But before you read the story of this company that has a history almost as long
as Ford's, and equally as tumultuous, you have to understand a bit about the
Japanese. I admit I am no expert on the culture, but I do know what I have read
about the people involved in the Japanese automobile industry.
In the beginning of Japanese auto manufacturing, power belonged to the
traditionally powerful. Old family ties and status ruled, with a smaller
emphasis on the importance of education in
business. In the first half of the century, who your family was had more to do
with your success than how much ambition you had. By the same count, it wasn't
just that you went to high school or university, it was far more important that
you went to the best high school and the best University. Rags to riches
stories did not seem to happen in Japan.
After the WWII, the allies in control of rebuilding the Japanese economy
decided to shake things up a bit. A lot of the old guard Japanese were purged
from business for being pro-military during the war. This made room for some
of the more ambitious educated men, regardless of social status. The other
thing the Allies did was allow the formation of unions, most of which would've
been viewed of as radical by western standards.
The Union/Management relationship in the Japanese Auto industry was and is
somewhat unique. In Japan, or at least Nissan, union leaders had just about as
much power as company executives did after WWII. Union leaders had a huge
influence on the direction of the company and usually knew more about what was
going to happen than most of the top execs.
Union Leaders were so pro-worker at first that they nearly sent the company
into bankruptcy with their demands. To counter this, each company eventually
established its own union, full of men loyal to the company. This is very
different from the US, where the UAW is the union for all US manufacturers but
not really loyal to any of them. These company unions still exist today with
most Japanese automakers.
Another thing you must understand is the psychology of the Japanese car buyer.
It wasn't really acceptable for the lower classes to own cars until the
sixties; they were only for the upper middle class and above. The last thing
you wanted to be in Japan was a show off, so cars and trucks were reserved for
the rich and the bold, and for commerce and business. Buses and taxis far
outnumbered private cars for most of the history of the Japanese automobile. It
wasn't until the 60's that the average Japanese worker could afford a car, and
it wasn't till then that they were really allowed to become consumers. Even
then, a car was a luxury, something to be pampered. While Henry Ford had sold
millions of vehicles before the Second World War, the Japanese industry, even
with exports, had produced a tiny fraction of that.
Why am I pointing all this out? Because in the course of this story you're
going to come across sales figures and production numbers that look tiny
compared to US automakers. But you can't make comparisions based on numbers
because there was a completely different way of thinking in Japan. Japanese
private citizens pretty much didn't own cars for the first half of the 20th
Century, thus production numbers are low. Being innovative had less to do with
your success than your family ties and education did, thus progress was slow at
first. Unions fear change, and for a while in the late 40's and early 50's
Nissan had very powerful a union, thus innovation was slow for a while.
But things change. Nissan was able to change over time, to go from meek to
agressive, to adapt and then excel in ways no one could have imagined.
Now on with the story...
The Beginnings of the Japanese Automobile.
A steam-powered car built by Torao Yamaba in 1904, was the first recorded
Japanese automobile. This massive 10 seater was a chain driven machine
designed for the transportation of the rather large Yamaba Family. The first
gasoline powered car was built in 1907 by the Automobile Trading Co., dubbed
the Takuri. A dozen 2 cylinder 1.85 liter Takuri's were built based on a design
by Komanosuke Uchiyama, Japans first car designer.
The first four cylinder car was a luxury sedan manufactured jointly by Tokyo
Kunisue Automobile Works and the Tokyo motor vehicle Works in 1911. It was
propelled by a water cooled 1.3 liter L head engine featuring a magneto
ignition and achieved 16 plus horsepower. The amount of developments might
sound pretty good for a fledgling industry, but actual production numbers were
still less than 50 total automobiles by 1912.
And then came Masujiro Hashimoto...
The Teens and 20's; D.A.T.
