2009 Nissan 370Z Touring: Where Have You Gone, Yutaka Katayama?
April 16, 2009
Here he is, and you'll find him in every Z-car.
Yutaka Katayama is the reason the Z-car exists. It was his idea and he made it happen. Nissan started the whole sports car thing from Japan in the mid-1960s, and the 1970 Datsun 240Z put both Nissan and the Japanese car industry on the map. Since then, other Japanese car companies have entered the sports car business, but soon or later, they all quit. Acura, Honda, Isuzu, Toyota -- they all quit. Even Nissan tried to quit. But the spirit of Yutaka Katayama always reminds Nissan that it's mean to be more than just another car company from Japan, and then the Z-car bubbles up to the surface again.
And now the spirit of the Z-car could save Nissan and the car industry again.
Fifty years ago, there were two strong personalities at Nissan, a sales guy and an advertising guy. Katayama was the advertising guy, a brilliant yet sensitive guy who liked British sports cars and occasionally pursued the traditional Japanese cultural pursuits of flying kites, painting landscapes, and, you know, talking to trees. Needless to say, the sales guy soon had him exiled to America, where he hoped his rival would disappear from view.
Instead Katayama built Datsun (as the Nissan franchise in America then was called) into a sales powerhouse, personally canvassing every town in America and turning used-car dealers and lawnmower repair shops into Datsun franchises. He made Datsun the most important Japanese brand in America, a signature of quality and innovation instead of cheap imitation. For his trouble, the sales guy chased him out of the U.S. company by the late 1970s and put his people in charge. Datsun quickly lost its lead in the sales race to Toyota and became a follower, not a leader.
But as times grew tough for Nissan, the spirit of Mr. K always brought it back from the brink. The 1990 300ZX Z32 was the lead vehicle in a new corporate initiative in vehicle dynamics, a real GT car instead of the Thunderbird clone that the previous generation Z-car had become. When poor sales of sports cars thoughout the car industry led to the Z-car's demise in the U.S. in 1996, a Z-car concept came to the surface again in 1999. And when the 350Z was revived in 2002, it symbolized the Nissan's resurgence with new financial backing from Renault.
And every time, Yutaka Katayama was called out of retirement and asked to provide his blessing. He even became the focus of a notable advertising campaign from which these pictures are taken.
The Z is still the coolest car at Nissan, GT-R notwithstanding. In fact, the new GT-R actually started as a Z-car made serious, a kind of Porsche 911 GT3, until the present, all-wheel-drive big car prevailed in planning sessions. Everyone at Nissan still wants to work on the Z-car project simply because it's always been a car that aspires to greatness.
Unfortunately Mr. K, who turned 100(!) on February 19, isn't really part of the process any longer. Incensed that Nissan uprooted itself from the headquarters he built in Los Angeles for a new corporate culture in Nashville, he's once again in a kind of exile. But as Nissan fumbles once again for a new identity in America, it's clear that it needs him back simply to remind itself that there's more to making cars than slashing costs, playing three-card-monte with a fistful of car badges and one or two platforms, and hunkering down in the bunker with the accountants while the war for the future of the automobile takes place all around you.
In fact, the whole American car industry could stand a little Mr. K. A little aspiration, a little sense of striving for excellence, and a little feel for the emotion with which Americans regard the automobile would go a long way toward making us all face the four-wheel future with more confidence.
Mr. K knew from the start that that the automobile has the power to transform the future. He saw it happen in Japan as he grew with his country through the 20th Century (he is 100 years old, after all). And anyone who has ever heard him speak knows that Yutaka Katayama understands that the automobile is a gift of personal mobility that can make our lives better, not worse. So maybe we should quit apologizing for the car and just get on with the business of making the future.
Where have you gone, Yutaka Katayama?
A lonely nation turns its eyes to you.
Michael Jordan, Executive Editor @ 5001 miles