As loyal fans of the marque know, Nissan cars were sold as Datsuns in the United States until 1982, but the origins of the Datsun name can be traced to the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1911, an engineer named Masujiro Hashimoto established Kaishinsha Motorcar Works (literally, Advanced Motorcar Works) in Tokyo.Japan’s industrial revolution was chugging ahead at full steam, but it was still a time when a half dozen men in a shed could become one of the largest automakers in the world. Hashimoto and his six employees toiled away, developing prototypes for three years.
Hashimoto unveiled his finished car at the 1914 Tokyo Taisho Expo, a kind of world’s fair for Japan’s various industries. Even though the car largely resembled a metal tub with running boards and enormous, wooden-spoke wheels, it won the Bronze Prize. Hashimoto named his creation the DAT Model 31 after the surnames of Kenjiro Den, Rokuro Aoyama, and Meitaro Takeuichi, the three investors who made his company possible. Pronounced “datto” in Japanese, it was a homonym for the verb describing the speediness of a coursing hare—a fitting name for the aspirations of a fledgling automaker.
The DAT Model 31 was marketed to the public the following year and every last one was hand built, preventing sales in large numbers. Roads beyond city limits still looked like something out of The Seven Samurai, so large engines weren’t needed. To put it in perspective, the luxury Model 41 that came a year later was powered by a 2.3-liter four-cylinder that made about 15 horsepower.
The next couple of decades of Kaishinsha’s history is a tangle of mergers and acquisitions that’s typical of any industry at its infancy. By the mid 1920s, similar to many companies after the Great Kanto earthquake, the company had fallen into financial difficulty and needed a merger to compete with mass-produced (and cheaper) imports from Ford and Chevrolet. That partner turned out to be Osaka-based Jitsuyo Jidosha Seizo (literally, Practical Vehicle Company). Jitsuyo had seen brief success with the Lila, a car created by William Gorham, an American engineer living in Japan, and named after his wife, but had fallen onto hard times as well.
The merger allowed both companies, now called DAT Jidosha Seizo, to continue developing DAT cars for a few more years. But by 1931 it was in the red once again and ready for yet another merger. This time, it was absorbed into Tobata Casting, an auto parts manufacturer founded by Japanese industrialist Yoshisuke Aikawa. The new company continued to build cars based on the underlying DAT mechanicals. Because they were smaller than Hashimoto’s DATs, they were named Datson, as in “son of DAT.” Unfortunately, “son” sounds extremely similar to a word that translates to “loss” in Japanese, and legend has is that soon after its adoption a typhoon destroyed one of DAT Jidosha’s factories.
This prompted a name change for the next model year from “son” to “sun” (our planet’s source of light that is so ingrained in the Japanese identity that it appears on the nation’s flag), giving us the name we know today as Datsun. So although it was nearly identical to its ill-named predecessor, the 1932 Datsun Type 11 was the world’s first Datsun. Atop the grille was the new logo, a blue bar with the word “DATSUN” in white, superimposed over the red Japanese sun. This emblem adorned Datsuns for the next 50 years largely unchanged, and its colors graced the livery of subsequent race cars (such as the International Motor Sports Association [IMSA] 300ZX).
The name Nissan came only two years later, when Aikawa spun off Tobata Casting’s automotive division into its own company. Taking the first syllable of each word in Nihon Sangyo, one of Aikawa’s holding companies, Nissan was born on June 1, 1934. The cars, still called Datsuns, were evolving nicely from something Mr. Magoo might drive to the new Type 13 and its more elegant curves. As styling grew more ornate, a “datto” leaping-rabbit hood ornament began adorning Datsun grilles.
Among the many myths surrounding early Datsuns, the most prevalent one claims that DAT either licensed or outright copied the Austin 7. The 7 was a wildly successful car for the British automaker Austin Motor Company, and part of that success was its licensing for production under various names around the world. The French knew it as the Rosengart, the Germans called it a Dixi, and in fact, it was the first car BMW ever produced when it took over the Dixi company. In the United States it was known as the Bantam, a company that later developed one of the first Jeep prototypes.
When the rumor that a company in Japan was building a very similar vehicle reached Austin Motor Company founder Herbert Austin, he imported a Datsun Type 13 to Britain to see if he had any basis to sue for a patent infringement. Interestingly, his Datsun had been built in Australia, where Nissan was licensing to a company called Excelsior (as you can see, the early days of the auto industry was a convoluted web of rebranding). Austin tore the car apart and inspected it from bumper to bumper, finding that the Datsun’s engine, suspension, steering, and final gear were all significantly different in design. It didn’t even really look similar. Today, the very car that Herbert Austin imported is part of the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, United Kingdom, the sole Japanese car in its collection. Nissan’s official relationship with Austin did not happen until after the war.