The roots of Datsun go back as far as 1911. It was then that Masujiro
Hashimoto, an American trained engineer, created Kwaishinsha Motors with the
help of three investors. Hashimoto wasn't like most other early Japanese
automobile inventors, he had the advantage of several years of study in New
York under his belt. Hashimoto's dream was to build the first Japanese regular
His first experimental car, completed in 1912, was not considered much of a
success. The next real attempt was the 1914 prototype for the DAT model 31,
which was met with much more enthusiasm. It was about this time that the
company came up with the beginnings of the Datsun name.
The name comes, in part, from the names of the three original investors:
en who helped organize the original company, Rokuro
oyama a childhood friend, and Meitaro
akeuchi- a cousin of a former prime minister who helped arrange financing...
hence the name DAT. Roughly translated it means "hare","fast
rabbit", or "very fast" in Japanese, depending on whose
translation you want to believe.
The DAT model 31 was marketed in 1915, followed by the 1916 DAT model 41, the
later being produced straight through until 1925.
Dat model 41
The Dat 41 was an "economy luxury" car, powered by a 15 horsepower
engine, and was capable of carrying 5 passengers. Each one was hand made, thus
total production numbers were low. Another reason for low production numbers
was that Japan relied on rail and shipping for all long distance travel at the
time, mostly because roads outside cities were still pretty primitive. Cars
were pretty much confined to cities.
Son of "Dat"
1917 saw the restructuring of Kwaishinsha Motors due to financial difficulties.
The company was essentially taken over by its sales agency, and became the Dat
Motor Vehicle Co, which apparently used the Kwaishinsha name on some ventures.
This new company produced the Dat model 51. According to a couple of sources, a
small 2 seat roadster version of the type 51 was nicknamed the Datson by
Hashimoto, as in "son-of-Dat", probably because of the size
difference between it and the type 51 it was derived from. This version of the
origin of the Datson name is contradicted by other sources.
Model 51 Torpedo
The model 51 was available in several body styles, including the torpedo, had a
15 horse water cooled engine, manual transmission, and conventional drivetrain.
DAT started a joint venture with Tokyo Gas Denki in the early twenties to
produce industrial vehicles, after a 1918 Japanese government law that gave
financial support to manufacturers of military vehicles.
A very early picture of the factory with a Type 51 and a truck, Masujiro
Hashimoto is actually standing out front.
The came the event that would kick start the automobile industry in Japan. The
Great Japanese Earthquake of 1923 basically leveled vast amounts of industry
and most conventional infrastructure, including railroads. This was the break
the struggling Japanese auto industry needed. Suddenly there was a nationwide
need for transportation, especially trucks. A lot of this transportation void
was filled by imported vehicles, Ford and GM mostly, but DAT got a share of the
Ford was the first American automaker to set up an assembly plant in Japan,
doing so in 1925 with the Japan Ford Motor Co. of Yokohama. GM followed in
1927 with the Japan General Motors company of Osaka. Japanese assembled
American vehicles dominated sales, driving some early domestic manufacturers
out of business.
DAT continued to build cars and trucks in Tokyo until 1926, when it absorbed
Jitsuyo Jidosha Seizo (the name means Practical Automobile Company) to form the
Dat Automobile Manufacturing Co. of Osaka. After the merger, both companies
pretty much gave up the production of cars, and concentrated on building
trucks. JJS had been producing a car called the Lila up to this point, a car
designed by American William R. Gorham.
William R Gorham was born in 1888 in the US. At the age of 14 he built a
motorized wagon by taking a lawnmower engine and adapting it to his toy wagon.
His professional interest first focused on aircraft design, automobiles were
too far along in development for his taste. In 1918 he answered an ad from a
Japanese company to design fighter airplanes, got the job, and moved his family
to Japan. When he got there, there was no need for fighter aircraft as the
first world war had ended by then, so Gorham set about designing the first
motorized rickshaw; it was a huge success all over Southeast Asia. He the set
about designing the "Lila" automobiles, named after his wife. Gorham
also became a consultant for a young up and coming Japanese industrialist named
Yoshisuke Aikawa, owner of Tobata Casting. Gorham would become a major
influence on the development of the company, initiating the vast majority of
DAT's and Nissans technological advances, and designing most of their cars.
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