The Strange Odyssey of Yutaka Katayama: The Datsun 510 and the Rise of Japanese Cars in America

Today, there are quite a few American buyers who have never purchased a domestic-brand car, and who are as loyal to Toyota or Honda as a previous generation was to Ford or Chevrolet. It was not always so; Toyota began importing cars to America in 1957, Nissan in 1958, but in the early years, Japanese cars were rarer in most parts of the U.S. than Roll-Royces or Ferraris. When did the tide turn? Many point to the 1970s and the wake of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, but a major turning point came with the 1968 debut of the Datsun 510. This is the story of the 1968-1972 Datsun 510 and of the man most responsible for its creation: Yutaka Katayama.

1971 Datsun 510 badge

YUTAKA KATAYAMA

In 1960, a young Nissan executive named Yutaka Katayama came to California to compile a marketing report on the company’s fledgling U.S. operations. Katayama was a rich kid from Japan’s Saitama province who had missed military service in the war because of bad eyesight. Unlike many auto executives on either side of the Pacific, he was also an automotive enthusiast. Katayama had founded the first sports car club in postwar Japan, and prior to joining Nissan in the 1950s, he had contemplated starting his own car company. He still dreamed of creating his own small sports car.

Katayama was not very happy at Nissan, where he had until recently been manager of advertising. Nissan was an extremely conservative company even by Japanese standards, driven more by union cronyism than any love of cars. Katayama had become frustrated with the company’s stodgy management, which considered him something of a rebel. He had managed to antagonize several members of Japan’s Miyake labor union, making himself a variety of powerful enemies. Many Nissan middle managers were union members, and union loyalists tended to have favored positions whether they were qualified for them or not. Although Katayama was an enthusiastic and inventive promoter, it would be fair to say that his talents were not widely appreciated by the home office.

Two years earlier, Katayama’s greatest promotional achievement had nearly destroyed his career. In 1958, he persuaded Nissan management to let him enter two factory teams in the Australian Mobilgas Trial rally. Katayama had thought the grueling, 10,000-mile (16,000 km) rally would be a good showcase for Nissan’s small Datsun sedan, which was underpowered, but rugged and dependable. Nissan management had been extremely hostile to the idea, fearing international humiliation if the Nissan teams lost. It was only through considerable browbeating that Katayama got his cars and his drivers — all of them union loyalists with no competition experience. Despite those obstacles, and the daunting challenge of the rally itself, Katayama managed to forge his unenthusiastic drivers into a cohesive team and lead them to victory. One of the two Datsun cars won its class, while the other achieved a credible fourth place. The rally earned Nissan a good deal of favorable international publicity and briefly made Katayama a national hero in Japan.

Like a general who wins a popular but politically inconvenient victory, Katayama returned to a chilly welcome from Nissan management. He discovered that while he was gone, his job had been given to a more loyal executive. For a while, there appeared to be no place for him in the company at all.

Finally, one of his few remaining allies in the executive ranks suggested the American assignment. The U.S. was new territory for Nissan in every sense of that term. The company had sold fewer than 100 cars in the U.S. in 1958, their first year in the States, and two years later they still had yet to sell their 2,000th car. Nissan had little understanding of the American marke, and their efforts to date had been marked by a deep-seated timidity.

Katayama’s initial mission was market research, a provisional assignment, but six months after he arrived in California, he was made the permanent head of Nissan’s west coast operations. It was clearly intended as a form of exile, but at least he still had a job.

THE VISITOR

Katayama’s new job would not be an easy one. The first Nissan car to be sold in the U.S. was the Datsun PL210, modeled on contemporary BMC models; Nissan had earlier built the Austin A40 under license.

By American standards, the PL210 was a dismal little car. It was mechanically sturdy and fuel efficient, but it was noisy, clumsy, and agonizingly slow. Its 988 cc (60 cu. in.) engine had only 37 horsepower (28 kW), dooming it to be forever challenged by steep hills. Its brakes weren’t much either, although American cars of the time certainly had nothing to brag about in that department. In all, the PL210 was ill-suited for American roads and driving habits, and even Nissan’s few U.S. dealers were disdainful of it.

