TOKYO (AP) — Yutaka Katayama, a former president of Nissan Motor Co.'s U.S. unit who built the Z sports car into a powerful global brand in the 1970s, has died, his son said Saturday. He was 105.
Known as the "father of the Z," Katayama won international respect for the Datsun Z as an affordable sports car at a time when Japan-made products were synonymous with slipshod quality.
Katayama, who retired from Nissan in 1977, died Thursday of heart failure at a Tokyo hospital, his son Mitsuo said.
Carlos Ghosn, who has led a turnaround at the Japanese automaker under an alliance with Renault SA of France, resurrected Katayama's legendary status at Nissan by bringing back the Z, which had been discontinued in 1996.
Inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in both the U.S. and Japan, Katayama is revered by Z fan clubs around the world, which nicknamed him "Mr. K."
"A car is a horse. I want to drive a thoroughbred that's in tune with my heartbeat, but not something that's too dressed up for someone like me," Katayama told The Associated Press in a 2002 interview about the Z's comeback.
In selling the Datsun brand in the U.S., Katayama stressed maintenance services, and courted dealers and employees alike. His vivacious personality, unusual for a Japanese person of his generation, helped.
He made one of the first color films of a Datsun, innovating visual storytelling for marketing, something taken for granted in the auto industry today.
"With a love of cars and a flare for promotion, he built the Datsun brand, Nissan's initial brand name in the U.S., from scratch," Yokohama-based Nissan said on its website last year.
Mitsuo Katayama mused that his father was happily zooming around in the Z in heaven, no longer worried about "gas, police or traffic tickets."
"His greatest achievement, I think, was the fact that he was able to give many American Datsun dealers their own success story," he said.
Katayama is survived by his wife, Masako, two sons and two daughters, 11 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. A family service is planned for Tuesday. A larger memorial will be announced later.
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