Yutaka Katayama, the former president of what’s now Nissan Motor Co.’s U.S. branch, has died at the age of 105, the Associated Press reports. “Mr. K,” as he was known to company insiders and Datsun and Nissan fans, established the Z line of sports cars that guaranteed the racing and sales success of the company in the U.S.
Born in 1909 in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, Mr. K was hired by Nissan Motor Co. in 1935. His first job was in publicity and he later worked in advertising, creating novel lifestyle-based ad campaigns in an era when, as Nissan puts it, most car ads just “loudly repeated the car’s name over and over.” Mr. K is also credited with establishing the All-Japan Motor Show in 1954, an industry-wide car show that evolved into today’s Tokyo auto show.
But it was a motorsports victory that turned Mr. K’s career down the path toward the Z-car. In 1958, two Datsun 210s won their class in the grueling Mobilgas Around Australia Trial, a 10,000-mile rally across the unimproved roads of the Outback. Mr. K was the racing team manager, and the class victory spurred Nissan to begin global exports.
In 1960, the company sent Mr. K to Los Angeles, and he began building a U.S. dealer network from scratch. “In the beginning, Datsun dealers had no status or prestige, and they were not wealthy either,” Mr. K said. “During the difficult times, we all gritted our teeth and worked together and we made it through. For me, they are not just dealers but friends. I’m speaking like I’m a big man, but I owe everything to them.”
As Edmunds so eloquently explained on the occasion of Mr. K’s 100th birthday, Katayama’s dogged determination pushed Datsun to the forefront of foreign cars in the U.S. “Katayama built Datsun (as the Nissan franchise in America then was called) into a sales powerhouse, personally canvassing every town in America and turning used-car dealers and lawnmower repair shops into Datsun franchises. He made Datsun the most important Japanese brand in America, a signature of quality and innovation instead of cheap imitation.”
When Datsun introduced the 510 in 1967, Mr. K’s dealer network was ready. And with the company’s parts bin at his disposal, Mr. K set out to create Nissan’s most iconic vehicle: the 240Z. As Katayama himself recalls:
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 Motors 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.
Though many, many people were responsible for the design and engineering of the first generation 240Z, its success in North America can be attributed to Yutaka Katayama, who was president of Nissan’s U.S. operations at the time. Known affectionately as “Mr. K,” he was convinced that the company’s new sports car design would be a hit in the U.S. There was just one problem—the vehicle’s name: the Fairlady Z.
Mr. K re-christened the car as the 240Z for the U.S. market, and his wisdom paid off: The Z car was a wild success in motorsports and sales alike, establishing Datsun, and later Nissan, as a major brand with a strong enthusiast following.
Katayama retired from Nissan in 1977, but he remained a car guy right through to the end, earning a spot in the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1998. On his 100th birthday, Mr. K was still as feisty as ever, criticizing the Nissan 370Z as “so-so,” bemoaning its weight and price. “I’d like to have a sports car like the Miata,” Mr. K said in 2009. “The Miata is taking the place of the 240Z …. The fun of driving cars is the same as riding a horse. We need a car that is like riding on horseback. We are making robots. Robots don’t like human control.”
In Nissan’s own profile of the man, he raised similar concerns about the future of sports cars:
A sports car doesn’t have to be luxurious. It should be affordable so that anyone can own one, it should be easy to maintain, and it should be something that you can enjoy without having to spend too much money. To attach a price tag of $50,000 to a sports car just seems uncomfortable to me. You can get any price you want if you increase the number and level of features and equipment. But if you don’t add any extra equipment and features and you can still experience great exhilaration when driving, then that’s the best situation as far as I am concerned.
The beloved Mr. K turned 105 years old in September, attributing his health to the three liters of water he drank every day—though he also loved a good steak. Nissan produced a three-part documentary interview with the automotive legend to commemorate the occasion. It’s equal parts history lesson, business plan, and guide for enthusiastic living.