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.
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 in that era more by 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 the company’s management union, making himself a variety of powerful enemies; 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 210 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. Had he been better-connected politically, the company might have promoted him or rewarded him with some attractive new assignment, but instead he found himself in limbo. He had not been fired, but since he’d been gone for some time, his previous role had been reassigned.
The company finally decided to exile Katayama to the United States, where Nissan was then beginning a very tentative export operation. His initial task was to study the U.S. market, which at that time 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. It was not an assignment that most better-connected Nissan executives would have wanted, so it was an ideal way to dispense with Katayama, keeping him out of sight and out of mind on a low-priority task that seemed likely to fail anyway.
The first Nissan car to be sold in the U.S. was the PL210, a left-hand-drive version of the 210. By American standards, it was mechanically sturdy and fuel-efficient, but also 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, so even Nissan’s few U.S. dealers were disdainful of it.
The subsequent Datsun 310, launched in 1959 and known in Japan as Datsun Bluebird, was a little bit better, but still not a compelling proposition for American buyers. 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. (We don’t know why Nissan didn’t create a LHD version of its bigger Cedric sedan, which would still have been a compact by U.S. standards, but had a bigger, 1,488 cc (91 cu. in.) engine and better performance.)
Considering Nissan’s conservatism and fears 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 Katayama and his colleague Soichi Kawazoe, an engineer who had previously been sent to the U.S. to help east coast Datsun dealers establish their service departments. Both Kawazoe and Katayama saw great opportunity in the U.S. market and argued that Nissan should give it greater attention.
In September 1960, Nissan established its own U.S. distribution subsidiary, Nissan Motor Corporation USA (NMC-USA), with headquarters in California and New Jersey. Katayama was named vice president of the western region while Kawazoe led the east. Over the next few years, they built up Datsun’s U.S. dealer network and pushed for products better suited to American roads and tastes. Katayama, in particular, made a point of befriending the company’s development engineers, some of whom (particularly the younger engineers) shared his enthusiasm for sporty cars.
Unlike many of his contemporary Japanese peers, who found the U.S. alien and intimidating, Katayama liked America and Americans, with whom he quickly ingratiated himself. He soon became affectionately known as “Mr. K,” even to the traffic cops who issued him many speeding tickets. The home office didn’t necessarily appreciate this talent — for Japanese executives who considered gaijin uncouth, it was no doubt a somewhat distasteful virtue — but it was nonetheless valuable. In 1965, Katayama was made the president of NMC-USA, which had previously been led by an executive in Japan.
U.S. Datsun sales had improved at a healthy rate, but that was due in large part to the success of Datsun’s compact pickup trucks, which were unpretentious but economical and rugged little workhorses with few direct rivals. The passenger cars were a tougher sell, having been designed for the dictates of the Japanese market, which at the time had narrow roads, speed limits of 40 mph (65 km/h) or less, high fuel prices, and vehicle taxes that kept cars and engines small. Since the export business was so small, Nissan was very reluctant to invest development resources in export-specific engines or products or even to address well-known and obvious mechanical shortcomings like hard winter starting. Katayama and Kawazoe had established the foundations of a strong U.S. organization, but they 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 fuel economy; cars like the original Mini Cooper or Lotus Cortina hadn’t made much impression in the U.S. 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. The smaller car featured 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. Compared to contemporary muscle cars, the 1602’s performance (0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 11–12 seconds, a top speed of around 100 mph (161 km/h)) was unexceptional, but it rivaled many contemporary V8-powered American sedans while also returning up to 28 mpg (8.4 L/100 km). Better still, 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 small 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 world’s best-driving compact sedan. 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.
The BMW 1602 won many fans among enthusiasts, including Yutaka Katayama. Not only did Katayama like the BMW — which was definitely his kind of car — he saw it as an achievable goal. Before, Japanese automakers had generally 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
In the early sixties, Katayama might just as well have asked the home office to build him his own aircraft carrier; the response would likely have been the same. However, the Japanese market was also evolving rapidly. When Katayama had gone to Australia, the Japanese auto industry was still focused primarily on compact trucks for commercial users, since few consumers had the money for a private car. By the mid-sixties, the domestic passenger car market was beginning to take off and was segmenting into distinct size/price classes.
In mid-1965, Nissan began work on the successor to the 410/411 Bluebird, which had replaced the earlier 310/311 in 1964. By that time, Nissan was preparing to launch a smaller car, the first Nissan Sunny, which freed the Bluebird to move upmarket as the company’s middle-class offering. (The larger Cedric would also grow, albeit bounded by the limits of the domestic small car tax class.) That move would allow the next-generation 510 Bluebird to be larger and more sophisticated, with bigger engines and more power.
The 510 was a departure from the 410 in a number of respects. The 510 was bigger — almost 5 inches (125 mm) longer and 2.8 inches (70 mm) wider on a 1.5-inch (40mm) longer wheelbase — and now had front disc brakes. Like the BMW, the 510 also had fully independent suspension with MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms in back. Unlike the 410, which had been designed by Pininfarina, the 510 was designed in-house by Teruo Uchino, who produced a crisp and tasteful shape that would not have looked out of place among the subcompact cars of a decade later.
