"Go Datsun and you go American!"- Early Nissan USA slogan.

Nissan USA- Western Headquarters 1960

Datsuns had been sneaking into the states for years, mostly with ex-servicemen stationed in Japan, but not in any real numbers. Datsun made its official debut at the 1958 Los Angeles Imported Car Show. They showed a couple sedans and a pick up. Fortunately Datsun was given prime floor space next to Mercedes. Koichi Iwata of Nissans export division was in charge showing the Datsuns. He received 35 inquiries about dealerships from just that one show. When a sedan, a wagon, a pick up, and a roadster were shown that November at LA's International Auto show reviews were slightly more enthusiastic.

LA International Auto Show, November 1958

Before committing to importing to the US, Nissan sent over a small team of engineers with a 210 sedan to do some testing under US conditions. The team included Kuniyuki Tanabe, Shin Maki, and Teichi Hara. After much tinkering, several near misses, confused conversations with American police officers, a drag race up a hill with a VW bug(which the 210 won), and a car accident that took out Shin Maki's front teeth, the team returned to Japan. Through broken teeth, Shin Maki reported to Nissans board that, with some modifications, Nissan cars and trucks could be sold in the states.

A 1958 and a half Datsun 1000(PL210) that showed up at the North Van Nissan Show

The first Datsuns for sale rolled onto the beaches of sunny California in 1958, with the 1000, or PL210, four-door sedan. This boxy tall little number came stock with white wall tires, a 60.2 cubic inch engine delivering 37hp, and retailed at just $1695. You could get it in 2 different lengths, or you could buy a mini pickup version, the PLG220(only 10 sold in the US). Road And Track reviewed the car in December '58, and though it gave the cars styling a passing grade, they gave the motor a "melancholy" grade.

Nissan selected Mitsubishi as its importer and Woolverton Motors of North Hollywood, and by Luby-Datsun of Forest Hills, New York as its two West and East Coast distributors. US sales for 1958 were barely a squeak at a total of 83.

The first official Datsun dealer was Ray Lemke of San Deigo. Lemke served in Korea and was familiar with the positive aspects of the tough little Datsun Pick up. Lemke received a Datsun 1000 as part of one of his consignments from Woolverton Motors. Lemke, a mechanic first and a car dealer second, was very impressed with the design of the Datsun sedan. Lemke started officially selling Datsuns on October 8th ,1958. Lemke also has the honor of selling the very first Datsun truck in America. A Navy Veteran, Richard McCrutcheon, followed the first pickup as it was being hauled to Lemke's dealership, watched it being unloaded, and demanded that Lemke sell it to him. Lemke relented and sold the truck, only to find out he would have to wait another 3 months to get a new display model.

One of the two Sakura's entered in Australia

1958 also saw victory for a Datsun racing team. A 210 named the "Fuji-Go", won the Australian Mobilgas Trial rally, with the second team car coming in 4th. The Team was lead by a Marketing exec by the name of Yutaka Katayama. The win was seen as a huge event in Japan, a country that had had little to cheer about since the end of the war. Katayama and the racing team became instant heroes and spent several months touring Japan. It was about this time that Nissan, like many other manufacturers, started using racing as a test platform for engineering upgrades.

The Fairlady SPL211 roadster, and the PL310 bluebird followed in 1959, pushing US sales to a roaring 1290 units. The SPL211 was based on the earlier 210 sedans platform, and featured a fiberglass reinforced plastic body, seated 4 and had a top speed of 70 mph. It took its styling cues from Austin-Healey roadsters. The 310 bluebird was only available in California in 1959. It had a larger engine, giving up 43 horsepower. A 310 two-door station wagon and a pick up based on it became available in early 1960 as did the Nissan Patrol.

The Nissan Patrol,1960's model. Roy Rogers became the spokesman for the Patrol in the earlys 60's. Roy liked the Patrol, so Nissan offered him one(plus 2 pick ups and a station wagon) in return for endorsing it.

Nissan came up with a refined roadster, the Fairlady SPL212. It featured a 48 horsepower engine and retailed for $1996 in the US. The Bluebird was also available in its various forms, along with a pick up based on it. You could get behind the wheel of the little truck for just $1588. Meanwhile back at the ranch, the Japanese were given a taste of luxury with the new Nissan Cedric, Nissan once again giving the Nissan Nameplate to a car. Nissan won the Demings Prize for Quality control that year, a huge honor for a company that had adopted Demings principles in the early 50's. Nissan also signed a collaboration deal with Fuji heavy industries that year.(As many Nissan racers know, some Subaru and Nissan parts became interchangable).