The subsequent Datsun 310, launched in 1959 and known in Japan as Bluebird, was a little bit better, but still far from inspiring. By the time it arrived, American buyers looking for a frugal and practical small car had many alternatives, including the new Ford Falcon, Chevrolet Corvair, and Plymouth Valiant. Those six-cylinder compacts weren’t as thrifty as the Datsun or its small, European peers, but they had the advantage of familiar nameplates and a far more extensive dealer network.

Datsun 310 front 3q view
The early-sixties Datsun Bluebird 310 is 153.9 inches (3,910 mm) long on an 89.8-inch (2,280mm) wheelbase. Its engine was up to 1,89 cc (73 cu. in.) and a whopping 48 gross horsepower (36 kW) — better than its 210 predecessor, but still rather underpowered for American roads. The evolutionary 311 benefited from a synchronized low gear, helpful with the weak-willed engine. (Photo © 2006 Tennen-Gas; used under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license)

Considering Nissan’s conservatism and terror of humiliation, it’s entirely possible that the company would have withdrawn in quiet disgrace from America by the mid-sixties, had it not been for Yutaka Katayama. Unlike his peers, Katayama liked America, appreciating even the things that made most Japanese immigrants uneasy. He was convinced that there was great opportunity in the U.S. market and he took a long, hard look at what it would take to succeed there.

Over the next few years, Katayama built up the Datsun dealer network, realizing that Volkswagen’s well-organized, well-equipped, courteous dealers were a major part of that brand’s U.S. success (something today’s VW management could do well to remember). He also befriended the engineering study teams the home office periodically sent to America to evaluate the technical needs of that market.

Nissan’s upper management remained frosty towards Katayama, convinced he’d gone native among the gaijin, but he was getting results. He became a popular, enthusiastic presence throughout the U.S. organization, becoming universally known as “Mr. K,” even to the traffic cops who issued him so many speeding tickets. By 1965, Katayama had become the first president of Nissan Motors Corporation USA.

Katayama’s biggest problem was still the cars themselves. Nissan did not have the development budget of its American and European rivals, so developing cars specifically for the U.S. market was out of the question. Worse, management strenuously resisted Katayama’s cries for more powerful engines, plusher trim, more options, and other changes to suit American buyers; the dictates of the Japanese home market kept winning out.

In the early sixties, most of Japan had speed limits of 65 km/h (40 mph) or less, fuel was expensive, and tastes were conservative. As a result, Japanese cars were ill suited to the U.S., where roads were wide and smooth, and gasoline still cost 30 cents a gallon or less. NMC USA also found to its frustration that getting the home office to address even well-known, obvious problems — such as batteries that were inadequate for reliable starting in cold east-coast winters — could be an uphill battle. Mr. K was building a good organization, but he still lacked a credible product to sell.

THE BMW 1602

In the early sixties, few Americans expected much from small, cheap, imported sedans, beyond low price and good mileage. Thus, the arrival in 1966 of the compact BMW 1600-2 was something of a shock. The 1600-2 (or 1602) was a shorter, cheaper version of BMW’s mid-size “New Class” sedan of 1963 vintage. It had a 1,573 cc (97 cu. in.) SOHC four-cylinder engine; an all-synchro four-speed transmission; front disc brakes; and fully independent suspension, with MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms in back.

This was fairly advanced hardware for the time, and it paid dividends in performance. The BMW 1602 could accelerate from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 11.4 seconds and top an honest 100 mph (160 km/h), rivaling many V8-powered American sedans, but gentler driving could return up to 28 mpg (8.4 L/100 km). With a base price starting at $2,477 POE New York, the 1602 wasn’t much more expensive than a six-cylinder Ford Mustang, which was slower, thirstier, and clumsier. The BMW was compact but roomy, peppy but economical, and built with typically German thoroughness.

The 1602 immediately won rave reviews from car magazines like Car and Driver, which anointed it the best compact sedan they’d ever driven. The 1602′s market penetration was ultimately limited by a smallish dealer network and a series of currency revaluations that pushed its price out of the bargain realm, but it raised the bar for what an affordable, compact sedan could be.

