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Datsunland USA: California museum chronicles early history of brand in America

Tue, 20 Jul 2010

Fred Jordan is a true believer.

“It's the greatest automotive story ever told,” he said with the fire of a zealot. “This story is so wonderful, if someone could just get it down!”

We were sitting in the Datsun Heritage Museum, under a sign that said, “Datsunland,” and I was trying desperately to get it down. Jordan is almost 88 years old and is battling cancer. He is afraid the story will never get out. The story is the history of Datsun and Nissan in America, and while Jordan played a significant role in it, he is quick to point out that it is mostly the story of Yutaka Katayama, the man who brought Datsun to America and gave us the Z.

“It's the story of Mr. K,” Jordan said. “We're trying to keep it alive.”

Jordan was general manager of San Diego Datsun, the first dealership in the United States. The place was basically a garage owned by a mechanic who wanted nothing to do with sales but sold Goggomobils on the side to make some extra money. Datsun offered him a franchise for $200.

“Back then you didn't need $4 million to start a dealership,” Jordan said.

Jordan stayed with Datsun through its meteoric rise from an also-ran importer to the major player it is today. When he retired, Jordan stayed in touch with the company principals.

“Johnnie Gable [Mr. K's secretary] kept a Christmas-card list; from that we kept up with everybody. A group of 12 former Datsun/Nissan execs lived locally and they started going to lunch regularly. They called themselves ‘The Datsun Gang.' ”

Among those who kept in touch was Mr. K.

“How this [museum] got started, on his 98th birthday we got talking. We agreed to meet again, but his doctor wouldn't let him travel here and my doctor wouldn't let me travel to Japan. So we met in Hawaii.”

A number of former Datsun execs came, too.

“I promised him, ‘I'm going to start this museum.' ”

A little over a year ago, Jordan and a host of retired Datsun executives and dealers, along with members of the Z Car Club of the Inland Valley, cut the ribbon on the Datsun Heritage Museum, a 4,500-square-foot temple to all things Datsun. There is a story every couple feet as you walk through the place, and if you have Fred Jordan with you to tell the stories, they all come alive.

The first car you see once you pass under the Datsunland sign is a 1959 L210, similar to the '58 model Mr. K drove to victory in the Rally Australia. The legendary Datsun 510 traces its roots to this car, one of the first Datsuns imported to America. Jordan found it in a local backyard. The owner had some preposterous engine swap planned. Jordan plans to restore it to original condition.

The L210 is next to a glass case filled with memorabilia, including models of the Datsun Flying Feather. But before we hear about the Feather, Jordan has to explain about the 1918 Smith Flyer Model C parked next to the L210. The Smith Flyer was instrumental in forming Mr. K's philosophy of sports cars that lead to the Datsun 240Z. The Smith looks like a Flexible Flyer sled with bicycle wheels. It is a buckboard with two seats and a small engine out back that powers a fifth wheel that drives the “car.” Katayama saw a Smith Flyer parked outside a train station in 1925 when he was just 16 years old, Jordan said. Katayama was enthralled with its simplicity. Years later, working at Nissan, Katayama finally had chance to put that philosophy into four-wheeled form.

“In 1950, he's working for Nissan and he built three Flying Feathers,” said Jordan, pointing up from the Smith Flyer on the floor to a model in the glass case of the Flying Feather. “Eventually they built 300 of them.”

From the Flying Feather, you could argue, came the philosophy that built the 240Z.

Also in the glass case are the incorporation papers for Nissan Motor Corporation in U.S.A., signed by Mr. K and two other executives on Sept. 28, 1960. There's a black-and-white photo of the 18 original employees standing outside the brick headquarters at 137 E. Alondra Blvd. in Carson. Rent for the building was $988 a month.

Behind the L210 is another case.

“You recognize that,” Jordan asked, pointing at a car model.

It's a Toyota 2000GT.

“Mr. K had his design center build a design study.”

That design study became the Toyota 2000GT but was originally a Datsun project. Mr. K rejected it because, with its large X frame, it was too heavy.

Two steps in front of the Smith Flyer, both literally and figuratively, was a bright yellow Z.

“That's Mr. K's personal car,” said Jordan.

When Katayama went back to Japan, the yellow Z was passed on to his secretary, Gable, whose son now owns it.

More stories: San Diego Datsun was the de facto technical center for Nissan Motor Corporation in U.S.A.

“They had nothing up at Alondra Boulevard,” said Jordan.

So he became intimately aware of the workings of the first Zs, from the poorly designed carburetors on the first Zs to things as mundane as air conditioners.

“We put air conditioning on them, heavy two-piston affairs that drew 16 to 17 hp when they were on.”

More stories: Next to the Z is a pickup truck. At the time, importing and selling compact pickup trucks in America seemed an impossibility because of what was called the “Chicken Tax,” an archaic but still legally binding import tax that had its roots in some kind of poultry-export brouhaha in the '60s. It required a 25 percent tariff on the trucks, which would have priced them out of contention in the States.

“So Mr. K got the idea to import them without their beds on the back, which got around the tax. We made the beds here and assembled the trucks by adding the locally made beds.”

More stories: Mr. K also thought up the King Cab, Jordan said, a configuration used on the majority of pickups of all sizes sold today. Katayama also came up with the concept of ramps for the ships that carried cars from Japan, so the cars and trucks could be driven off instead of lifted out one by one by cranes. Another glass case features a model of a ship so configured.

Next to that is a 1960 Nissan Patrol. It was a good car but never sold well at first. Jordan has a story that explains why.

“Mr. K made a handshake deal with Toyota. He wouldn't sell Patrols so they could sell FJ40s, and they wouldn't sell 2000GTs so Datsun could sell 240Zs. Back then there were a lot of handshake deals like that.”

And so on around the 4,500 square feet.

There's a replica of John Morton's 1972 championship 240Z, a 1968 Japan-spec Bluebird SSS, a stock '73 Datsun 510 and another 510 with a Mazda rotary engine swapped in. There are posters along the walls, memorabilia, Paul Newman ads--there's something for everyone who has ever loved a Datsun.

But the future of the place is far from assured.

“The museum corporation was supposed to take over,” Jordan said. “But they didn't.”

Which leaves the collection, including “boxes and boxes of stuff, great stuff,” in a little bit of uncertainty. But for now, every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and on other days by appointment, you can still see everything Datsun. The museum is located at 41610 Date St. in Murrieta, Calif. If you're lucky, Jordan will be there and you can get the story straight from the guy who was there when it all happened.

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By Mark Vaughn