In the early 1970s, buy-American sentiment rattled Japanese automakers. No matter. Bob Link made Datsun the No. 1 import brand.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1965
Role: National sales manager
Key influence: Nearly quadrupled Datsun sales despite shaky dealers and anti-import anger
Link was leery of jumping ship from Triumph to the upstart Japanese brand. But the two automakers' Los Angeles offices were near each other, and Link often ran into Yutaka Katayama and lieutenant Ray Hoen at the same lunch spots.
Link joined Datsun in 1965 as assistant sales manager for the West Coast. In time, he became Katayama's sales chief. Link whipped dealers into shape, nearly quadrupled sales and pushed Datsun to become the No. 1 import brand in America in 1975.
When Hoen died suddenly from an aneurysm in 1968, Link stepped in as national sales manager.
Link immediately embarked on a five-year plan. In 1969, Datsun sold 85,894 cars and trucks through 640 dealerships. By 1973, those numbers had soared to 319,007 units through 948 showrooms.
With the 240Z and 510 in showrooms, Datsun in 1975 passed Volkswagen and Toyota to become No. 1.
“We were always short of vehicles,” Link recalled.
Improving dealers' business operations was a prime goal. Katayama had wanted dealers who didn't have ties to Detroit's buy-American sentiment. That meant Datsun signed lots of used-car dealers and service station owners.
But “these garages were not familiar with financial statements,” Link said in an interview in San Diego this year, just shy of his 90th birthday. San Diego dealer Ray Lemke “would pay for his cars in cash. Getting that business management into the dealer body helped strengthen the organization.”
Link left Datsun in 1981, just as President Takashi Ishihara announced that the Datsun brand would change its name to Nissan. Link recalls that move as “the biggest mistake Datsun ever made.”
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