‘Father of the Z’: Yutaka Katayama, who made the US want to buy Japanese cars, dead at 105

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 February, 2015, 11:54am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 12:30pm


Yutaka Katayama, the pioneering auto executive who brought to Datsun brand to popularity in the US and in so doing paved the way for acceptance of other Japanese cars, has died at the age of 105.

Known as the “father of the Z”, Katayama won international respect for the Datsun Z as an affordable sports car at a time when Japan-made products were synonymous with slipshod quality.

Katayama, who retired from Nissan in 1977, died Thursday of heart failure at a Tokyo hospital, his son Mitsuo said on the weekend.

Carlos Ghosn, who has led a turnaround at the Japanese automaker under an alliance with Renault SA of France, resurrected Katayama’s legendary status at Nissan by bringing back the Z, which had been discontinued in 1996.

Inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in both the U.S. and Japan, Katayama is revered by Z fan clubs around the world, which nicknamed him “Mr. K.”

“A car is a horse. I want to drive a thoroughbred that’s in tune with my heartbeat, but not something that’s too dressed up for someone like me,” Katayama said in a 2002 interview about the Z’s comeback.

Yet Katayama’s influence went far beyond the realm of sports car enthusiasts. He is often credited as the individual most responsible for the acceptance of Japanese cars in the US.

When he was sent to the US in 1960 to join Datsun’s US operations, the position was widely considered to be a form of exile, with the brand selling only about 1,000 cars per year in the US at the time.

But Katayama embraced the challenge. He became Nissan’s top executive in the U.S. when the company combined its East Coast and West Coast operations in 1965.

A racing fan obsessed with build quality, he quickly established a motor sports team. “That made these cars visible, and it helped that they were (racing against) some of the best names, like BMW and Porsche,” Kelvin Hiraishi, director of research and development engineering at Mazda North American Operations in Irvine, said in a 2010 interview. “It also proved that these cars had durability, which was an image that the Japanese didn’t have.”

In selling the Datsun brand in the U.S., Katayama stressed maintenance services, and courted dealers and employees alike. His vivacious personality, unusual for a Japanese person of his generation, helped.

Nissan’s first sports car, the 1969 Fairlady, was named by the company’s president after he’d seen the musical “My Fair Lady”. When Katayama’s team got their hands on the vehicles, they “simply pried the name tag off the car and replaced it” with a nameplate based on the car’s name within the company: 240Z.

The sleek, $3,500 two-seater ushered in a generation of vehicles that redefined the sports-car market and led to Nissan’s embracing a “sporty” image.

But it was the reliable Datsun 510 that set the US market alight. The 510 was a small, durable four-door sedan that performed well and sold for a price - around $1,800 - within nearly everyone’s reach. Auto buffs compared the car favorably to the BMW 1600, a German-made sedan that sold for about $5,000. The 510 ignited a Datsun sales boom, especially in import-friendly markets such as California.

“With a love of cars and a flare for promotion, he built the Datsun brand, Nissan’s initial brand name in the U.S., from scratch,” Yokohama-based Nissan said of Katayama on its website last year.

Mitsuo Katayama mused that his father was happily zooming around in the Z in heaven, no longer worried about “gas, police or traffic tickets.”

“His greatest achievement, I think, was the fact that he was able to give many American Datsun dealers their own success story,” he said.

Katayama is survived by his wife, Masako, two sons and two daughters, 11 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. A family service is planned for tomorrow. A larger memorial will be announced later.

Additional reporting by McClatchy-Tribune