BMW 1602 front
The BMW 1602. (Photo © 2009 no-color; released to the public domain by the photographer)

The BMW 1602 won many fans among enthusiasts, including Yutaka Katayama. Not only did Katayama like the 1600 — which was definitely his kind of car — he saw it as an achievable goal. Before, Japanese automakers had modeled their efforts on the small British sedans of the previous decade. Now, Katayama lobbied to make the compact Bavarian their new target.

BLUEBIRD’S FIFTH SYMPHONY:: THE DATSUN 510

Back in mid-1965, Nissan had begun work on a successor to its 410 Bluebird sedan, which had replaced 310/311 in 1963. The development of the new model, the PL510, got a shot in the arm following Nissan’s merger in January 1966 with Prince, a small automaker that also did a great deal of aircraft design work. From Prince, Nissan acquired engineers with considerable experience in monocoque construction, which enabled the PL510 to be lighter, stronger, and roomier than a body-on-frame car of comparable dimensions.

The PL510 was bigger than the 410, but it was still quite a small car: 160.2 inches (4,070 mm) long on a 95.3-inch (2,420mm) wheelbase, weighing a little over 2,000 pounds (910 kg) — all very similar to the BMW 1602. Like the BMW, the 510 got fully independent suspension, with MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms in back. Front disc brakes and a fully synchronized four-speed manual were standard, with a three-speed automatic optional. The exterior, penned by young designer Teruo Uchino, was crisp and tasteful, if not eye-catching. In some respects, it presaged the seventies vogue for “folded-paper” angularity, popularized by designers like Giorgetto Giugiaro.

Datsun 510 Bluebird SSS front 3q
The general resemblance of the Datsun 510 to the BMW 1600 is pronounced — it’s a little shorter, but has similar proportions and packaging. This is a home-market Datsun510 Bluebird SSS model, never sold in the U.S.; the main tip-off are the racing mirrors on the front fenders. SSS models shared the L16 engine of the standard 510 Bluebird, but had twin SU carbs and a hotter cam, giving 109 hp (81 kW) JIS. (Photo © 2006 Tennen-Gas;used under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license)

The PL510′s engine was the subject of a ferocious battle between Katayama and Nissan management back in Japan. Katayama felt that a lack of adequate power had been the Achilles heel of U.S.-market Datsuns, and he pushed for a standard engine of no less than 1,600 cc (97 cu. in.). Nissan management, always more concerned with the home market, saw no reason for a displacement of more than 1,400 cc (85 cu. in.). Katayama would not be dissuaded.

At first, Katayama’s pleas went nowhere, but he eventually found an ally in new executive Seiichi Matsumura. Matsumura persuaded Katayama to draft a letter for Matsumura to sign, explaining why the bigger engine was necessary. He then forwarded it with his endorsement to the Nissan board. It was not lost on anyone that it had been Katayama who had actually authored the letter, but with this new backing, Katayama’s requests were finally (if reluctantly) approved.

Datsun 510 Bluebird 1400 rear 3q
Rear view of an early Datsun 510 Bluebird. This is a Japanese-market 510 Bluebird 1400, with the 1,397 cc (85 cu. in.) engine. (Photo © 2008 Tennen-Gas; used under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license)

The Datsun 510′s engine, known internally as the L-series, was designed by Prince prior to the Nissan merger. Based on the early-sixties Mercedes M127 six, it was an inline engine with an iron block, aluminum head, and chain-driven overhead cam. Like the Mercedes engine, the L-series started life as a six, the 1,982 cc (121 cu. in.) L20 engine used in the 1966 Prince Cedric, but Nissan also developed a four-cylinder version in several sizes. Japanese-market cars had a 1,299 cc (79 cu. in.) version, while some export markets got the 1,397 cc (85 cu. in.) L14. All U.S. cars received the 1,595 cc (97 cu. in.) L16, rated at 96 gross horsepower (72 kW) and 100 lb-ft (135 N-m) of torque. Thus equipped, the 510 was a legitimate rival — at least on paper — to the BMW on which it had been modeled.

The new car was exactly the sort of product for which Katayama had been begging, and he became its most enthusiastic salesman both inside and outside the company. He made other Nissan execs drive the car, wanting them to be as excited about it as he was. The new model would be finally be enough, Katayama hoped, to make a real impact in the U.S. market.