Nissan USA team portrait June 1963, Yutaka Katayama is the guy in the middle
Nissan Motor Corp U.S.A. was formed on September 28th 1960, at 137 East Alondra Bvd in Gardena, California with Yutaka Katayama as Western head, and in Newark, New Jersey with Soichi Kawazoe as Eastern head. Nissan USA was formed at the urging of Mr. Watasuki of Marubeni America, the man who had asked Nissan to send cars to America in the first place. The idea was to do things properly, and to free themselves from Woolverton and Luby. Nissan transferred importation duties from Mitsubishi to Marubeni America and set up the east and west divisions. Before that, Nissan's First office was two rooms on the 7 th floor of Mobil oil Company building, which was home to Mr. K, Mr. Zaitsu the engineer, and an office boy. They didn't even have a secretary! The move to Gardena was Mr. K's idea, as he put it "cars run on the ground, how can you sell them on the 7 th floor?". 1960 sales:1640.

Mr. K

Yutaka Katayama's story is very interesting. He was always a bit of an outsider at Nissan. He was a Japanese Christian for starters, and not a very conservative thinker. He founded the Sports Car Club of Japan in 1951. He also designed his own rather revolutionary car, "The Flying Feather", which he used to race around Japans public roads. Mr. K worked in Nissan's advertising department, but became a bit of a hero in Japan after the rally team he organized won the 1958 Australian Rally. Nissan sent him to America for a number of reasons, he could speak English, he had been there before for a short time as a student, and most likely because Nissan had given away his job while he was in Australia and needed somewhere out of the way to put him. America was considered a gamble, and no conservative execs would give it a shot.

In those early days, Yutaka Katayama actually went house to house in the Japanese areas of LA, trying to sell Datsuns to Japanese immigrants, and to farmers who saw the rugged little trucks as a good deal. There is no record that Katayama actually sold a car or truck this way. Katayama also delivered cars to dealers himself, having another employee follow him to drive him back Gardena.

The grand opening of the Eastern Headquarters, 1963?

Soichi Kawazoe, Nissan's East Coast president, has a pretty good story as well. Kawasoe had a B.Sc. from Dayton University in 1930 and an MS from MIT in 31, He worked for both GM and Ford in Japan before moving on to Nissan. He was primarily an engineer in his Nissan Japan years. American dealers loved him, commenting that he had incredible sales sense for an engineer, but he also knew what had to be done to the New Datsuns to make them work in America.

Soichi Kawasoe

Both Kawasoe and Katayama kept Nissan rolling, quite literally, in America in those early days, delivering the cars themselves, and often doing the repairs as well. It was not uncommon for one of the vice presidents to actually have to go to a dealer to work on a Datsun.

Datsun dealers were a bit of a nightmare at the beginning, with a bit of circus sideshow thrown in for good measure. Quite a few Datsuns were sold off used car lots and gas stations, and from economy car "supermarkets". These supermarkets were multi-brand dealerships, carrying an incredible hodgepodge of cheap foreign and domestic cars, most whose names are now remembered by only the extreme auto enthusiast. Nissan had only 3 exclusive dealerships on the list in '61, including Wally Tucker Datsun, the only surviving exclusive dealership(Lemke was still a multi-brand dealer at this time). Other dealers included a guy who was an undertaker who sold Datsuns on the side, and a guy who sold one Datsun a year to his wife to keep dealer status, though he eventually started selling trucks to farmers and built a real dealership. Several Datsun dealers operated out of private homes using the family garage as the service bay.

Multi-brand dealers like Lemke and Ellard Winters of Sacremento sold Datsuns as their primary make, but also sold other brands. In the beginning trucks sold, and cars weren't really of interest, so most dealers kept very few models, just one or two on the lot, and kept ordering trucks on demand.
Partnerships with Volvo dealers were common in early days because of non-competing lines.

Nissan Mexicana SA de CV came into existence in 1961, Nissan Canada was formed in 1964, and Nissan popped up in Australia in 1966. Datsuns were also manufactured outside of Japan; first in Taiwan by the Yue Loong Motor Company in 1959, then in Mexico in 1966, and in Peru in 1967. Australia also built Datsuns, but I don't have a date on that. Nissan began sales into Scandinavia and mainland Europe in the early 60's, first concentrating on countries that didn't manufacture thier own cars, then moving into places like Germany and France.

Nissans first car carrier, the Violet. These ships were actually owned by Marebuni, but leased back to Nissan.

In 1961 Nissan USA pulled the plug on the Datsun 1000 for the now 60 dealer strong US market. The 310 Bluebird became the pl311, the roadster became the spl213. However, the roadsters next evolution, the SP310, appeared that year at the Tokyo auto show to much critical acclaim. Only about 500 of the s200 series roadsters were produced, with sales of the model in the US continuing till early 1962.

