” who almost single-handedly changed the way Americans look at Japanese cars.

With similar interests, their introduction was inevitable. And when Brock Racing Enterprises began successfully racing Datsun 2000 roadsters in the late 1960s, Katayama asked for a meeting. Brock quickly obliged.

“Mr. K became a good friend and ally,” Brock said of Katayama, who died on Feb. 19 at the age of 105. “He was a great enthusiast for performance. He understood the value of competition to Datsun’s image and made sure we had whatever we needed. Instead of requesting that I go through the usual bureaucratic management levels, he asked me to call him directly if I ever needed anything.”

Katayama is often referred to as “father of the Z,” a nod to the Datsun 240Z, which in the 1970s was praised internationally as a well-built, affordable sports car and vaulted the company to new heights. Katayama knew the value of a breakthrough sports car, and the 240Z (as well as the 260Z and 280Z that followed) certainly delivered. He also knew that success on the race track would benefit Nissan/Datsun in two ways – by proving that the cars were durable and by building the company’s image.

Bob Sharp, a six-time Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) champion who raced red, white and blue-painted Datsuns and Nissans in the 1970s and ’80s, was certainly sold. Sharp not only raced the cars but also owned a successful Nissan dealership in Wilton, Conn. His team, which included late actor/driver Paul Newman, was the east coast equivalent of Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE).

“Mr. K was a special person to every Z enthusiast who knew him,” Sharp said. “He was a great businessman, but was also a very personable and down-to-earth individual. He loved life as he loved all the Nissan racers. He was a tribute to our sport. I’m so happy just to have known him.”

Katayama was 25 when he joined Nissan on April 1, 1935, and he and the company grew up together. Katayama worked in publicity and advertising before finally landing a position as designer. Two decades later, after Toyota established its American sales arm in California in 1957, Nissan followed with Datsun in ’58. The company started with a small, bug-eyed, slab-sided, 37-horsepower sedan called the Datsun 1000. In the December 1958 issue of Road & Track magazine, reviewers described the car’s performance as melancholy, which actually may have been kind. It had a top speed of 66 mph and a 0-60 time of … wait for it … 46 seconds.

Undaunted, Nissan decided to form its own American distributorship, and in 1960 Katayama was named vice president of Nissan Motor Corporation USA. He was promoted to president in 1965.

Katayama’s influence on Datsun’s early days in America is undeniable. Datsun made its first real splash in the U.S. as a pioneer in the compact pickup market. The Datsun 520, an improved version that was introduced in 1965, was an instant hit and led to Datsun’s 10-year domination of the market segment.

The first Datsun automobile to register with American sports car enthusiasts was the 1962 SPL 310. Over its 18-year production run, it was known by various names, including Fairlady, 1600 and 2000. Enthusiasts refer to the cars collectively as Datsun roadsters. Some assume that the Datsun roadster was simply a copy of the visually similar MGB, but it predated the MGB. And as the MGB’s performance became weaker with the addition of pollution controls, the Datsun’s got stronger. Car and Driver was so enamored of the 2000 that in June 1968, the magazine’s editors wrote, “We wouldn’t miss a chance at driving the Datsun 2000 even if it looked like a peach crate.”

Datsun hit the ball out of the park with a small sedan, the 510, and the historic 240Z followed. With acceleration of 0-60 mph in about eight seconds and a top speed of 120 mph, the 240Z found itself in the same league as a contemporary Porsche 911T, but its $3,500 price was about half that of the Porsche. In 1970, Road & Track offered a prescient observation: “The Japanese industry is no longer borrowing anything from other nations. In fact, a great struggle may be ahead just to prevent a complete reversal of that cliché.”

When Katayama retired in 1977, his legacy was assured. Not only was he “father of the Z,” he paved the way for other Japanese automakers to find success in the U.S. Fittingly, Katayama is a member of both the Japanese Automotive Hall of Fame and American Automotive Hall of Fame.