1971 Datsun 510 wagon front3q
The Datsun 510 was available as a two- or four-door sedan, or as this handy four-door wagon. This is a 1971 model.

THE STAR

The PL510 went on sale in Japan in the fall of 1967 and appeared in overseas markets a few months later. In Japan, it was still called 510 Bluebird, a name Katayama hated. In the U.S., it was known simply as “510,” while in Europe and Australia, it was known as the Datsun 1600.

The 510′s performance was quite good for a compact car of its time. In March 1968, Road & Track clocked it from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 13.5 seconds and recorded a top speed of 98 mph (158 km/h). That was just as fast as most contemporary American six-cylinder compacts and more than adequate for American roads. The 510 handled and stopped well, too — it was probably the first Japanese sedan that was actually fun to drive. Furthermore, base price in the U.S. was only $1,996, more than a VW, but less than most American compacts, which were neither as nimble nor as well built. (Curiously, the best-performing stock 510 — the SSS coupe, with a 1,770 cc (108 cu. in.) engine and 109 hp (80 kW) — was never sold in the U.S., probably because it would have been difficult to certify it for U.S. emissions standards.)

1971 Datsun 510 wagon rear3q
The Datsun 510 wagon is 3 inches (72 mm) longer than the two-door sedan and uses a live axle rear suspension rather than the sedan’s semi-trailing arm independent rear suspension. The rationale for reverting to the solid axle layout was to avoid radical camber changes when the wagon was heavily loaded.

Katayama called for an unusual and somewhat daring U.S. ad campaign, including the famous (and, within the company, somewhat controversial) “Baroque Ad.” The commercial had no voice-over, no copy, just images of a woman driving a Datsun 510 along the twisting roads around Big Sur to the strains of Vivaldi, closing with the Datsun logo. Print ads now stressed the Datsun’s sophisticated technology and fine road manners as well as its low price and high fuel economy.

That approach was very effective. U.S. Datsun sales climbed from 33,000 in 1967 — many of which had been Datsun’s compact pickup, not its cars — to more 58,000 in 1968; nearly two-thirds of those were 510s. Sales for 1969 topped 90,000. The 510 was putting Datsun on the map for the first time.

THE DATSUN 510 GOES RACING

In 1967, “Mr. K,” perhaps remembering his success in Australia, opened Nissan’s first racing department. Although there weren’t official factory racing teams as such, Datsun issued a series of publications instructing owners on how to upgrade their cars with aftermarket parts, including a new array of Nissan Competition equipment. Brock Racing Enterprises and Bob Sharp Racing became suppliers to various Datsun racing teams, with heavy factory support.

The Datsun 510 soon began winning races, attracting drivers like NASCAR star Bobby Allison, Trans-Am champion John Morton, Porsche driver Peter Gregg, Bob Sharp, and Jack Scoville. Brock Racing took a 510 to the SCCA’s Trans Am 2.5 Class title in both 1971 and 1972. Datsun also scored a minor marketing coup when Bob Bondurant bought a number of 510s to use in his newly formed racing school, declaring that they were more durable and cheaper to run than the Porsches he had previously used. Actor Paul Newman, an enthusiastic racer in his own right, campaigned a 510 after driving one at the Bondurant school.

By 1972, Datsun’s competition was beginning to catch up, as Car and Driver noted in a 1972 “showroom stock” track test that included rivals like the Toyota Corolla and Chevrolet Vega. The magazine found the Datsun 510′s power marginal and its handling somewhat sloppy, with so-so grip and a penchant for abrupt transitions in extremis. It was still a good car, but it was past its prime.

1972 Datsun 510 racing 2006 Nathan Bittinger CCBY20 Generic
A 1972 Datsun 510 (left) dices with a 1967 Ford Cortina GT at the 2006 Watkins Glen SVRA. (Photo © 2006 Nathan Bittinger; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Still, the 510 had served its purpose. By the time production ended in November 1972, Datsun had sold around 400,000 of them. Katayama had been vindicated.

THINGS TO COME

In 1975, Katayama left NMC USA to return to Japan. He again received a cool reception and was shuffled off to a minor Nissan subsidiary to serve out his career in obscurity. Nissan’s late-seventies products were extremely conservative and its U.S. operation lost ground to Toyota and Honda.

