Hired Gun - 1962 Tawara Datsun Fairlady 1500
In 1911, Japanese businessman Masujiro Hashimoto founded Kaishinsha Motor Car Works, the nation's first ever automobile company. Hashimoto had studied in the United States of America on a grant provided by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, and had been impressed by the scale and efficiency of American car manufacture.
His vision was to replicate these techniques to produce Japan's own motor car. Three years after its foundation, the firm produced its first vehicle, the DAT. The DAT was a small vehicle in styled like a large American touring car, but was powered by a diminutive smaller inline two-cylinder engine providing 10 horsepower. Its top speed was a modest 32 kph (19 mph). The car's name stood for the three men who invested in its design: Baron Kenjiro Den, Rokuro Aoyama and Meitaro Takeuchi.
However, Japan wasn't quite ready for passenger cars just yet, leading the company to focus on trucks and commercial vehicles. After serving the war effort during World War I, its name was changed to DAT Motorcar Company, reflecting the brand name that had graced all of its vehicles.
In 1932, DAT ventured back into passenger cars when the government introduced a new class of car. These vehicles were limited to 500cc engine capacity, but were able to be sold at a lower tax rate, and didn't require driver's licences. DAT entered the new market with the Datson Type 11, or "Son of DAT" in reference to its much smaller size compared to the well-known trucks. The name was later changed to Datsun, as the Japanese word "son" also meant loss.
Just as the Type 11 came to market, DAT Motorcar Company was merged into auto parts supplier Tobata Casting, a subsidiary of Yoshisuke Aikawa's Nihon Sangyo (Japanese Industry) a large holding company. Nihon Sangyo, or Nissan in short from, acquired several companies in 1932, and became one of Japan's major "zaibatsu", an overarching conglomerate instigated by the Japanese government to rationalize its industry.
Despite its enormous size, Nissan struggled to get back on its feet after the devastation caused by the Second World War. As such, it needed outside help. A helping hand came from British manufacturer Austin, which had been affiliated with Nissan in the 1930's.
In 1952, Nissan and Austin reached an agreement concerning licensed production of Austin models in Japan. This deal, combined with the drastic restructuring of the company after the dramatic 100 Day Strike of 1953, quickly made Nissan one of the most productive and most rapidly growing companies in the world.
Nissan produced Austin models like the A50 until 1959, but quickly churned out original designs as well. One of these was the Datsun Sports 1000, a small open sportscar based on the platform of the humble 211 sedan.
With a 988 cc straight four producing 37 horsepower on board, the car was more style than speed. Regardless, the Sport 1000 finally kicked off Nissan's involvement in the sportscar segment, although just 20 examples of the fiberglass roadster were ever built.
Little over a year later, the Sports 1000 was followed by the Sports 1200 Fairlady. This car would eventually almost double the older car's power figure with a 60 horsepower engine, but was weirdly built on the underpinnings of a small pickup truck. The unusual name was a reference to the popular Broadway musical My Fair Lady.
Like the 1000, the 1200 never sold in great numbers, as the counter stopped at 217 vehicles. However, Nissan's first tentative steps on the sportscar market reflected a burgeoning interest among the Japanese buying public, as the country started to prosper following its tremendously successful industrialization.
The newfound wealth also gave rise to a therefore unimaginable activity: the noble art of motorsport. Ever since Kaishinsha Motor Car Works was founded in 1911, Japan had always treated the car as a utilitarian, functional machine. Naturally, their designs reflected this.
By the 1960's however, that opinion changed. The car began to be seen as a source of style, image and fun. No other development was a bigger catalyst for this than the opening of Honda's Suzuka Circuit in 1962. Although originally designed as a test track for Honda motorcycles and cars, the venue was shaping up for Japan's first major motorsport event on the weekend of May 3-4, 1963.
This event was aptly named the First Japan Grand Prix, and would feature three distinct categories. At the top of the roster was a large capacity Sports Car A class, which exclusively featured foreign machinery from brands like Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Lotus, as Japanese manufacturers relied on much smaller engines.
Further down was the Sports Car A class for 1300-2500cc engines, the Touring Class for family sedans, and even a separate category fot the popular 360cc Kei-cars. As the Touring Class was the only one where Japanese cars could directly compete with imported sportscars from Triumph and MG, it was by the far the most interesting part of the event.
As luck would have it, one intrepid enthusiast did step up to defend Japan's honor. Sportscar aficionado Genichiro Tawara entered his personal Datsun Fairlady 1500, the more mature successor to the Sports 1200 which had been launched shortly before the race in October of 1962. Tawara had come to Nissan for assistance with his ambitious project, but since motorsport was still a novel concept, nobody could really help him.
With little in the way of technical preparation, Tawara took it upon himself to explore the confines of Suzuka circuit in several practice sessions. His Fairlady was completely stock, save for a lighter perspex windows, an optimistic rollbar and a weight reduction treatment including the deletion of its rear seat. Under the bonnet was a 1.5L single SU carbureted four cylinder engine, producing 85 horsepower.
During his practice runs, Genichiro Tawara did his best to try and improve the car. Different setups were tried, helping him define his driving style on the still fresh surfaces of Suzuka Circuit. Tawara knew the competition would be fierce, as he would be facing well-established designs such as the MGA, and Triumph TR4.
Even though Tawara was racing as a fully independent entry, he still managed to find some sponsorship. Decals from Tokyo Nissan dealership and the Sports Car Club of Japan graced the sides of the small sportscar, along with official sponsorship from NGK Spark Plug Co.
Tawara's Datsun lined up 3rd on the grid in front of a massive crowd of 200,000 new race fans. His car was joined by an eclectic selection of British sportscars, including several Triumph's TR2, TR3 and TR4, two MGA's, an MGB and a dash of Italian flair from an exotic Fiat 1500 Convertible.
As soon as the flag fell, Genichiro Tawara energized the enormous crowd. Through skill and determination, he managed to take the lead, and never gave it up. At the finish line, his Datsun was a whopping six seconds ahead of the second-placed Triumph. Adding insult to injury, Tawara clocked the fastest time of the event with a blistering 3:14 lap.
The circuit erupted with cheers after Tawara's surprise win. In his first major race, he had proved to the nation that Japanese cars were as good, or even better, than the established names in racing. Tawara's amazing achievement made fans out of thousands of people, proving once and for all that the Japanese car industry had truly awoken, and it was coming fast.
The jubilation following Genichiro Tawara's win inevitably caught Nissan's eye. Without skipping a beat, the company arranged for Tawara and his car to tour the country's Nissan dealers in an effort to maximize the potential publicity.
In addition to the publicity tour, Nissan offered Tawara a position as the head of its newly formed motorsport division, given his apparent natural ability to prepare a car.
His appointment was the first step into Nissan's later prowess in motor racig, as the merger with Prince Motor Company and the later formation of Nismo would finally turn the company into a major player on the world stage. And for that, we should be thankful.