With the forward thinking design of the Datsun 240Z, Yoshihiko Matsuo brought some soul into Datsun, something that was sorely needed to impress picky American car shoppers.
The President of the Z Car Club Association of America confirmed on Facebook that Yoshihiko Matsuo, the chief designer responsible for the Datsun 240Z, passed away earlier this week at 87. As Chief designer of the Datsun 240Z, Yoshihiko Matsuo played a pivotal role moving along the foward thinking design vision he saw as Datsun’s future.
Datsun in the early 1960s was already selling cheap, reliable sedans, trucks, and roadsters in the United States but needed a halo car to set them apart. With the support of Yutaka Katayama, President of Nissan Motors in the U.S.A., Matsuo was tasked with coming up with a new Datsun Roadster, something that would compete and dominate the likes of MGB and Triumph in the hotly contested United States market.
According to a quote from Zhome.com, in a conversation between Katayama and Matsuo,
“When Mr Katayama came back from America and visited my department. the words he said made me determined to follow my dream. He stated that we could go on making cheap economy cars forever, but by doing so, we would never be able to move forward in export markets. Nissan, and Japan as a whole, needed to build something stunning, something original that would make foreign manufacturers sit up and take notice of us. “
While Matsuo’s higher-ups wanted him to pursue a much more conservative design, it was Yoshihiko Matsuo, with the help of his small design team, that pushed forward a Grand Touring coupe design.
From 1966 to 1968, Matsuo’s small design team made several open-top clay models taking design cues from other boxy roadsters of the time like the Fiat 850 and Porsche 914.
It was only after new American safety regulations introduced during the design cycle did Matsuo’s initial, bold design, come to the forefront. Easily changed with a hardtop, the fastback coupe design was ultimately more rigid, safer, and more likely to pass crash testing.
Design moved further along to the final shape of the Datsun 240Z after putting into consideration the United States market’s need for good luggage capacity and sleek aerodynamic designs.
Against engine size requirements in their Japanese market, Yutaka Katayama gave the 240Z the power it needed, a 2.4 liter inline six cylinder, a whole .4 liters larger than what Nissan originally doled out to Katayama.
Priced super affordable at $3,500 (around $25,000 in 2020,) when the Datsun 240Z hit the United States market, the company that was barely selling 1,000 cars a year in America now had orders for over 4,000 Z cars a month.
Largely thanks to Matsuo’s elegant lines backed by the engineering team’s performance and agility baked in, the Datsun 240Z became a sports car juggernaut, cementing Nissan as more than just a cheap sedan car company.
Reading up on Matsuo’s life and later work, Matsuo took a lot of time to attend Z shows in the United States, interact with fans, and inspired a new generation of designers.
In a time when Nissan is reinventing itself in a market defined more by crossovers and alternative energy, exciting design is still a mainstay throughout.
Matsuo left a legacy of “designing out of the box” and taking a chance, a rich legacy Nissan should tap into today.