Nissan did produce a licensed version of another car, the Graham-Paige Crusader. The Graham brothers had made a fortune creating what became Dodge’s truck division. However, they suddenly resigned after a falling out with the company’s bankers and took over the Paige-Detroit Motor Car Company, which they ran with much success until the Great Depression. Remember the American-Japanese engineer William Gorham? Well, throughout the various permutations of DAT and Nissan, he stayed on as part of the management. On a trip to Detroit, Gorham found a recently closed Graham-Paige factory and immediately acquired all its machinery and licensing.
The Graham-Paige Crusader was considered a compact car for the United States, but was a large, luxurious machine for Japan. With its 3.7-liter, 85-horsepower straight-six, it barely fit down Nihon’s narrow streets. Nissan sold it as a top-of-the-line model and differentiated it from the plebeian Datsuns by calling it the Nissan Model 70, the first car to carry the Nissan name.
Soon afterward, Nissan became embroiled in the Japanese government’s campaigns of World War II. Nissan’s production facilities were enrolled into the war effort to build trucks, ceasing production of all passenger vehicles. It was a tough time for Nissan, as steel became increasingly scarce during the conflict. Trucks produced toward the end of the war often eschewed fenders and other non- vital pieces, and Nissan’s factories were frequently on the receiving end of Allied bombing.
It wasn’t until 1947 that Nissan resumed production of passenger cars, but these models were mostly new bodies on primitive prewar mechanicals. Geopolitics is a funny thing, and when the Korean War broke out in 1950, Nissan found an unlikely sponsor in the US military, which heavily promoted the use of Datsun trucks to supply its war efforts on the mainland. Still, Nissan had pretty much remained technologically stagnant for the previous decade and a half. In 1952 it signed the aforementioned licensing deal with Austin and began producing A40 Somersets and A50 Cambridges for sale in Japan. But before the ink had time to dry, an upheaval by labor unions nearly drove the company to bankruptcy in 1953.
Nissan, as we know it today, didn’t truly begin until 1955, with the birth of the Datsun 110. Although little more than a tin box on wheels with an 860-cc, 25-horsepower engine tweaked from an ancient prewar design, it represented Nissan’s first all-new car after the war and was a direct predecessor of more familiar cars such as the 510 and Maxima.
The performance of these early Datsuns could not have been further from the 510, but chassis codes don’t lie. The 110 was succeeded by the 1958 Datsun 210, a nearly identical body over an all-new 37-ps OHV 1,000-cc four-cylinder. The 210 holds the honor of being the first Datsun officially brought to the United States, in a display at the Los Angeles Imported Car Show. The appearance helped Nissan gauge customer reaction and conduct road tests for its upcoming American export program, but a few 210s found their way into the hands of early adopters.
At the same time, an adventurous advertising manager named Yutaka Katayama took two 210s to the 1958 Mobilgas Around Australia Trial, a back-breaking 10,000-mile rally around the perimeter of Australia. It was a risky and ambitious proposition for Nissan’s first entry into a high-profile international motorsports event. Nevertheless, Katayama was convinced that the body-on-frame construction of the Datsun 1000 would be perfect for the unpaved desert, swamps, and meter-deep rivers they’d encounter. After all, Japan was still unpaved outside major cities. But most of all, Katayama, an unabashed car enthusiast who had founded the Sports Car Club of Japan a few years earlier, just wanted to go racing more than anything else.
Management considered Katayama a dangerous maverick, due as much to his unorthodox schemes as to the enemies he made during the union strikes of 1953. They probably would’ve told him to get lost but for the fact that Toyota, which had entered a lone Toyopet Crown in the Mobilgas Trial the previous year to much fanfare, was heading back with a field of three vehicles. The bosses granted Katayama two 210s with virtually no modifications other than additional fuel tanks, a privacy curtain for sleeping drivers in the backseat, and paint schemes that looked more like murals than race livery.
After a grueling 19 days on the road, only about half of the 67 cars entered actually completed the race. All three Toyopets were destroyed (two rollovers, one disabled by a kangaroo). Amazingly, not only did the rugged little Datsun 1000s finish, they came in first and fourth in the 1,000-cc class, respectively. Nissan management greeted the delegation’s return at Haneda Airport with a hero’s welcome. They immediately sent Katayama and the two cars on a highly successful, nearly yearlong promotional campaign throughout Japan. Yasaharu Namba, one of the drivers of the winning car, went on to become a Nissan factory rally driver before heading up NISMO at its establishment in 1984.
But when Katayama returned from the promo tour, management had a ticket to Los Angeles waiting for him. His assignment was to spearhead Nissan’s entry into the US market. Though the brass saw it as a way of getting rid of a perceived troublemaker, Katayama took to his post as the West Coast head of Nissan USA with his trademark gusto and became known by his last initial, Mr. K.