Risk-taking Dallas dealer embraced Datsun in "60s
Earliest Nissan involvement: Early 1960s
Role: Dealer and distributor in Dallas
Key influence: Gave Datsun a foothold beyond the East and West coasts
It was junk, really — glass knickknacks and miniature metal Ferris wheels. But junk or not, you couldn't buy it in Dallas. And for that reason alone, Talley knew he could turn a profit selling the novelties door to door in his hometown.
Thirty years later, that same entrepreneurial spirit led Talley to Nissan Motor Co. and its fledgling Datsun brand. In her book Driving from Japan: Japanese Cars in America, author Wanda James lists Clarence Talley Automobile Co. among the earliest Datsun distributors in the United States.
Talley died in 1988. His son, Dick Talley, vividly remembers Datsuns lined up in his father's downtown Dallas showroom. The plain little Datsuns were clearly a sideshow, as was the sprinkling of other Japanese brands in Talley's diverse inventory. His main business was European imports, particularly British racing cars and Volkswagen.
Slow to start
“It didn't kick off at the beginning,” Dick Talley says of Datsun sales. “This was not long after the war, and a lot of people were resentful. And the Japanese had to work twice as hard at proving they could build a quality product.”
In fact, the public perception of Datsun was not that different from the trinkets Talley once hauled from New Orleans, Dick Talley says. Customers compared the simple econoboxes to toy cars made of tin. His competitors were even harsher.
“There were all kinds of comments made,” Talley says. “It's the automotive game of make yours look better than everyone else's.”
Clarence Talley had his work cut out for him. Nissan was concentrating its efforts on the East and West coasts. And although Nissan set up its first regional sales office outside of California in Houston in 1961, the middle of the country wasn't seen as an important market, according to Nissan/Datsun: A History of Nissan Motor Corporation in the U.S.A., 1960-1980.
Attributing R.L. Polk & Co., the book's author, John B. Rae, lists Datsun sales in the nine-state Houston region at just 98 vehicles in 1961. Granted, all but eight of those vehicles were sold in Texas, but Datsuns were still a rarity. That's exactly what made them attractive to his father, Dick Talley says.
Clarence Talley found a niche market for Datsuns in soldiers just back from Korea who were returning to school and needed something cheap with good gas mileage. Another target was open-minded professionals looking for something different.
Listening to dealers
In the early 1970s, Datsun turned the corner with its image, Talley says. He gives all the credit to the factory, which he says listened to dealers like his father and modified the vehicles based on the dealers' knowledge of the United States.
“If you tell the Japanese they made a mistake, they will stop production right then and there until they get it fixed,” Dick Talley says. “Because of that attitude, that's made them very successful through the years.”
Clarence Talley's relationship with Nissan was relatively short compared to his more than 40-year career in the car business. Although he doesn't recall the exact details, Dick Talley thinks his father sold the Datsun franchise in the 1970s when Volkswagen began demanding that its dealers be exclusive.
Asked whether his father would be surprised to see how far Nissan has come in the United States since then, Dick Talley says: “There's no doubt in my mind. I think he would wonder, "Why in the world didn't I do that?' “