Sunday, March 8, 2015

A00384 - Yutaka Katayama, Father of the Datsun "Z"

Yutaka Katayama speaks during an interview at his office in Tokyo in this July 2002 photo.CreditTsugufumi Matsumoto/Associated Press
To judge from the public frenzy it aroused, the “Z” might well have stood for “Zowie!”
The 240Z, a sleek two-door sports car that made its United States debut in 1969, unleashed an acquisitive tempest. In the process, it proved that a Japanese automaker — Nissan, or Datsun, as the brand was then known here — could succeed in this country.
Yutaka Katayama, a retired Nissan executive who died on Feb. 19 at 105, was widely considered the father of the Z. By dint of promoting it here, he was credited with almost single-handedly establishing Nissan’s secure foothold in the United States.
With the Z, “Datsun would change the auto industry’s perception of Japanese cars,” The New York Times wrote in 2008.
An ebullient, adventurous man familiarly known as Mr. K., Mr. Katayama was the first president of Nissan Motor Corporation U.S.A. He arrived here in 1960, a time when the label “Made in Japan” on any consumer product was associated in the American mind with slipshod construction.
The 1971 Datsun 240Z, which helped Nissan build a nationwide network of dealers in the United States. CreditNissan Motor Co.
By the time he retired in 1977, Mr. Katayama had built a nationwide network of dealers and promoted two highly successful models: the Datsun 510 sedan, first marketed here in 1967, followed by the dazzling Z.
His work is chronicled in “The Reckoning,” David Halberstam’s 1986 book about the auto industry.
The son of a well-to-do businessman, Mr. Katayama was born Yutaka Asoh in the Shizuoka Prefecture, on Japan’s south coast, on Sept. 15, 1909. (On his marriage in the 1930s to Masako Katayama, whose family had no sons, he took her surname.) In 1935, after graduating from Keio University, the young Mr. Katayama joined Nissan, working in its advertising and publicity departments.
In a time and place when corporate culture mandated conformity, Mr. Katayama’s maverick approach to business often antagonized his superiors. In 1960, seeking to punish him, Nissan executives transferred him to the worst Siberia they knew: Southern California.
Placed in charge of Nissan’s Western United States operations, Mr. Katayama had the onus of building the Datsun brand there, and, as he later made clear in interviews, the company fully expected him to fail. Datsun was then selling about 1,000 vehicles a year in the entire country.
Running his office from an old Mobil Oil building in downtown Los Angeles, and given an advertising budget of $1,000, Mr. Katayama began courting prospective dealers. “Everyone in this room will become a millionaire one day,” he would tell them, and indeed, many did.
For Mr. Katayama, California culture proved companionable. He adored driving — fast — and before long, Halberstam reported, “it was said of Katayama that he had more speeding tickets than anyone else in town.” In the mid-1960s, after Nissan merged its East and West Coast offices, he was put in charge of operations for the United States as a whole.
Mr. Katayama’s first great success came with the Datsun 510, a small, fleet sedan that, at about $1,800, was seen as a less expensive alternative to the BMW 1600. Then came the Z, that soon-to-be-ubiquitous object of desire designed by Yoshihiko Matsuo.
A two-seater, the 1970 Datsun 240Z went on sale in the United States in the fall of 1969. Consumers rhapsodized over its elegant lines, lightness, agility and $3,500 price tag — roughly $22,000 today. Datsun was soon turning out 4,000 Zs a month, a volume routinely outstripped by the demand.
“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,” Mr. Katayama said in a company oral history.
Later Z-series models included the 260 and 280. The company retired the line in the United States toward the end of the 20th century but later revived it; the 2015 model, the Nissan 370Z, sells for about $30,000 to $50,000.
After leaving Nissan, Mr. Katayama returned to Japan, where he drove contentedly until nearly the end of his life. His death, in a Tokyo hospital, was confirmed by his family to The Associated Press.
Mr. Katayama’s survivors include his wife; two sons; two daughters; 11 grandchildren; and 18 great-grandchildren.
Perhaps the greatest boost Mr. Katayama gave the 240Z was its very name, which Nissan had intended only as a working model number. In the late 1960s, when the car was first introduced in Japan, a Nissan executive, enamored of a certain Lerner and Loewe musical, named it the Fairlady Z.
When the first shipment of Fairlady Zs arrived in the United States, Mr. Katayama, judging the sobriquet horrifyingly effete for the American market, stripped the nameplate off each car with his own hands.

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