K for King

Mr K turned 100 this month. On September 15, Yutaka Katayama reached this landmark age. When Rohin and I were researching while he was writing his driving impression of the new Nissan 370Z early this year, we were assuming the legend would have gone up to the Great Big Garage up there. But no: Mr K is very much alive and kicking. And how! The 100th birthday passed many people by, including me. But Automotive News put up a piece on him, which was followed up by Autoblog (https://www.autoblog.com/2009/09/21/report-nissans-fiesty-mr-k-calls-out-the-370z/)


Still haven’t figured who Mr K is? Very bad. He is the father of the Z, but that description hardly does justice to this legendary automotive personality. For those who came in late, I have reproduced here an article which I wrote about Mr K, which appeared in the October 2003 (six years back!) issue of BSM. Here it is...

A revolutionary TV commercial broke in the US in 1967. It showed a lady putting a car through its paces on a curvy, rain-swept Californian sea-side road. The background music was a classical score. No voiceover, no titles, no nothing. Just the lady, the car and the road. The spot ended with the name Datsun on the screen. The starkness of the TVC contrasted dramatically with others of that muscle car era, and what's worse, it made conservative, strait-jacketed Nissan executives back in Japan bust a vein or two. How could anyone get away with an ad like this?

One person could. Yutaka Katayama, the president of Nissan America. The car was the 510 sports sedan, mildly influenced by the BMW 1600, but beating the Beemer in its own game, be it in looks, performance or cost. And it ran rings around the competition on the tracks as well. The 510 changed the perception in America that Japanese cars were made of empty beer cans or were boring. The creation of this benchmark Japanese car, the consequent ripples it caused and establishing the Datsun/Nissan brand was Katayama's handiwork. But Mr K, as he was famously known, would create history yet again.

Getting a car built like the 510 was itself quite a task. Mr K would have to use every trick in the book to make the Nissan HQ get it into production, and more importantly, to make them understand that the American market needed different, better cars. Katayama pounded the pavements himself, made sales calls, convinced people to buy Datsuns, made friends with employees, dealers and sales people – in short, he did radical things like these, unusual for other Japanese businessmen. And he understood America like no other Japanese car executive.

But Katayama, a Japanese Catholic and with a penchant for picking up speeding fines, was always a maverick. After joining the company in its advertising department, Katayama put forth the idea that Nissan should take part in motorsport. With some strong persuasion, he got permission to enter the Australia Mobil Gas Trial in 1958. It was a 10,000 mile endurance rally spread over 19 days, and he was the team manager. Against all odds, Nissan was placed first and fourth, and Katayama returned home a hero.

He convinced the management that America was where the sales action was, and got them to set up Nissan Motor Corporation USA in 1960. By then, he had introduced a new category of vehicle in the US – a compact pick-up truck – and met with immense success. "I called the original truck my 'square-backed sports car' because it was enjoyable and it performed its assigned role very well," he's supposed to have said. "A car doesn't have to be a sports car, or even a car at all, to be a pleasure to drive and own." Many models later – and after being elevated as the president of the US arm – came the path-breaking 510. Not enough for the ambitious Mr K.

By 1969, he was pushing headquarters again to introduce a sports car. He had seen many British sports cars stagnating in the US market because of their high price and lousy after-sales service; he knew there was immense potential for an affordable and reliable sports car. The company deigned to give him the car he wanted – it was penned by Count Albrecht von Goertz and productionised by Nissan designers. When the cars landed in the American shores, they still carried the Japanese badge, Fairlady Z. Katayama himself went and prised out each one, and put in its place a new badge – 240Z.

The car was a marvel. Powered by a 150 bhp 2400 CC inline six, looking every inch a thoroughbred and priced at an extremely affordable $3,500, the gorgeous 240Z was introduced to the American market in 1970. It was such a roaring success that there was a long waiting list, long enough for used 240Zs to be sold at a higher premium than a new one! It was raced as well, burning track records and the sales charts at the same time. A cult was born, but fate had other plans for the 'Father of the Z'.

Mr K was getting too big for his boots now. He was too visible, too extreme for the conservative, bureaucratic company. Nissan ejected him out of his post and got him back to Japan in 1975. Instead of making him a board member – which he undoubtedly deserved – Nissan, with a gold watch and a thank-you-very-much, farmed him out to a company-owned advertising agency. In 1977, Mr K put in his papers, coinciding with the end of one of the most successful chapter in the life of the manufacturer. His presence was missed back in the US, made all the more obvious with lacklustre and sedate Nissan sedans populating the place. Even <I>Car and Driver<I> published an article 'Where have you gone, Yutaka Katayama?', bemoaning his absence in America.

Was that the end of the story? No, in fact, it has a happy ending. Mr K, in 1995, had for the first time after severing his ties with Nissan, met the then company president to persuade him to bring in a new Z, but it was of no avail. The US still missed him, and on October 13, 1998, he was honoured by being inducted to the Automotive Hall of Fame, at Dearborn near Detroit. One of the few Japanese to be inducted there, Katayama shares the honour along with all-time greats like Henry Ford, Lee Iacocca, Soichiro Honda and Eiji Toyoda among others.

In the meantime, Nissan was steadily heading towards bankruptcy, finally being taken over by Renault in 1999. Sitting at the helm is Carlos 'Le Cost Killer' Ghosn, who has turned around the automaker. After almost a decade, Nissan is reporting profits.

Six months after Ghosn had taken over, the indefatigable, 89-year old Mr K went to meet him, with two requests. The first, bring back the Datsun brand, to which Ghosn said his priority was Nissan for the moment. Mr K's second request was that Nissan develop a new Z to invigorate sales. These are his own words, from an excellent interview to Businessweek magazine in July last year: "When I broached the subject of the Z, his face lit up, and his eyes shone brightly. He told me, 'Yes, we'll do it.' Well, I couldn't have been happier with his response." What perhaps Mr K didn't know was that Ghosn himself used to drive around in a 300ZX while he was posted in the US and loved the car! In the same interview, Mr K said something very fundamental: "A sports car should drive like a motorcycle. You've got to strip it down to the basics. For me, it'd be better if cars weren't so safe. Most cars on the road today drive like cocoons on wheels."

It's been just a year since Nissan launched the 350Z, and by all means, it has been incredibly successful, and also is helping Nissan re-acquire a sporty, exciting image. At 92, Katayama is still around and has been warmly welcomed back into the Nissan fold. He used to appear at all the 350Z launch promotions and still advises Nissan's motorsport division. This is what he told the press during the 350Z launch: "A car is a horse. I want to drive a thoroughbred that's in tune with my heartbeat, but not something that's too dressed up for someone like me." So typical of this living legend.