Nissan exec dies at 105

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Yutaka Katayama, the auto marketing guru who spearheaded Nissan’s launch into the U.S. car market and the individual credited by many for the rapid acceptance of Japanese autos by American consumers, has died. He was 105.

Katayama, called “Mr. K” by legions of Nissan enthusiasts, died Thursday at a Tokyo hospital of heart failure, his family announced in Japan.

Born Sept. 15, 1909, in Tokyo to Seishi Asoh and Satoko Katayama, the auto executive joined Nissan Motor Co. in 1935 after graduating from Keio University. He worked in a variety of marketing jobs before being exiled by senior management in 1960 to what looked like a dead-end job in the U.S. because he opposed a company-backed union.

Although the transfer was an obvious demotion, Katayama reveled in it, according to author David Halberstam, who chronicled Katayama’s story in “The Reckoning,” his 1986 book on the auto industry. At the time Nissan sold barely 1,000 vehicles a year in the U.S., under the Datsun brand name, through independent distributors. Katayama, known as a savvy marketer and enthusiastic gearhead, turned the company into a household name.

“The efforts made by Mr. Katayama during that early time period had a huge effect on the Japanese auto industry in America,” Kelvin Hiraishi, director of research and development engineering at Mazda North American Operations in Irvine, said in a 2010 interview. “The products weren’t that good, and there was a lot of Japan-bashing going on.”

Katayama took charge of Nissan’s sales efforts for the Western U.S., starting with an ad budget of just $1,000, one engineer and an office clerk, according to Halberstam. He worked long hours, sometimes delivering cars personally to Datsun dealers.

Most new car dealers didn’t want to take a chance on an unknown import brand of questionable quality. Japanese Americans, whom he thought would be a natural constituency, preferred American-built cars, which they viewed as signaling their pride in being U.S. citizens, he said. Pickup trucks sold best because they were cheap and practical-a good third vehicle for many households.

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, 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,” Hiraishi said. “It also proved that these cars had durability, which was an image that the Japanese didn’t have.”

Recognizing that racing enthusiasts would want to modify the standard Datsun models, Katayama also established a well-stocked competition parts department, Hiraishi said.

Still, Katayama was unimpressed with the early cars he was selling. He constantly nagged Nissan for bigger engines, better finish, improved brakes – just about anything that would bring the vehicles to the level of the U.S. market. And he was among the first Japanese auto executives to understand that the cars had to be customized for the American driver.

“That was his strength,” Hiraishi said. “He would go back and tell Nissan that it had to produce vehicles that Americans wanted rather than just taking what headquarters wanted to send over.”

U.S. consumers would not run out and purchase cars with strange, passive names such as Bluebird and Fairlady when they were also eyeing vehicles with monikers such as Thunderbird or Impala that conjured images of speed and strength.

Nissan’s first sports car, the 1969 Fairlady, was named by the company’s president after he’d seen the musical “My Fair Lady,” according to Halberstam. 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.

Katayama’s years of badgering and pleading paid off in 1968, when the new Datsun 510 models arrived at the Port of Los Angeles. 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.

While the quality of the Datsuns that were shipped to American dealers improved significantly, Katayama remained a maverick in the company’s consensus-oriented culture. He even liked to wear cowboy hats, and was known to sing country and western tunes on the way to company events.

Katayama retired in 1977 but his passion for Nissan remained alive.

For decades, he was rankled by the company’s 1981 decision to rebrand Datsuns as Nissans. At 96, he was certain that his old company had made a wrong turn in deciding to move its U.S. headquarters from a Gardena office tower to Franklin, Tenn., near one of its factories.

The relocation would damage Nissan’s “sensitivity to the (U.S.) car business”, he told the Times, removing key people from an area “considered to be the birthplace of automobile culture.”

In his retirement, Katayama and his wife Masako, whom he married in 1937, moved back to Tokyo. They had four children, 11 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.

At 100, Katayama still did some sporadic consulting for Nissan and still drove a Z. He was known for ending emails with the mantra, “Love Cars! Love People! Love Life!”