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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

September 5, 1997

Automotive birthdays have been very much in the news recently. Oldsmobile celebrated its hundredth anniversary, Ferdinand Porsche produced his first run of 30 Volkswagen Beetles in Germany 60 years ago, and Saab just turned 50, a celebration date it shares with the mighty Prancing Horse of Ferrari.

But being something of an automotive eccentric, I'm also aware of off-beat and obscure auto facts and figures and it recently occurred to me that Nissan should be celebrating something of an anniversary too. It was 40 years ago in November of 1957 that the company made the decision to test the waters of the U.S. car market and chose the Los Angeles Auto Show of 1958 to first display its wares to the American public.

In those days, the products of the Nissan Motor Company were called Datsun to honor a series of remote historical events that went back to its inception in 1911. The original backers of the company were three men by the names of Den, Aoyama and Takeuchi (DAT) and when that company went belly-up seven years later only to revitalize soon after, SON was added, as in "son of DAT." Unfortunately, the English letter combination SON as pronounced in Japanese sounds like an expression for losing money, so it was changed to SUN. At least that's how the story goes.

In 1958, I was one of several hundred thousand Americans who had already been exposed to the Datsun name. Those of us who had served in Japan during The Occupation or during the Korean War had ridden in many Datsun taxis - tiny basic sedans that looked for all the world like the Crosley that had been produced in the U.S. some years before.

Just after World War II, several Japanese auto makers realized that they needed outside help in getting their factories updated and entered into agreements with a couple of British manufacturers to make English cars in Japan. They then transferred the technology to home-grown products. Nissan teamed with Austin and eventually produced small sedans and pickup trucks that were very "Austin" in design and construction.

I was first exposed to Datsun as a mechanic in 1959 when I went to work for a Datsun dealer in my home town. I got the job based mainly on my experience with British cars. I felt right at home working on the little machines and found that many parts made in England for Austins worked fine on Datsuns. I was really impressed with the tenacity and dedication to the product that was exhibited by the Datsun factory representatives in the early '60s. The dealer that I worked for was fairly respectable and while the Datsun was a secondary line for him, he serviced what he sold and kept a comprehensive stock of parts. This wasn't true with some of the dealers that had been signed up by an independent importer and I'd heard of dealerships that operated out of store fronts, had no service facilities at all and even palmed off Datsuns as German cars, hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the VW. Nissan always sent out a factory technician to cure problems that some of their dealers got themselves into.

Yutaka Katayame (the same "Mr. K" that's featured in those mystical Nissan TV ads) had been in on the promotion of Nissan since the mid-'50s, having started with the company in 1935. In 1960, he was one of the signers of the incorporation papers which formed Nissan Motor Company - USA to distribute Datsuns here without the need for outside independent distributors. I understand that he personally sold Datsun sedans and pickups door-to-door in the ethnic Japanese neighborhoods in Southern California in order to get the ball rolling. The imported car market had as many as 70 different imported makes and models here then (British, French, German, Swedish, Czechoslovakian, Italian and even another Japanese car, the Toyota) but it was the ubiquitous VW that lead the parade. Progress was slow for Nissan but Road & Track magazine said in 1960 that the Datsun sedan "... had a lot to offer.." after reporting in 1958 that the same car (albeit with a much smaller engine) was underpowered and "melancholy."

I think that the names the Datsun designers attached to their cars in the beginning put off shoppers in those days, too. The neat little sedan were called the Bluebird and the really outstanding Datsun sports car that appeared in 1965 was labeled the Fairlady. These kinds of poetic names may have appealed to Japanese buyers, but Americans warmed up to the cars more when they were given their numerical designations of PL410 and SPL310. Datsun pickups were never saddled with these "tinkerbell" titles and outsold its sedan siblings for many years.

I was working for another Datsun dealer in 1968 when the company introduced its now-famous model 510 sedan. It was technically-advanced over its economy-car competitors, sporting independent suspension front and rear, an overhead cam engine and an all-syncromesh four-speed transmission. The buff magazines dubbed it "the poor man's BMW" and it's still a popular "cult car" among sports car enthusiasts even though the last ones were built in '73.

I left my last job in the trade as a Datsun mechanic in 1972 to become a high school teacher and by that time, Datsun was well on its way to being the top selling imported car in the U.S. In retrospect, I never would have imagined that those underpowered little taxis I rode in while on leave in Japan in 1954 would be the ancestors of the high-tech and high-class Nissans and Infinitis of today.