The 510’s engine was the subject of a ferocious battle between Katayama and the home office. The next-generation Bluebird was to use the new OHC L-series four, but Japanese cars would be launched only with the 1,296 cc (79 cu. in.) L13 version, which was about the same size (albeit more powerful) than the 410/411’s outgoing J-series pushrod engine. Katayama recognized that a lack of adequate power had been the Achilles heel of U.S.-market Datsuns and insisted that export cars needed a standard engine of at least 1,600 cc (97 cu. in.).
At first, Katayama’s pleas went nowhere. There were plans for a slightly bigger L14 engine of 1,428 cc (87 cu. in.) displacement, but as far as the home office was concerned, that would be enough; in Japan, engines over 1.5 liters were taxed at a higher rate. However, Katayama found an ally in new executive Seiichi Matsumura, who had joined Nissan from Japan’s powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). In the spring of 1966, Matsumura agreed to present Katayama’s argument to the Nissan board under Matsumura’s own name (although it was not lost on anyone that the idea had come from Kayatama). The board finally, if reluctantly, agreed to authorize the bigger engine, initially offered only for export markets.
Like the L13 and L14, the bigger engine, known as the L16, was an inline-four with an iron block, aluminum head, and a single chain-driven overhead cam. It shared the same bore as the smaller engines, but had a longer stroke, bringing total displacement to 1,595 cc (97 cu. in.). The bigger displacement not only offered more power than the L13, but also significantly more torque. U.S. cars claimed 96 gross horsepower (72 kW) and 100 lb-ft (136 N-m), which gave the 510 performance not far off that of the BMW that had been its inspiration.
The 510 went on sale in Japan in August 1967 and arrived in export markets a few months later. Japanese cars were still called Bluebird, a name Katayama loathed, but export models were simply called “Datsun 1300” or “Datsun 1600.” Only the latter was offered in the U.S., although the smaller-engined model was also available in Europe and Australia. Ironically, the bigger engine was belatedly added as an option for the Japanese 510 in the fall of 1968; the rapidly growing buying power of Japanese consumers meant there was finally a market for it.
Katayama was ecstatic about the Datsun 510, which embodied nearly everything for which he’d been fighting the past seven years. It was nearly as economical as its predecessor and still very well-built, but it was also pleasantly styled, fun to drive, and surprisingly quick. Its performance — 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 13 seconds and a top speed of close to 100 mph (155–160 km/h) — was a match for most contemporary American six-cylinder compacts and more than adequate for U.S. roads. The 510 stopped and handled well, too, even if it lacked the Autobahn-oriented polish of its BMW forebear.
Even the most appealing product may fall on its face if the price is wrong, but the Datsun 510 benefited from the favorable exchange rate and lower Japanese labor costs, which held the U.S. list price to only $1,996 POE. That was more than a Volkswagen Beetle, but still cheaper than most U.S. compacts, which were neither as nimble nor as well-assembled.
Buyers soon took notice. U.S. Datsun sales climbed from 33,000 in 1967 — many of which had been trucks — to more 58,000 in 1968; nearly two-thirds of those were 510s. Sales for 1969 topped 90,000, making Nissan a significant player in the U.S. import market. The 510 also earned Datsun new respect from the U.S. press, which had previously regarded Japanese cars with varying degrees of bemused contempt.
Even the 510’s U.S. ad campaign was novel. Its centerpiece was a famous (and, within the company, somewhat controversial) television spot known as the “Baroque ad,” which had no voice-over or dialogue at all, just a striking mix of Vivaldi and images of the car being driven hard over twisting California roads, closing with the Datsun logo. The company’s U.S. print ads now stressed the Datsun’s sophisticated technology and fine road manners as well as its low price and high fuel economy. It was a sign of newfound confidence in a product about which the company no longer needed to feel unduly humble.
THE DATSUN 510 GOES RACING
Back in 1967, “Mr. K,” perhaps remembering his success in Australia, had 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.
Although the initial competition efforts focused on the company’s small Datsun Sports roadster (known as the Fairlady in Japan and sold in very modest numbers mostly for export), the Datsun 510 had a more sophisticated chassis and obvious potential, so it soon attracted interest from racing drivers like NASCAR star Bobby Allison, Trans-Am champion John Morton, Porsche driver Peter Gregg, Bob Sharp, and Jack Scoville. NMC-USA also scored a minor marketing coup when Bob Bondurant bought a number of 510s to use in his newly formed racing school. Actor Paul Newman, an enthusiastic racer in his own right, campaigned a 510 after driving one at the Bondurant school.
The 510 quickly amassed an impressive U.S. competition record. Brock Racing took a 510 to the SCCA’s Trans Am 2.5 Class title in both 1971 and 1972 and Datsun 510s took the SCCA B/Production sedan championship in 1971, 1972, 1973, and 1974.