Nissan moved on to newer and bigger Datsuns, but the original 510 found its second wind in the mid-seventies. Like the “Tri-Five” Chevrolets before it or the Honda Civic 25 years later, it became a popular basis for hot rodding. Datsun 510s were cheap, sturdy, and infinitely modifiable. Not only was there a lot of competition and semi-competition hardware already available, later, more powerful iterations of the L-series engine could be swapped in very easily. Of course, for some people that’s never enough. Over the years, there have been 510s with turbos, six-cylinder engines, V8s, and even Mazda rotary engines. Today, it’s rare to find a surviving 510 in original condition, and if you see one, it probably has a lot more suds than when it left the factory.

The original Datsun 510 is not well remembered today, perhaps because it was overshadowed by Yutaka Katayama’s next and greatest triumph, the Datsun 240Z sports car. The 510 is routinely, if unjustly, omitted from surveys of the most important cars of the past century. Nonetheless, it laid out a formula that would bring Japanese automakers like Honda to the forefront in later years: compact cars that were economical, well built, nimble, and fun to drive. The 510, like an early Porsche, was far from perfect, but it was a solid foundation on which to build, which the Japanese automakers proceeded to do most assiduously.

Yutaka Katayama was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1998. Nissan finally ‘rehabilitated’ him during the early part of Carlos Ghosn’s regime, when a Katayama look-alike was featured in a number of Nissan TV spots. At the time of this writing, Katayama himself is still alive and well. He was present at the launch of the new Nissan Z in 2003, and in January 2005, he issued an open letter about the 35th anniversary of the original Z. He celebrated his 100th birthday on September 5, 2009.

Over the years, automotive pundits have proclaimed many automobiles “the car of the future,” and they’ve often been wrong. The Datsun 510, however, was the real thing. None of its features was technically innovative, nor was its stylistically groundbreaking, but in its concept and conception, it really was the shape of things to come.

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NOTES ON SOURCES

Our account of the career of Yutaka Katayama comes primarily from David Halberstam, The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986), with additional details from Daniel Banks, “Let’s Meet Mr. K!” Z Car Club Association, n.d., www.zcca. org/pages/ZCarsZhistoryMrK.htm, accessed 5 June 2009. The history of the Bluebird and 510 came primarily from those sources and from Merlin Blackwell’s Datsun history pages (www.datsunhistory. com/home.html; accessed 25 December 2007). We also consulted Frank Marcus, “1968-1973 Datsun 510,” Motor Trend 1 June 2006, www.motortrend. com/ classic/roadtests/ C12_0606_1973_datsun_510/ index.html, accessed 25 December 2007; “Showroom Stock Sedans: The Nine Cars on the Track,” Car and Driver Vol. 17, No. 11 (May 1972), pp. 38-45, 82, 94; and “BMW 1600,” Car and Driver, February 1967, reprinted in Car and Driver on BMW Cars 1957-1977, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 1986). Some details came from Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001).

3 Comments

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  1. I would guess that the styling of the 510 owes rather more to the British Ford Cortina Mk II (introduced as a 1966 model) than to the BMW. The rear view is almost identical (look at the vent on the c-pillar!), and event the front is closer to the Ford than the BMW.

  2. Sorry if I’m being pedantic, but I think the Ford Cortina in the picture is a “Lotus” model rather than a “GT”, The green stripe on off white paint is a signature Lotus paint scheme.
    However there are a lot of Lotus style clones about, I’ve seen quite a few four door lookalikes!.
    The lotus versions were by some margin the fastest factory options, perhaps the cars are running in a special class?.

    Roger,

    1. Roger,

      The photographer of that shot identifies the specific event and even the driver, so I assume the information was on the event docket and is probably correct. Curiously, the Ford is listed as 1,700 cc, which is odd since the Cortina GT engine was the 1.6-liter Kent. However, I know Ford sometimes quoted the displacement of the 1.6-liter crossflow at 1,601 cc for homologation purposes (representing the engine at the outer edge of its tolerances) and I suppose it’s possible it’s either a different engine or has been overbored for racing. I’m afraid I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s a Lotus — just painted like one.

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