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.”