World Trade 100

Japan Sells Its First Cars In The United States

July 1, 2004
Masujiro Hashimoto returned to Tokyo in 1911 from government-sponsored study in the United States inspired by the bustle and commotion of Broadway to build the first commercially-viable Japanese automobile. Three years later his company introduced its first car, the 10-horsepower DAT, an acronym formed from the surnames of its initial investors: Den, Aoyama, and Takeuchi.

By the 1930s, the firm, now known as Nissan, released their first true mass-produced vehicle. They dubbed the car the Datson, literally the "son of DAT." When critics pointed out that the name unintentionally mirrored the Japanese phrase "to lose money," the last syllable was changed to "sun." Hence the Datsun, which soon symbolized Japan's rapid industrial advance in the decade before World War II. "The Rising Sun as the flag and Datsun as the car of choice," proclaimed company advertisements.

In the post-World War II U.S. occupation, Nissan was purged of its top executives and requisitioned half its manufacturing facilities. Dealers switched allegiances to Toyota, a former loom maker turned automobile company. In 1950, however, the U.S. Army again reversed Nissan's fortunes, purchasing a variety of Datsun mini-trucks and vehicles for their military effort in Korea. By the late 1950s, Volkswagen had already proven import cars could reach a mass American audience. Yet no Asian firm had emulated this success. In 1957, Toyota had introduced a top Japanese seller, the Toyopet, to American drivers. Sales the first full year numbered fewer than three hundred. A reporter concluded, "With over 50 foreign car makers already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market for itself."

The next year, 1958, the first Nissan dealership opened for business in San Diego, offering the $1695 PL210 four-door sedan, whose motor Road and Track reviewers judged "melancholy." Total sales: 83. Still, Nissan stuck with the Datsun, following with a truck, the Fairlady SP211 roadster, and PL310 Bluebird.

The mid-sixties brought the breakthrough Datsun 510, a stylish, powerful, practical four-door sedan for under $2000. "Suddenly buying Japanese didn't necessarily mean you'd made a compromise or settled for second best," writes automotive writer John Pearley Huffman. "It was a Japanese vehicle that competed with the best of Europe and America in quality, performance and sheer sexiness and beat them-without sacrificing the keen pricing advantage that opened the door to Japanese imports in the first place." Fans dubbed the 510 "the poor man's BMW." The 240z followed as "the poor man's Ferrari."

By mid-decade, both Toyota and Nissan had passed Volkswagen in new U.S. customers. 1980 opened with Japanese automakers responsible for a full quarter of American car sales.

Today all U.S. automakers have adopted such successful Japanese production methods as automation, quality control, and just-in-time inventories. Daimler-Chrysler cars come with Mitsubishi engines, Ford designers collaborate with their Mazda counterparts, and General Motors shares a California factory with Toyota. Nissan, the import pioneer, manufactures in Mississippi and Tennessee and this year, for the first time, North American Nissan sales will exceed one million automobiles.