Datsun 310

The 62-63 model year saw very little change in the Bluebird, other than chrome modification and renaming it the pl312. It's interesting to note that Nissan USA was promoting the Bluebird as a safer import, basically because it weighed hundreds of pounds more than the competition. The roadster became the all new Sports 1500 spl310 in 1963, a redesigned 3 seater, that became a 2 seater halfway through its production run. It ressembled the newer roadsters much more that it did the previous 200 series cars.

Albrecht Goertz signed on as a consultant with Nissan in 1963, staying till 1965 primarily to help develop a 2000gt sportscar in a joint venture between Nissan and Yamaha. The project was scrapped after Yamaha's engine didn't live up to its billing, but if you look at photos of this car, you can see where some of the design inspiration for the 240z came from.

410, and magazine add for the whole Datsun line

And then came the Bluebird 410 in September 63. This car had its body penned by the famed Italian design house Pininfarina, it shared some components with the roadster, but was a "unit body" car. The engine was the same basic design as the roadster, with different carbs.

66 Silvia(never imported to USA)

You could get the 410 in either 4 Dr or wagon for the low low price of just $1616 4 door, or $1816 for the wagon. You could also get a Cedric sedan, and a 4wd Patrol in the US in 1964. The Goertz/Nissan designed Silvia Coupe 1600 appeared that year at the Tokyo Auto show, a car that was sited as another inspiration for the Z.

1964 New York Auto Show

Nothing really changed in 65 for the 410. You could order a deluxe Cedric though, with a 95 horse engine, for only $2585. An updated roadster slightly redesigned by Albrecht Goertz, showed up on the scene as the spl311 1600. It now featured a larger 1595cc R Series engine, front wheel disc brakes, and many other modern features. A more important development that years was the birth of Nissans first true economy car, the Japanese market Sunny B10, a car that would become Nissans biggest seller for many years. The one liter Sunny sold well in Japan, and was exported to country's all around the world including Canada, but not to the US. Nissan also took over The Aichi Machine Company, makers of the Cony mini-car. The big Japanese market President got restyled, and the Silvia Coupe went into production.

The 410 became the 411 in 1966 with not much change, other than a few exterior light and trim adjustments. The PL520 pickup came into existence that year as well.

Datsun 521 doing a little industrial effort
January 1966 also saw Nissan's merger with Prince. Prince was a company with incredible engineering skill, but with less focused business and management practices. They had already come up with a couple stellar automobiles, including the original Skyline and Gloria sedans, and the r380 sports prototype. This merger was "suggested" by Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry, known as MITI.

Prince car and truck

MITI isn't like the ministry's or government agencies we're used to in North America or elsewhere. MITI had great control over the direction of Japanese industry, and importantly, who got what in the way of raw materials. If your company was seen as a good solid performer, you got favor from MITI. If your company was seen as a risk, MITI would let you sink, or more likely, merge you with someone who was successful.

MITI was very instrumental in the Japanese auto boom of the late 60's and 70's, and was also the driving force behind Japan's switch from heavy industry to electronics. When I say that MITI "suggested" the Nissan takeover of Prince, it was probably more of an order.

Prince's influence would go a long way towards Nissans goal of getting away from its Austin-like image. Not only did Nissan get a new factory out of the deal, they also got Princes test track and grounds. Princes engineers had taken an deep hard look at the Mercedes engines of the early 60's, and had come up with some nifty little SOHC engine designs of their own. Princes engineers where also really good at putting together light strong body shells, something that would become invaluable with the development of the 510 and the recently resurrected Fairlady GT project.

L16 Series 510 engine

The first incarnation of what would be the model for Nissans very successful L series engine came out in October 1965 in the Cedric Sedan as the L20 engine. This was a Prince engine that had been developed just in time for Nissan to take over the company. It was then combined with the existing Nissan U20 Austin based engine design. The new combined engineering team at Nissan put a Prince Mercedes based head on a modified and stroked roadster 1600 block and came up with a SOHC engine capable of 150 horsepower. The new engine signaled a whole new era of technology at the company. Nissan even set up an official competition department in the US to supply parts for American race team's running roadsters with this engine. Nissan/Prince combined speed shops were also instituted in Japan.

1967 was also a good year for the fairlady roadster and the Bluebird 411. The Bluebird RL411SSS featured a twin SU 1595 cc R series engine pumping out 96 horses, front disc brakes, and an optional 3 speed Borg Warner automatic, plus tons of extra bits and pieces not found on the standard 411. You could pick one up at your local Nissan dealer for $1846. The Fairlady 2000 SR311 was also launched in March that year.

Next Page

Contact Me