Most Z car enthusiasts have heard by now that Yutaka Katayama has passed away. The many stories posted online conflate the truth with various fictions and inaccuracies.
He became the president of Nissan U.S.A. when Nissan did not have products geared for the American market. He had to build a dealer network and convince Nissan to build products suitable for America. He built up Nissan in North America with products like the 510 and 240Z. He didn’t design them, but he made sure they could be sold. Legend had it that he arranged for the Fairlady Z badges to be removed from the hatches of the Z cars when they arrived in North America. Somehow it’s more believable that he convinced Nissan that it would be smarter to use the engine displacement in this market.
There is a saying that starts off with “Success has many fathers.” That is true with the Z car. Mr. K. was one of the fathers that ensured the Z car would become part of the enthusiast community in America and elsewhere. I have read that in 1975, the 65-year-old Mr. K. was ordered back to Japan where he retired in relative obscurity. Even without him at the helm of Nissan North America, the Z car lineage continued to thrive with the 280Z, 280ZX, and both generations of 300ZXs. However, eventually a strong yen drove up Z car prices, and looming emission and safety standards meant costly modifications, so Nissan pulled the plug on exporting the 300ZX with the 1996 model being the last to land on American soil.
The Z wasn’t going to be forgotten easily in the U.S. The design was solid. The styling aged well. Mad Mike Taylor went to Japan in 1995 to visit Mr. K. and try to get Nissan to stop destroying N.O.S. Z car parts. At least Nissan was smart enough to pay attention that Mr. K. was a growing legend in a major market. The Nissan Dream Car Garage and other commercials in the mid to late 90s paid homage by usuing Dale Ishimoto to represent Mr. Katayama. Nissan also had some 1970 to 1972 240Zs refurbished. This enthusiasm Mr. K. helped engender helped to contribute to the rebirth of the line in 2003 with the 350Z.
Mr. K. remained a fixture in the Z car community for the rest of his life. He visited Z car events in America several times, including the 1995 convention in Atlanta. It was at that convention that The History Channel did much of its filming for the Z car episode of the series Automobile. I have seen many proud Z car owners with Mr. Katayama’s signature on the dashboard or roof. Even when he got too old to travel, Mr. K. would make appearances via Skype. I got to witness one of the Skype appearances at the 2011 ZCCA convention. My wife could not believe that he was almost 102 years old.
Of course, no one lasts forever, even a legend. Yes, myths and other inaccuracies have mixed in with the facts of the life of Yutaka Katayama. It doesn’t really matter. That’s what legends are made of.