Yoshihiko Matsuo, the man who spearheaded the design of one of the most influential sports cars of all time, has died. Matsuo led the Nissan design team that penned the S30 Fairlady Z, known as the Datsun 240Z in the western hemisphere, a car that not only revolutionized the concept of what a sports car could be, but made it accessible to the masses. Matsuo passed away on July 11 and, as is the custom in Japan, the family made public the news a few days later.
Yoshihiko Matsuo was born in Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture in on July 10, 1933. Reportedly, he began sketching cars in early childhood at a time when there were relatively few automobiles in Japan. While a high school student, he came up with an initial concept for a small three-wheeled truck working at Osaka Textile Industry Co., a division of Daihatsu. Soon after, while attending college at Nihon University College of Art, he used that experience to help design the Daihatsu Midget, the company’s first major automotive hit.
After graduation, Matsuo landed a job at Nissan, where he was put in charge of designing the Datsun Baby. He was then assigned to the Bluebird 410 team, tasked to fix the sedan’s poor sales. His passion for performance models helped convince his bosses to produce the 411 Bluebird SSS, Nissan’s first real sports sedan. The SSS provided the Bluebird with enough marketplace redemption that Matsuo was entrusted in 1966 to head Nissan’s 1st modeling department and 4th design studio, where the Z was born.
However, Matsuo and his small team weren’t just in charge of penning the Z’s lines. Much of Matsuo’s job extended to what we would call product planning today — identifying the customer base and optional equipment, determining the price point, and coming up with some of the marketing — in addition to the styling the car.
Matsuo rightly predicted that with the coming age of expressways and high-speed driving, the Fairlady lineage needed to evolve its primary form from roadster to fixed-head hatchback coupe. For the Z to remain affordable, he helped convince the powers that be to scale up production massively. To make sure they could offer magnesium wheels on the Z432 version, he had to source a supplier that could make them for Nissan. Even minute things like the location of the hidden air conditioner (as opposed to cabin coolers) to the strength of the seat backs (for heavier Americans) fell to Matsuo and his team.
On top of all that, Matsuo designed the Z, giving the car its iconic shape. From its sugar scoop headlight bezels inspired by the seats at a baseball stadium to the elegant trunk lid opening inspired by a Mirage fighter jet canopy, Matsuo made countless individual decisions that built the Z bit by bit. He even did some test driving, going twice the posted speed limit on a Japanese highway to assess what would become the aerodynamic G-nose.
Throughout it all, Matsuo kept the Z true to its purpose. Matsuo knew the Z would be popular, but even he couldn’t predict how much of a runaway success it would become upon debut. Matsuo had planned other variants, including an open top, T-top, and shooting brake. Some were never green-lit, but sales of the primary coupe body style were so good that plans for others had to be scrapped. Prior to the Z, Nissan was producing about 300 Fairlady roadsters per month. Matsuo predicted the S30 Z would sell 3,000 per month. At its height, sales totaled 7,500 a month for a generational total of 540,000.
The automotive world had never seen the Z’s magic combination of styling, performance, and value before. It upended the sports car establishment and became a major force in the world of motorsports. It has spawned millions of devoted fans, half a century’s worth of sporting Nissans, and six generations of successors. And, as the teased images of the seventh generation reveal, after 50 years the Z will soon return to the shape that Matsuo drew decades ago.
Matsuo left Nissan in 1973 but remained active in Z clubs and events both in Japan and internationally well into his 80s, inspiring fans and fellow designers alike. He died one day after his 87th birthday.