“Mr. K forever changed the way Americans think about Japanese cars,” Brock said. “Prior to his ascent to the top position at Datsun, Japanese cars weren’t favorably viewed by most Americans. Datsun was No. 7 in import sales at that time … and he made them No. 1.”

Brock, who believes Katayama was actually forced into retirement, was thrilled to see Nissan give him his just rewards during the last several years.

“Mr. K was an amazing man because he was gentle, quiet and kind – a poet and artist – but he also wielded tremendous power. That’s quite a diverse set of attributes for a man with such responsibilities,” Brock said. “I’ll miss his friendship and his continued interest in BRE long after we had discontinued our racing relationship with Nissan. He never forgot the role that racing played in helping change America’s opinion of Japanese cars.”

16 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Carl Beck Clearwater, FL USA February 25, 2015 at 17:00
    You wrote above: "Katayama worked in publicity and advertising before finally landing a position as designer.” Mr. K. was never a “designer”. Although he had great input to the first phases of Nissan’s Automotive Design Process after 1960. His input to the initial phases of the design process, as well as his support and shepherding of the later iterative processes during the actual design phase, gained him the honorary title of; “Father Of The Z Car”.
  • 2
    Don W. Lincoln, NE February 25, 2015 at 17:47
    Great story! I know I feel the same way about the 240Z, as far as it being a game changer. When I was working at a car wash as a teenager back in '71, I was every bit as dazzled when a Z came through as a Corvette. As fine of a car the 510 was (I realized that later) the styling just made it another car. The Z was the one I coveted. It put Datsun on the radar screen for me.
  • 3
    Mayfield Marshall La Canada, CA February 25, 2015 at 19:09
    From the inside looking out at Datsun for 10 years I know Pete Brock was right about Mr'K's retirement. He fought like a tiger with Nissan President Ishahara who was determined to change the name of the U.S. Company from Datsun to Nissan. The President won and Mr. K. went back to Japan with almost no fanfare from the parent company. The name change cost Nissan so dearly that a merger with Renault was all that saved them. Mr. K was proud of his international recognition but never happier than the resurection of the Datsun name.
  • 4
    steve burkholder United States February 25, 2015 at 19:50
    I was a mechanic in a Datsun Dealership in 1976 and got to work on and drive the best of the "Z" cars. The 240 was just a great, simple, exciting car. The 260 was basically the same car, but had terrible Zenith carbs. I performed several SU carb swaps on them. The 280Z in 1976 was a major upgrade. The Bosch License L-Jetronic EFI worked flawlessly. With a cam & header, those cars would run 150 mph. (don't ask me how I know) In 1979, the 280ZX arrived as a luxury barge with cheap-looking velour seats & was even offered with "T" tops. The spirit of the Z was dead (in my opinion) . That was the year after Mr. Z retired.
  • 5
    Bryan Virginia February 25, 2015 at 19:54
    Finally get some recognition via Mr K!
  • 6
    Buddy Holt Greenville, NC February 25, 2015 at 19:56
    My late Father was a personal friend of Mr. K as he acquired the Datsun franchise in 1969 here in NC. He always spoke so very highly of this man and, quite frankly, things at Nissan were never the same after his retirement! Well done, Mr. K! Rest in Peace.
  • 7
    Wayne "Sam" Loomis Fullerton, CA February 25, 2015 at 21:13
    Mr. K will always be special to me. During a Datsun/Nissan car show at Doheny Beach, CA, where Mr. K joined us and autographed calendars, I had the "misfortune" of catching the session just a little too late while he was wrapping up. A circle of admirers surrounded him (in the center) protected by his secretary amoung others. I spoke to his sec. and pleaded for the last autograph. She spoke with him and he agreed. After she returned my calendar I spoke up directly to him with the little Japanese I know - Domo Arigato (sp?) - Thank You. He startled and looked around to locate the speaker, me, rose and walked over to shake my hand! What a man! Good bye to a great man.
  • 8
    Wayne "Sam" Loomis Fullerton, CA February 25, 2015 at 21:14
    Mr. K will always be special to me. During a Datsun/Nissan car show at Doheny Beach, CA, where Mr. K joined us and autographed calendars, I had the "misfortune" of catching the session just a little too late while he was wrapping up. A circle of admirers surrounded him (in the center) protected by his secretary amoung others. I spoke to his sec. and pleaded for the last autograph. She spoke with him and he agreed. After she returned my calendar I spoke up directly to him with the little Japanese I know - Domo Arigato (sp?) - Thank You. He startled and looked around to locate the speaker, me, rose and walked over to shake my hand! What a man! Good bye to a great man.
  • 9
    Steve Pettersen United States February 25, 2015 at 23:11
    I have been building Z cars since the mid-eighties, and had a chance to get to know Mr. K personally. He was simply an amazing guy. From our first meeting, I was impressed w/ his personable nature, and obvious zest for enjoying life. He was genuine; a description that I don't think would come to mind w/ many people that run a major corporation, and enjoy the "fame" that goes along w/ that. We all lost a great man last Thursday. All my respects, and condolences to his family. We will miss you Mr. K.
  • 10
    Morey Mast Bangs, Texas February 26, 2015 at 18:50
    Mr. K truly loved life, people and Datsun/Nissan. I'm one of the many who was fortunate to have met him in the Dallas, Texas area at Mike Taylor's home. His passing does leave a void.
  • 11
    Morey Mast Bangs, Texas February 26, 2015 at 18:51
    Mr. K truly loved life, people and Datsun/Nissan. I'm one of the many who was fortunate to have met him in the Dallas, Texas area at Mike Taylor's home. His passing does leave a void.
  • 12
    John Feazel Fowlerville, Michigan February 26, 2015 at 07:04
    “Mr. K forever changed the way Americans think about Japanese cars.” -- Did not change the way this American thinks about Japanese cars! I still do not allow them to be parked in my driveway...
  • 13
    Alan T. London, UK. February 26, 2015 at 09:46
    This article is good except for one particularly glaring mistake. Quote: "Katayama was 25 when he joined Nissan on April 1, 1935, and he and the company grew up together. Katayama worked in publicity and advertising before finally landing a position as designer." Katayama was NEVER an automotive designer, stylist or engineer. He was not educated as such, and had no remit as such. He was an economics graduate with a background in sales, marketing and advertising. He was a businessman, and was blessed to be in a good position in a good location at a good time. There's a whole lot more to it than that of course (and that's where Katayama's genius lay) but my point is that he was never a designer or an engineer and far too many people are reading that into this "Father Of The Z" tagline.
  • 14
    Edgar A. Ontario, Canada February 27, 2015 at 10:22
    My sincere condolences on hearing about the passing of 片山San His legacy with the Z car and Nissan/ Datsun will continue on. As a proud owner of a 1970 240Z, I offer a silent thank you to Mr. K (written in Japanese above) everytime I drive this iconic car. Thank you for your designing legacy!
  • 15
    Alan T London, UK. March 5, 2015 at 05:28
    See? There it is, right there in the comment from Edgar A. above. A Datsun 240Z owner who thinks that Katayama 'designed' it. Question to Edgar A: What makes you think that your car was - in the true sense of the word - 'designed' by Yutaka Katayama? Is it just because articles, like this one on Hagerty, told you so?
  • 16
    Greg Worldwide June 4, 2015 at 01:17
    With all due respect, it's not the right time or place, Alan. As the owner of datsunforum.com and a huge Nissan forum, I regret never meeting Mr. K in person. I've spent several hours with his longtime assistant Johnnie (a lovely and wonderful lady) listening to her stories about him. Our collection of eight classic Datsuns spans 1963 to 1978, and I often wish I could have showed him how much we enjoy each one of them - Clearly, none of that would have been possible without the tireless efforts and faithful dedication to the enthusiast that Mr. K brought to the brand. Here's a great (reissued) article about Mr. K that really highlights his maverick spirit and love of people: http://datsunforum.com/datsun-discovered-america/ Love cars - Love people - Love life.

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