'Mr. K's' secret: He loves life and cars. His passions propelled Nissan in the early years in America.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1960 in U.S.
Role: President, Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A.
Key influence: Nissan's foremost pioneer in America. With charm, a love of cars and a flair for promotion, he built the Datsun brand from scratch.
He was Nissan's founding father in America. Starting with nothing in California in 1960, he built an enduring foundation of dealers, products, customers, advertising agencies and executives.
But this would utterly fail to capture the man, universally known as "Mr. K."
"If you ever knew him, you'd fall in love with him," says Fred Jordan, 86, the retired general manager of an early Nissan dealership in San Diego. "And I was at Pearl Harbor."
Johnnie Gable, Mr. K's former personal assistant, recalls that when Mr. K retired in 1977 and moved back to Japan, he tried to give her his personal, yellow Z car. The company bean counters made her pay for it, she said, but Mr. K reimbursed her on the sly.
Gable maintained Mr. K's Christmas card list, which grew to more than 10,000 names. Every year, she mailed out a new, custom-designed card. "I have a copy of every one of them," she said in a phone interview.
Mr. K inspires that kind of devotion because he really does love cars. He really does love people. He really does love life.
The bare facts of Mr. K's career can be summed up quickly. With a very un-Japanese flair for promotion, he took the shoestring U.S. Nissan operation (then called Datsun) he inherited in 1960 and:
n Unified separate East Coast and West Coast subsidiaries.
n Established the brand beyond question as a top-tier U.S. import.
n Begged the parent company for a sports car for years.
When the sports car finally arrived in 1969, he had the guts and the good sense to chisel off the name Fairlady and rename it the 240Z, based on the car's internal code-name.
As recounted in the book The Reckoning by the late David Halberstam, earlier in his career, Mr. K generated huge publicity and helped get Nissan started exporting cars by entering the automaker in a road rally in Australia — and, surprisingly, winning .
Mr. K is still capable of surprising people, even very old friends.
"I've known Mr. K since I joined the company in 1949. He has been my boss since I joined the company," said Masataka Usami, 81, the former vice president in charge of parts and service for Nissan North America Inc. who now lives in California.
"I thought I knew him very well. But by talking to him the other day, I learned a lot more about his basic philosophy and thinking," Usami said after a recent trip to Japan.
Usami said he and Mr. K, now 98, had a long face-to-face discussion about Mr. K's philosophy and his legacy at Nissan.
Said Usami: "His concept of the car, he told me the other day — and from the beginning when he was a little boy over 90 years ago, he loved cars — the concept of the car Mr. K has is: 'The car has to be like a horse. It is something you can tame, you can love, you can ride together.' "
The soul of a sports car
He said Mr. K strongly disapproves of overregulated, overengineered cars. "The car has to be something the driver controls, rather than the car controlling the driver," Usami said. "Sophisticated engineers have made it like a jumbo jet. The car has to be something the driver can control, that obeys the driver's will.
"That's why he likes a sports car. A sports car has to be that way."
In all their years together, Usami said, he never heard Mr. K put it quite that way: "What was surprising to me is that's the way he still regards the car, the image of the car in his mind. And that concept of the car led him to introduce the Z car."
You can reach Jim Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org.