By 1972, however, Datsun’s competition was beginning to catch up. A 1972 “Showroom Stock” track test conducted by Car and Driver pitted the 510 against rivals like the smaller Toyota Corolla and the newer Chevrolet Vega, the Datsun showed its age, suffering comparatively sloppy handling (with a penchant for abrupt transitions in extremis, so-so outright grip, and mediocre power. The 510 was still a good car, but it was past its prime.
Still, the 510 had served its purpose. By the time production ended in November 1972, Datsun had sold more than 1.5 million of them, about 400,000 of those in the U.S.
A VISION OF THE FUTURE
In 1975, Katayama became chairman of NMC-USA, ceding the presidency to Hiroshi Majima, who had previously headed Nissan export operations back in Japan. Katayama returned to Japan two years later. In an uncomfortable echo of his return from Australia almost 20 years previously, he received a cool reception and little reward. His success had if anything only eroded his already tenuous political position and he was shuffled off to a minor subsidiary company to serve out his career in obscurity.
Nissan, meanwhile, moved on to bigger but not necessarily better cars. The company’s late-seventies products were often extremely conservative and in styling and orientation suggested that home-market needs had once again taken first priority. Nissan retained its No. 2 position at home, but the company’s U.S. business gradually lost ground to Toyota and Honda.
The original 510, meanwhile, 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 almost 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, so 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 even stock-looking examples are likely to have a lot more suds than when they left the factory.
The original Datsun 510 is not well-remembered today, perhaps because it was overshadowed by 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, the importance of the 510, at least as regards the position of Japanese cars in the U.S., is difficult to overstate. It laid out the basic formula that would bring Japanese automakers to the forefront in later years: (relatively) compact cars that were well-built, reliable, economical, and appealing at competitive if not necessarily rock-bottom prices. The 510 was far from perfect, but it was a solid foundation on which to build, which the major Japanese automakers (not just Nissan) proceeded to do most assiduously.
As for Yutaka Katayama, 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. Katayama was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1998 and Nissan’s press and historical materials now describe him with some reverence. He was present at the launch of the new Nissan Z in 2003 and in January 2005 issued an open letter about the 35th anniversary of the original Z. He celebrated his 100th birthday on September 5, 2009. He died four and a half years later at the remarkable age of 105.
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 it stylistically groundbreaking, but in its concept and execution, it really was the shape of things to come.
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; Michael A. Cusumano, The Japanese Automobile Industry: Technology & Management at Toyota & Nissan (Cambridge, MA: The Harvard University Press, 1985); Guide to Motor Industry of Japan 1967 Edition (Tokyo: Japan Motor Industrial Federation, Inc., 1967); Yutaka Katayama and Yoshihiko Matsuo, Fairlady Z Story, Datsun SP/SR & Z (Tokyo: Miki Press, 1999); Nissan Motor Corporation, “Legend 02: Yutaka Katayama: Determined Visionary,” n.d., www.nissan-global. com/EN/HERITAGE/ LEGENDS/LEGEND_02/ index.html, accessed 17 November 2014; and “Nissan legend Yutaka Katayama, aka ‘Mr. K,’ dies at 105” [press release], NissanNews.com, 21 February 2015, accessed 8 August 2015; John B. Rae, Nissan/Datsun: A History of Nissan Motor Corporation in U.S.A. 1960–1980 (New York: McGraw Hill, 1982); Brian Long, Datsun Fairlady Roadster to 280ZX: The Z-car story (Dorchester, England: Veloce Publishing, 2006); and Akira Yokoyama’s authorized manga (comic book) account, Project X – Datsun Fairlady Z (Project X 240Z Challengers) (Gardena, CA: Digital Manga Publishing, 2006). The history of the Bluebird and 510 came primarily from those sources and from Alan Bent, EarlyDatsun, n.d., www.earlydatsun. com, last accessed 14–25 November 2014; Carl Beck, “The Design and Development Of The In-line, OHC, Six Cylinder Engines That Powered Our Z Cars 1970 though 1983,” Internet Z Car Club, 14 November 2008, www.zhome. com/ History/ LSeries/ LSeriesR1.htm, last accessed 16 November 2014; Merlin Blackwell’s Datsun history pages (www.datsunhistory. com/home.html; accessed 25 December 2007); Nissan Motor Corporation, “A rather remarkable sporty family sedan… DATSUN 1600” [Norwegian brochure No. PB6061-901130], c. 1969; “Datsun 1400 – 1600,” [Norwegian 510 brochure In. 461 6-72 5000], June 1972; and “Nissan Heritage Collection: Bluebird,” n.d., www.nissan-global. com/EN/ HERITAGE/bluebird.html, accessed 14 November 2014; and Nissan Motor Company USA, “Datsun: The World’s Best $2000 Car!” [U.S. brochure], 1969. 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; Ray Thursby, “Rising Star,” Special Interest Autos #195 (June 2003), pp. 48–53; and “BMW 1600,” Car and Driver, February 1967, reprinted in Car and Driver on BMW Cars 1957-1977, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1986). Some details came from Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001).
Historical exchange rate equivalences were estimated based on data from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2009, MeasuringWorth, https://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/; used by permission). Please note that all exchange rate equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and provided for illustration and general informational purposes only; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!