In sad news for the automotive world, Yutaka Katayama, first president of Nissan Motor Corporation U.S.A., and father of the Z Car, passed away on February 19 at the age of 105. Affectionately known as Mr. K, his impact, not only on Nissan and the Japanese car industry, but on the industry worldwide, cannot be overstated.
Yutaka Katayama's impact can be summed up in three numbers and one letter: 240 Z. In the late 1960s and early 1970s. Previously littler heard of European marques such as Jaguar and Ferrari made their name on the race tracks of the world and parlayed that reputation into branding and recognition that is still the envy of the world. Established brands such as Ford and Chevrolet answered with corporate initiatives like "total performance" and the GT40, and in Chevy's case, backdoor assistance to Jim Hall and his staggeringly innovative Chaparrals.
If you wanted to be taken seriously as a carmaker, you built sportscars. And if you wanted to be taken seriously as a builder of sportscars, you raced them. No ifs, ands or buts.
Entering into this circus of high speeds and higher profits comes the nascent Japanese auto industry. By the late 1960s, it was collectively exporting a small offering of cars that were lightweight, fuel efficient, borderline-cute on occasion, funky looking the rest of the time, but mainly were looked at with derision and made the butt of jokes by the big American and European auto concerns.
In 1969, the Japanese car industry in the shape of Datsun, fired a shot that changed everything: the 240 Z (dubbed the Fairlady Z in the home market). The man responsible for the 240 Z was Mr. K, and the car was the wellspring from which flowed other, bigger, faster Z cars. And they were raced. They were raced by the factory, and they were raced by privateers. And they won.
The bottom line for Mr. K and company was very good, but the bottom line for the rest of the Japanese auto industry was even better. Yutaka Katayama hadn't just built a world-beater, he had lit a beacon that showed the way forward. After the Z-cars there came a Banzai charge of Japanese performance cars.
It seems like in the blink of an eye, Japanese cars were suddenly dominating racetracks of all kinds, crushing everyone in Grand Prix (McLaren/Hondas), destroying the field by whole laps at Le Mans (Mazda), obliterating the small sedan competition in North American racing (BRE Datsun 510s) and more or less owning World Rally Championships for decades (Subaru and Mitsubishi), By the time we get to the present day, the most popular pure sportscar every made is Japanese: the Mazda MX-5 Miata.
And all of this success flows from one guy: Yutaka Katayama. Yes, there were many contributing factors, and many noteworthy personnel from other Japanese manufacturers, but it was Mr. K that had the inspiration to say, "We can do this" and then led the drive to actually go out and make it happen.
And we, the car buying public, are very much the richer for it. Because if Katayama and the rest of the Japanese auto industry gave us anything, it was cars that cost less, were more efficient, and, blessedly, most of all, cars that were reliable. As inspiring and enthralling and joyous it was to drive Ferraris, Jags, Alfas, Astons and such back in the day, they had the reliability of rope swings built by teenagers.
The subsequent avalanche of reliable performance was started by a fellow from a world that many of us today can scarcely imagine living in.
When he was born in September of 1909, 90 percent of the travel was done either by walking or riding horses, and a significant portion of cargo was still delivered by ships with sails. Electricity and telephones were novelties found in rich peoples' homes and his birth was as close to the Wright Brothers as we are to the final flight of the Space Shuttle. Over the course of his lifetime, he saw two world wars (the second of which devastated his own country), the invention of jazz, the invention of rock and roll, television, color movies, women's suffrage, essentially anything that can be thought of as "modern".
Curiously, Yutaka Katayama did not start out as an automotive engineer. He joined the car company in 1935 and was delegated to the Administration Department, where he started out handling publicity before moving into advertising. Katayama made one of the first color films of a Datsun on Japanese roads, and then filmed car races across the globe. This gave him an intimate understanding of what racing had to offer, both from an engineering standpoint as well as marketing.
In 1958 he was team manager of a pair of Datsun 210s entered in the punishing Mobilgas Rally that circumnavigated the entire Australian continent. The upstart team did more than well, it won, and Mr. K was able to immediately propel the brand onto the world stage and rev the company up for Datsun exports.
Given his natural flare for promotion coupled with the by-now-permanent grease under his fingernails, the company shipped him out to America, where he built the Datsun brand (Nissan's initial brand name in the U.S.) up from scratch. And it was in America that he put together the key concepts for what the Z-car needed to be to be a hit in the all-important U.S. market. And in each key area, he hit a bull's eye.
Suddenly the long-suffering Datsun dealers in the US had a reason to smile, as more and more people entered dealerships and left behind the wheel of a Datsun Bluebird 510 or 240 Z.
The citation given when he was inducted into the American Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1998 (he was also inducted into the Japanese Automotive Hall of Fame) highlights his importance to the US automotive industry: "He accomplished numerous great achievements in the USA, where motorization is highly advanced, because of his strong passion for automobiles, long-term management perspective, and diverse experiences, and, above all, because of his integrity – he loved, understood, and unstintingly cooperated with and supported people regardless of nationality, ignoring borders."
So, with deepest respect and gratitude we note the passing of Yutaka Katayama.
Last year, in the month of his 105th birthday no less, Mr. K reflected on his life in the car industry in a three-part interview with Nissan Global Media Center, which can be seen below (with subtitles via the CC button).