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.
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.