Yutaka Katayama has witnessed Japan’s automobile industry grow from the ashes of devastation in World War II to become the best in the world by the end of the 20th century.
The 92-year-old Katayama, who served as president of Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A. between 1965 and 1975, retired 24 years ago, but he is still a charismatic figure among the thousands of fans of the legendary Z car. He is frequently referred to as the father of the original Datsun 240Z, which first appeared on the U.S. market in 1970.
This year, the automaker appointed Katayama an honorary member of its subsidiary, Nissan Motorsports International (NISMO), following its announcement of the launch of a new Z car next year.
“I’ve dished out lots of advice (to the design team of the new Z.) But I’m doing so as a customer representative,” Katayama said during a recent interview at NISMO headquarters in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward.
He was responsible for the creation and promotion of the low-priced sports car in the U.S. The Z car, sold as the Fairlady Z in Japan, set a world record for sales for a sports car, selling over 1 million units until production was halted in 1996.
Sitting in his office surrounded by Z car goods — most of which are collectors’ items — Katayama reflected upon the development of Japan’s auto industry.
“The speed of innovation immediately after the war was so fast. Gears were improving every month and it was such an exciting time for automakers,” said Katayama, adding that Japanese engineers worked hard and absorbed knowhow from Western auto manufacturers.
But when Katayama was first assigned to work in the U.S. in 1960, Japanese carmakers were dependent on trading houses to sell their cars in the U.S. market and sales were sluggish.
“Cars are different from other products that trading houses deal with, such as beef and books,” he said. “Providing aftercare and spare parts were essential elements of selling cars, but trading firms were not interested in investing in those areas.”
So, with the approval of Nissan headquarters in Tokyo, he created a U.S. subsidiary responsible for U.S. operations and established the firm’s own Datsun-brand sales network.
“I felt the huge wall of the ‘Big Three’ (U.S.) automakers,” he said, adding that he headhunted a sales manager from Renault SA, who later helped Nissan increase its sales. “Counting those days and now (with Renault’s injection of capital into the Japanese carmaker), Nissan has been saved twice by Renault.”
As Datsun’s sales gradually improved, Katayama proposed the creation of a sports car that young people could afford.
He worked with designers to launch the Datsun 240Z in the U.S. for $3,600, just one-third of the price of other imported sports cars.
“By that time, the ‘cheap but poor-quality’ image that had haunted Japanese cars was gone. Products by firms like Sony Corp., Canon Inc. and Nikon Corp. boosted the overall brand image of Japanese products” in the U.S., he said.
But the good times did not last. Nissan decided to cashier the well known Datsun brand and replace it with Nissan badges. After that, Nissan’s sales in the U.S. gradually fell.
“The president at the time probably wanted to present the Nissan brand on a global scale,” he said. “But because Nissan neglected the value of branding, it probably lost millions of dollars.”
After retirement, however, Katayama continued to believe that the legendary Z would help revive the sagging Nissan, and repeatedly asked the firm to relaunch the car. His dream will finally come true under current President Carlos Ghosn.
“When I asked Mr. Ghosn, he immediately said ‘OK.’ He knew all about the Z because he himself used to drive one,” Katayama said.
For his efforts to promote Japanese cars in the U.S., in 1998 Katayama became the fourth Japanese to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Michigan, which lists accomplished individuals in the worldwide motor vehicle industry.
In spite of all that he has done over the decades, Katayama remains extremely energetic. “I still have lots of dreams. Otherwise, I’d be sleeping by the electric ‘kotatsu’ heater at home.”