Father of Datsun 240Z dies at age 105

Yutaka Katayama's legend was popularized in the 'Mr. K' series of commercials | Nissan photos
Yutaka Katayama’s legend was popularized in the ‘Mr. K’ series of commercials | Nissan photos

Yutaka Katayama, beloved as the father of the Datsun 240Z and portrayed as “Mr. K” in a series of television commercials, has died at the age of 105.

It was Katayama, the first president of Nissan Motor Corporation U.S.A., who refused to allow the new sports car to be marketed in the United States as the “Fair Lady,” a name that even the car’s outstanding performance might never have overcome as the first sporty Japanese car to compete in the American marketplace against the likes of Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro.

Katayama had wanted to become an engineer but said his life was much more enjoyable because he didn’t stick to such studies when he went to college. After his graduation, Katayama joined the new car company being started by a relative, Yoshisuki Aikawa.

At first, Katayama worked in the sales department, but he soon switched to advertising and public relations, pushing Nissan to promote its cars, which were being sold under the Datsun brand name – derived from DAT-son, or son of DAT, because it was a successor to the DAT automaker but was primarily producing smaller cars.

Not only did Katayama want his own company to promote its cars and pioneered the use of color photography and film in that effort, he thought all Japanese automakers should work together on such promotions. His effort eventually led to the launch of the Tokyo Motor Show in 1954. That show eventually would take its place alongside similar events in Detroit, Paris, Frankfurt and Geneva as one of the most important in the world.

Yutaka Katayama
Yutaka Katayama

When Nissan was ready to export its cars, Katayama was put in charge of a team of two Datsun 210s that were entered in the 1958 Mobilgas Trail, a 19-day, 10,000-mile drive on unpaved roads around the circumference of the Australian continent. One of the unheralded Datsun’s finished first in its class. Coverage of the rally and its results helped Nissan become well-known outside Japan.

He was sent to Southern California to do market research and quickly became convinced that instead of selling its cars through various importers, as was generally the case with overseas automakers entering the U.S. market, Nissan should establish its own sales company. In 1960, he became president of Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A. and built its dealer network.

When Nissan was ready to export its 510 model in 1968, Katayama convinced the company to increase engine displacement so the car could satisfy American drivers. He also led the effort to develop the 240Z, a car Nissan wanted to name the Fair Lady as used on the company’s previous roadster, and a name popular in Asia and elsewhere because of the success of the My Fair Lady musical. But Katayama knew that Fair Lady would not appeal to American sports car buyers.

“Yutaka Katayama (Mr. ‘K’) was a passionate ambassador for the Datsun and Nissan brands,” Nissan said in a statement. “His more than 80 years in the car business included an induction into both the American and Japanese Automotive Hall of Fames. He was a pioneer on both sides of the Pacific, and we are grateful for his service to Nissan and his passion for our brands.”

Katayama retired in 1977 but was a frequent participant in Z-car enthusiast events and continued to promote the enjoyment of driving.

One thought on “Father of Datsun 240Z dies at age 105”

  1. We asked Peter Brock (of Shelby American and BRE fame) for his thoughts on Mr. Katayama’s passing:

    Thanks for allowing me some words of remembrance about Mr. Katayama.

    He was, first of all, a fine, kind human being with a sensitive regard for all those around him. Hardly the type of personality you’d expect from a powerful executive.

    His understanding of the American market was both incredibly accurate and at the same time naïve. Without his vision we’d never of had the 240Z or the 510 Datsun sedan, both have become icons of Japanese automotive design.

    I don’t think he ever expected either of those cars to be racing champions capable of defeating Europe’s best. He saw both as having tremendous appeal to the general public but didn’t realize what their potential was on the race track. In fact the 240Z was engineered in Japan with a special low-cost power unit for the American market that had little potential as a racing engine. The car’s Japanese engineers were quite Eurocentric and introduced it in Japan to comply with the FIA rules, which had little to do with American competition.

    The Japanese/Euro version was equipped a hot 2-liter twin-cam that was never intended for sale in the US. When we first got the car we found the L-24 (2.4 liter) engine totally unsuited for competition as it had been built for the American market with an un-counter-weighted crankshaft. It vibrated so badly it shook itself apart if turned beyond 5500 rpm.

    Instead of ignoring our reports on its shortcomings, Katayama listened and let it be known that new crankshafts were needed. He had no understanding of the complexities of third-harmonic vibrations, but knew that someone in Japan would and had the changes made which allowed us to make a pretty formidable racing engine. Our success on-track created a great sporting image for the car… so great that there was soon a three month waiting list for the car!

    At that point I went to Mr. K. and told him that it was senseless to continue support for racing the Z-car as demand had outstripped production (understand that it was NOT an accepted business practice for a race team manager to tell the head of a giant manufacturing concern like Nissan/Datsun how to market their cars! I later learned that those execs in his advertising and marketing positions were not too pleased!)

    I explained to K that we should concentrate on racing the 510. He was perplexed as he never envisioned his econobox as a racing car, but he took my advice and shifted our racing budget to the 510 as requested.

    At this time Datsun was about 7th in American import sales. Our on-track success with the 510, over Alfa-Romeo and BMW, totally transformed Datsun’s image in America as a “cheap Japanese import” into a quality-built product that had all the performance capabilities of Europe’s finest. The two 2.5 Trans Am titles won by BRE and Datsun revolutionized the image of all Japanese imports. Datsun went from 7th to No. 1 in import sales in America!

    Mr. K was such a gentleman. Always gracious an appreciative of our efforts. Even when it was apparent at the final race of the season that Alfa-Romeo had beaten us at Laguna Seca and won the Trans Am title, he still made it a point to come over and thank me profusely for such a fine year’s effort in Datsun’s behalf.

    I knew at that moment that the Alfa team had cheated and we would ultimately win the title, but couldn’t explain the complexities of the protest process to him and that I believed we had won. Even though we had “lost” the race and Datsun had “lost face” (which in Japanese culture reflected directly upon him), he was still kind and gracious.

    He left the track believing we had lost. Any other automotive exec would have taken the loss as a personal affront and blamed the team. It wasn’t until the next day that he learned that the protest had proven the Alfa was illegal and we had actually won the championship. His confidence in us was as great as his friendship. He was a remarkable and wonderful person and we’ll miss him.
     
    — Peter Brock

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