Yutaka Katayama was a legend. While he was the first president of Nissan Motor Corporation U.S.A., the passionate enthusiast known as “Mr. K,” was beloved for bringing the renowned 240Z to life. Mr. K passed away on February 19the at the age of 105. To say his life was full is an understatement.
Born in September 1909, in Harunocho, Shuchi-gun (now Hamamatsu City), Shizuoka Prefecture, Katayama went to the U.S. for the first time as an assistant on a high-speed vessel carrying raw silk to the U.S. in 1927 while he was a student at Keio University. This first-hand experience of how America worked proved an advantage in his later automotive career.
He joined Nissan in 1935 and was assigned to the Administration Department, where he worked in publicity and advertising. He proposed an ad that focused on the customer’s lifestyle with a car. Katayama was successful in communicating Nissan and its products in a smart manner by featuring representative celebrities of the time in the company’s TV advertising and collaborating with other industries, which was an innovative technique at the time.
Mr. K is also known for actively promoting the first All-Japan Motor Show in 1954. All of the country’s automakers participated and the show was a huge success, attracting over half a million visitors. Today the Tokyo Moto Show is one of the elite.
Among the various milestones in Katayama’s career at Nissan during this period, one event worthy of special mention is a class victory in 1958 at the Mobilgas Trial – Round Australia, where two Datsun 210s were entered, the Fuji and the Sakura. Prior to the full-scale export of Datsun cars, the company wanted to test their performance and potential by entering them in the world’s most grueling automobile race. The Trial covered 16,000 km of unpaved roads in the harsh Australian outback over the course of 19 days.
He recalled, “At the time, the Datsun 210 was powered by a 988cc OHV engine with a maximum output of 34ps. If you loaded it up with enough spare parts to handle the worst-case scenario on that route, it wasn’t much different from squishing eight people into this four-passenger car. Honestly, even though I was the team manager, I didn’t think we would win.”
Against all odds, however, the Fuji won the race in the Under 1,000cc Class. News agencies around the world immediately reported this incredible achievement and the Datsun name and Datsun’s toughness were catapulted into the limelight worldwide.
In 1960, Katayama started laying the foundations of Nissan North America, working from a base in Los Angeles. Getting dealerships to sign on was challenging but he persevered. Eventually the cars did the speaking for themselves.
This groundwork was rewarded in a big way in 1967 when the company introduced the Datsun Bluebird 510, a masterful car with a clean body powered by a newly designed SOHC engine and incorporating a four-wheel independent suspension. And then, when the 510-based Z-car (240 Z in the U.S.) was launched, the company’s U.S. dealers found themselves welcoming throngs of people scrambling to buy a Datsun.
What made the Z-car a winner was the relationship between driver and machine, a bond that Mr. K often pondered. “After all, horses have to be controlled by humans. The rider needs to bring out the horse’s best and compensate for its weaknesses. Cars are the same. They become good cars if drivers handle them well. As a result, a driver can experience a sense of jubilation beyond all reason, sort of like adding one and one to get not two but, say, five or 10, which is the joy of driving a car that a driver can only feel if he and the car become like one.”
“How can we transpose the relationship between man and horse into the one between man and car? Even after I was sent to Los Angeles in 1960 to establish Nissan Motor in the U.S., this question never really left me. Eventually I came up with the concept of the Z-car. It was a sports car with a sleek body with a long nose and a short deck, designed so that it could be built utilizing some of the parts and components that were already used in our other production cars, and it was a car that anybody could drive easily and that would give the driver that incredible feeling of jubilation that comes when car and driver are as one. Fortunately, it became a big hit, and we were soon turning out 4,000 units a month. Then we began to deploy dedicated production lines to keep up with demand. I personally think that our success reflected our ability to capture something of the relationship between man and horse and that the purity and simplicity of this concept touched the hearts and spirits of our customers.”
Mr. K retired in 1977, Mr. K was inducted into the American Automotive Hall of Fame and the Japan Automotive Hall of Fame for pioneering deeds on both sides of the Pacific.
In September 2014, Katayama granted a rare three-part interview with the Nissan Global Media Center in which we are including Part 1 so all can appreciate a man of great accomplishments who was greater man than his accomplishments.