Wednesday, October 3, 2012

1935 car exec's opinion still rings true

Datsun comeback may not work, 103-year-old says

By John L. Guerra

How's this for an idea? How about building an American car that costs customers only $3,000?
It seems to me this would help the economy as well as introduce a fuel-efficient vehicle that would reduce the nation's consumption. An inexpensive car would by definition not have a large engine and thus would burn less fuel.
Not only that, but people on low incomes could afford it, thus giving them some way to search a wider area for better-paying jobs.
I believe introducing such a "people's car" (apologies to Volkswagen) would be a great success, making Ford or Chevrolet, or GM--whichever company does it, lots of money. The best reason, however, is that I might even be able to afford it.
It's Datsun, however, that has decided to build that car. Actually, Nissan is the actual name of the company, but to break into the American market in 1968, it used the moniker Datsun so if it failed, Nissan would not be shamed by failure. After a successful run with its B210, 240Z, and other models, Nissan decided to kill the Datsun brand in America and sell vehicles under the Nissan name.
Datsun's 510 sedan, introduced in America in 1968, was a favorite for American youth, according to The Wall Street Journal. Now Nissan wants to introduce a package of perhaps six inexpensive Datsun's to third-world countries by 2014. If the United States continues on its present path, we will be a developing country and we will be able to buy it.

Old advice the best advice
The Japanese executive who introduced Datsuns in the United States in the 1960s, including the wildly popular 240Z sportscar in the 1970s, says building such a cheap car is a bad idea. What's not unique is the executive's opinion, but that he's giving one at all.
This executive is himself a great story. He's the automotive industry equivalent of personal computing's Bill Gates. Yutaka "Mr. K" Katayama, a former Nissan executive who saw the first mass-produced Datsun roll off the line as a new hire in the spring of 1935, said this week the car won't sell if it's cheaply built as well as inexpensive.
Wait a minute ... did you catch that? A man who was a 26-year-old Nissan automobile executive in 1935 had an opinion this week? When was the last time you heard from someone who was a successful businessman 77 years ago give advice on his industry? Six years before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Mr. K was in charge of Datsun products at Nissan; three years before Germany invaded Poland he was in charge of an automotive line. Yet this man, who introduced Datsuns to the world in 1935, is still alive at the age of 103 and was ready to respond to a question when a reporter telephoned him this week.

Yahoo News quoted Mr. K Wednesday:
"When the Datsun name disappeared, I was very sad—it is good to hear its coming back," the 103-year-old Mr. Katayama said, sitting in an office in a residential neighborhood of Tokyo, surrounded by a lifetime of automotive memorabilia, including a U.S. Route 101 sign. "But it'll be a shame if they're cheap cars. I had really hoped they'd make a more polished car," he said.
Born Yutaka Asoh on Sept. 15, 1909, Mr K, was the first president of Nissan Motor Corporation U.S.A. He is considered the father of the Datsun 240Z and other Z cars. He first saw the U.S. in mid-1929, when he spent four months as a 20-year-old checking out the Pacific Northwest while the ship he'd been working on as a crew member was being repaired in Seattle.
According to Hemmings Automotive News, during Japan's military expansion in Manchuria and the rest of the Pacific in 1939, Mr. K was ordered to report to a Nissan plant in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, but managed to obtain a transfer back to Japan in 1941--when he was 32. Near the end of the war in 1945, he refused orders to return to Manchukuo; Katayama later credited his survival of the war to this decision. According to Hemmings, his wealthy father, a successful businessman, had several automobiles prior to World War II, and young Katayama grew up around classic cars. Following the war, when so many Japanese were searching for food and shelter, Katayama became obsessed with finding a classic car to drive.

In the early 1960s, Mr. K--at that time more than 50 years old--researched the car market in the U.S. and decided the Datsun 510 would succeed in America. It featured a more powerful 1,600cc engine that he'd been requesting for years. When the first one came off the ship in California, Mr. K drove it out of the parking facility himself. The 510 gave American customers something they'd never had before: an inexpensive, stout, durable car that was also sporty and not unappealing to the eye. It was a smash hit and the fulfillment of Mr. K's vision.
Understanding America's culture paid off for Mr. K when Nissan sent a car to the United States called "Fair Lady." Katayama refused to let the care be marketed under that name In fact, he pried the badges off the car--those are the metal nameplates on car bodies that describe the car's name--and replaced the name plates with badges carrying the car's internal name: 240Z.
Mr. K was voted into the Japanese and American Automotive Halls of Fame and remains a cult hero to Z owners.
The best thing about it is that he's stuck around to enjoy every minute of it.

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