Yutaka Katayama, beloved former Nissan executive and noted sports car enthusiast, passed away Thursday at the age of 105. Known as “Mr K” and respected and adored by legions of Nissan owners, Katayama was responsible for many of the early successes of Nissan, as well as some of the pivotal events in the Japanese auto industry at large, but above all he was one of us, a car enthusiast.
Katayama was born September 15, 1909 as Yutaka Asoh, in Tamura, Shizuoka Prefecture (now called Haruno). In his early teens, he served as assistant on a high-speed merchant vessel transporting silk to Seattle, and set foot on US soil for the first time in the late 1920s. During his brief stay, Katayama became enamored with the America and its relative abundance of automobiles compared to Japan at the time.
Upon returning to Japan, he enrolled in Keio University, determined to become an automotive engineer. Upon graduation, he went to work for Nissan Motor in 1935, in the marketing and advertising department. Katayama saw the automobile as not just a tool, but as a centerpiece for a lifestyle built around motoring and marketed early Datsun cars with beautiful illustrations depicting his vision. Katayama truly believed this philosophy, and lived up to it too when he married his wife Masako Katayama in 1937 and bought a Datsun Type 15 Roadster to take on their honeymoon around the around Mt Fuji’s famous Lake Kawaguchiko resorts. Incidentally, the K by which his fans know him was derived from the surname he took from his wife.
Katayama’s efforts at Nissan weren’t always met with enthusiasm from his superiors. He was passionate about lightweight sports cars and getting them into the hands of average Japanese citizens. He developed the Flying Feather, an early attempt at a lightweight People’s Car, pushed Nissan to develop its first sports model in the 1952 Datsun DC-3 (pictured above) roadster, and founded the Sports Car Club of Japan. Katayama was also instrumental in holding the first All-Japan Motor Show in 1954, known today as the Tokyo Motor Show.
One of his biggest successes was convincing Nissan to enter its first international motorsports competition. Against the wishes of some within the Nissan organization, Katayama sent two Datsun 210 sedans to the 1958 Mobilgas Trial, a backbreaking 19-day, 10,000-mile lap around the unpaved wilds of Australia. Only 36 of the 67 cars finished at all, but the Datsuns came in first and fourth in their class. After being brought back to Japan, they were placed on a whirlwind tour of the country and generated much enthusiasm for the Nissan brand. Katayama’s notion of motorsports success as an effective marketing tool was proven correct, but his higher ranking opponents still saw him as an outlaw.
In 1960, Katayama was assigned to the US to head Nissan’s west coast operations. It was the perfect compromise. They’d get rid of him in Tokyo, but send him to do what he did best in the most important auto market at the time. Reunited with a land that he loved, he was finally able to achieve his ideals. From his base in Los Angeles, Katayama fostered a devoted enthusiast following for Nissan’s Datsun-branded cars. He nurtured young race teams and gave them Nissan’s full support in racing cars like the Datsun roadster, 510 and more. It was these early motorsports successes in the US that helped build an dedicated American following for the Nissan/Datsun brand.
Most of all, however, Katayama identified the need for a powerful 2-seater sports car in the US and was instrumental in bringing the Datsun 240Z to market. The Z-car changed the automotive landscape and, along with its successors, became the best-selling sports car of all time. For his efforts, he was bestowed by his fans with the unofficial title, “Father of the Z Car.”
Mr K was so influential in Nissan USA’s success that in 1997 he even became a beloved mascot in Nissan’s advertising (though played by an actor). Katayama was eventually inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan in 1998 for his influence in the automotive industry. It wasn’t until 10 years later, in 2008, that he was inducted into the Japan Automotive Hall of Fame.
Above all, however, Katayama connected on a personal level with millions of Nissan fans around the globe. Even long after retiring from Nissan in 1977, Katayama stayed close to the brand and always encouraged a love for cars. He routinely traveled to Nissan shows, signing autographs, meeting enthusiasts, and chatting with them about their cars. To sum up his life’s philosophy, Katayama’s autograph was always accompanied with the words “Love Cars! Love People! Love Life!”
Katayama-san is survived by his wife, four children, 11 grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren.