Through the '60s, Japanese production cars were not regarded highly, as they tended to be too small for Americans and oddly styled. But all that changed when former Datsun Marketing Manager Yutaka Katayama was put into the driver's seat as president of Nissan Motors in 1965, and Yutaka had a passion for sports cars.
Yutaka spent time in the United States studying the American market and comparing designs. The sports car concept was not new to Nissan, as their first sports car was the '51 DC-3, a small, British-looking, open-air vehicle.
In the mid-'60s, Honda entered the sports car arena with their S800-a small, funny-looking, boxy car. It wasn't until Toyota came out with their 2000GT that Japanese car executives even considered expanding their sports car product line. Because they had never been as successful as the English, German, Italian, and American (Corvette) sports cars, they couldn't see a market for themselves.
But Katayama was different. Though president of Nissan, he still had to get his radical ideas approved by its board of directors. Yutaka spearheaded an effort to design for the American market, something that had never been tried before in the Japanese car industry, and it was Katayama who set the design parameters and championed the project.
Katayama's chief of design was Yoshihiko Matsuo. Knowing that Katayama wanted a sports car designed for the American market, he turned to Dr. Albrecht Goertz, the world-famous, German-born automotive freelance designer. Goertz, who had been doing work for Nissan since 1965, had a solid reputation for designing cutting-edge sports cars that were innovative and beautiful. He was responsible for cars such as the '55 BMW 503 and the 507, the 911 Porsche, and the Toyota 2000GT. With the design parameters in place and Goertz at the drawing board, something great was about to happen.
Goertz was totally familiar with sports cars of the day. In the mid-'60s, the E-Type Jaguar was considered by many to be one of the best sports cars around, and its design may have influenced Goertz with its short, fastback roof, long hood, and scooped-out headlights. He massaged and tweaked the lines of his new design so that the end result was a sleek, original design.
When the new Datsun 240Z made its debut on October 22, 1969, it was like Mustang mania all over again. The Z was an instant hit and Datsun couldn't make enough of them. Its design was a radical departure from the typical Japanese sports car and this car could turn heads, had a throaty growl, and could do 125 mph! The demand was so high that dealers had waiting lists, with some enthusiasts buying Z cars on the East Coast, drive them to the West Coast, and sell them with enough profit to cover the cost of the trip plus the airfare to return home!
But the 240Z wasn't just another pretty face. Under the hood was a stout, 2393cc in-line six-cylinder engine (with 151 hp), which was backed to a five-speed manual transmission. Coupled with its four-wheel independent suspension (a strut front end, wishbone rear, plus rack-and-pinion) the new Z had more than enough grunt to satisfy lead- foot drivers.
Racers immediately saw the potential of the new Datsun. Since the company's 510 Sedan was already a proven winner, the 240Z was a natural. Bob Sharp and Pete Brock both raced a C-Production Class 240Z in 1970 and took the class championship. Almost overnight, 240Z performance parts were available. Because of the 240Z's bargain price of $3,526, owners had plenty of cash left over to buy parts to hot rod their rides. Spoilers, air dams, fog lights, racing wheels and tires, engine kits, and even Chevy V-8 conversion kits were soon available.
Between 1969 and 1973, Datsun made small, incremental improvements to the 240Z (items such as seat belt retractors, new seats, a rear-window defroster, intermittent windshield wipers, flame-retardant interior materials, improved dash layout, and eventually 2-1/2-mph bumpers). The updated, larger displacement 260Z came out in 1974 (the beginning of the boulevard Z-cars), and the Z would see a handful of incarnations throughout the next few years as it moved away from being a sports car and more of a cushy consumer vehicle.
For his lifelong dedication to the automotive industry, Yutaka Katayama was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1998, a well-deserved tribute to the man who changed what it meant to own a Japanese car.