Today, I want to focus not so much on the car itself - but on the man behind it. The “510" Datsun is well known, and has recently been modelled by a whole bunch of manufacturers. Matchbox and M2 are the most recent ones. Tomica got there a whole lot earlier, naturally. In fact, it was their very first model - the “1-1" released in 1970.
But the tale of the man behind it is fascinating. In 1960, a young Nissan executive named Yutaka Katayama came to California to compile a marketing report on the company’s fledgling U.S. operations. Katayama was a rich kid from Japan’s Saitama province who had missed military service in the war because of bad eyesight. Unlike many auto executives on either side of the Pacific, he was also an automotive enthusiast. Katayama had founded the first sports car club in postwar Japan, and prior to joining Nissan in the 1950s, he had contemplated starting his own car company. He still dreamed of creating his own small sports car.
Nissan was an extremely conservative company even by Japanese standards, driven in that era more by cronyism than any love of cars. Katayama had become frustrated with the company’s stodgy management, which considered him something of a rebel. He had managed to antagonize several members of the company’s management union, making himself a variety of powerful enemies; union loyalists tended to have favored positions whether they were qualified for them or not
The company finally decided to exile Katayama to the United States, where Nissan was then beginning a very tentative export operation. His initial task was to study the U.S. market, which at that time was new territory for Nissan in every sense of that term; the company had sold fewer than 100 cars in the U.S. in 1958, their first year in the States, and two years later they still had yet to sell their 2,000th car. It was not an assignment that most better-connected Nissan executives would have wanted, so it was an ideal way to dispense with Katayama, keeping him out of sight and out of mind on a low-priority task that seemed likely to fail anyway.
Unlike many of his contemporary Japanese peers, Katayama liked America and Americans, with whom he quickly ingratiated himself. He soon became affectionately known as “Mr. K,” even to the traffic cops who issued him many speeding tickets. Finally, in 1966 - Mr K had a bit of an epiphany: The BMW 1602. Thisccar featured a 1,573 cc SOHC four-cylinder engine; an all-synchro four-speed transmission; front disc brakes; and fully independent suspension with MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms in back. This was fairly advanced hardware for the time and it paid dividends in performance.
Not only did Katayama like the BMW — which was definitely his kind of car — he saw it as an achievable goal. The 510 was a departure from the 410 in a number of respects. The 510 was bigger — almost 5 inches (125 mm) longer and 2.8 inches (70 mm) wider on a 1.5-inch (40mm) longer wheelbase — and now had front disc brakes. Like the BMW, the 510 also had fully independent suspension with MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms in back. Unlike the 410, which had been designed by Pininfarina, the 510 was designed in-house by Teruo Uchino, who produced a crisp and tasteful shape that would not have looked out of place among the subcompact cars of a decade later.
The 510’s engine was the subject of a ferocious battle between Katayama and the home office. The next-generation Bluebird was to use the new OHC L-series four, but Japanese cars would be launched only with the 1,296 cc (79 cu. in.) L13 version. Katayama recognized that a lack of adequate power had been the Achilles heel of U.S.-market Datsuns and insisted that export cars needed a standard engine of at least 1,600 cc (97 cu. in.). At first, Katayama’s pleas went nowhere. However, Katayama found an ally in new executive Seiichi Matsumura, who had joined Nissan from Japan’s powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). In the spring of 1966, Matsumura agreed to present Katayama’s argument to the Nissan board under Matsumura’s own name (although it was not lost on anyone that the idea had come from Kayatama). The board finally, if reluctantly, agreed to authorize the bigger engine, initially offered only for export markets.
The 510 went on sale in Japan in August 1967 and arrived in export markets a few months later. Japanese cars were still called Bluebird, a name Katayama loathed, but export models were simply called “Datsun 1300” or “Datsun 1600.” Only the latter was offered in the U.S., although the smaller-engined model was also available in Europe and Australia. Katayama was ecstatic about the Datsun 510, which embodied nearly everything for which he’d been fighting the past seven years. It was nearly as economical as its predecessor and still very well-built, but it was also pleasantly styled, fun to drive, and surprisingly quick. Its performance — 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 13 seconds and a top speed of close to 100 mph (155–160 km/h) — was a match for most contemporary American six-cylinder compacts and more than adequate for U.S. roads. The 510 stopped and handled well, too, even if it lacked the Autobahn-oriented polish of its BMW forebear.
Buyers soon took notice. U.S. Datsun sales climbed from 33,000 in 1967 — many of which had been trucks — to more 58,000 in 1968; nearly two-thirds of those were 510s. Sales for 1969 topped 90,000, making Nissan a significant player in the U.S. import market. The 510 also earned Datsun new respect from the U.S. press, which had previously regarded Japanese cars with varying degrees of bemused contempt.
Katayama continued speaking his mind beyond age 100. After Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn resuscitated the Z in the 2000s with the 350Z and the 370Z to global acclaim, Katayama dismissed the 370Z as a “so-so” car. In 2009, he told Automotive News that the 370 was too heavy and too expensive, compared with the nimble and affordable concept behind the 240Z.
He passed away in 2015 - at the age of 105!
Tomica have re-released the “1-1" many, many times - it’s a bit like what the ‘67 Camaro is for Hot Wheels. This one here is from 2010 - easily identified by the 40th Anniversary Logo on the box.
Most of the text here comes from the excellent “Ate up with Motor” blog on the link below, which is well worth reading in full.