The origins of the company we know today as Nissan go all the way back to 1911, when Masujiro Hashimoto founded Kwaishinsha Jidosha Koto (Kwaishinsha Motor Car Works). Born in 1875, in Okazaki Japan, Hashimoto was a mechanical engineer sent to the United States by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce to study manufacturing. After spending three years in New York building steam engines, Hashimoto returned to Japan to work in electrical engineering, industrial design, and manufacturing.
Together with three main investors: business manager Kenjiro Den; childhood friend Rokuro Aoyama; and financier Meitaro Takeuchi; Hashimoto established Kaishinsha Jidosha Koto in Tokyo in 1911. The company’s products were offered under the brand name DAT—taking the initials from each of the three investors last names; Den, Aoyama, and Takeuchi. The first DAT model was the 10-horsepower DAT 31, introduced in 1914. Warmly received, the DAT 31 was upgraded and offered as the DAT 41 two years later in 1916.
While DAT vehicles were well regarded, the market for passenger cars was relatively small in Japan at the time. On the other hand, the truck market was comparatively large. So DAT concentrated on building trucks more so than cars. DAT’s largest customer for its trucks was the Japanese military. When that demand began to soften though, DAT merged with Japan’s other major truck manufacturer in order to survive.
Jitsuyo Jidosha Co., Ltd. got its start in Osaka in 1919, manufacturing three-wheeled enclosed vehicles designed by a noted American engineer of the time, William R. Gorham. It delivered its first production Gorham vehicle in 1920. The following year it did a four-wheel version of that same automobile. Between 1923 and 1925, Jitsuyo’s cars and light trucks were marketed under the name “Lila”.
Jitsuyo Jidosha had, what at the time was considered the most advanced production facility in Japan. The company’s machine tools, components and materials were all imported from the U.S. In 1926, the two companies merged to form Dat Jidosha Seizo Company, or DAT Automobile Manufacturing Company, Ltd.
Now on more solid footing, DAT Automobile turned to building cars in earnest. In 1931, DAT introduced a smaller model than it had been building in the past and called it a Datson (or the son of DAT). Also during this period, the company entered into an affiliation with Yoshisuke Aikawa’s Tobata Casting for the manufacture of parts.
Born in 1910, in the Yamaguchi Prefecture of Japan, after graduating from the Tokyo Imperial University in 1903, Aikawa went to work and saved enough money to go to the United States. Like Hashimoto, Aikawa studied industrialism, specifically malleable cast iron technology—but in Detroit. Upon his return, he established the Tobata Foundry in 1909. That company is today known as Hitachi Kinzoku (Hitachi Metals Company, Ltd.). In 1928, Aikawa ascended to the presidency of the Kuhara Mining Company and used that position to begin amassing interests in a number of different companies throughout Japan. He called his holding company Nihon Sangyo, or Nissan for short.
In 1933, Aikawa merged Tobata Casting with DAT, having squeezed Hashimoto out in 1931. The company name was changed to Nissan Motor Company Ltd., in 1934. The first Datsun rolled off the assembly line in 1935, from the company's Yokohama assembly plant. The name was changed to Dat-sun from Dat-son because in Japanese, the word “son” also means loss. Nissan Motor Company was formed just in time to get a nice bump from the run-up to World War II. The company built trucks and airplanes, as well as engines for the Japanese military.
Nissan had been building the Austin Seven under license before the war. Upon cessation of hostilities; the company entered into a formal agreement with Austin to assemble cars in Japan, and used Austin technology to develop engines for the Datsun cars. Nissan built some 21,000 Austins between 1953 and 1959. The company was also developing its own engine designs. One was for an overhead cam inline four cylinder engine, which was used to power what eventually became known as the 1967 Datsun 510.
The first Datsun models offered in the United States came here in 1958, based on Austin platforms. Shortly after this, Nissan merged with the Prince Motor Company, which gave the company a line of premium products, the most notable of which were the highly regarded Skyline automobiles. Arguably though, the car that put Datsun on the map was the 1968 Fairlady Z, introduced to the United States in 1969 as the Datsun 240Z.
Capturing the basic concept of the Jaguar XK-E in an affordable package, the 240Z was a sleekly styled rear-drive sports car, powered by a 2.4-liter overhead cam inline six-cylinder engine. It was good looking, fast, fun to drive, and it was also exceptionally reliable—a claim the European sports cars of the period could not make.
Also in the 1970’s, the energy crisis of 1973 turned Americans toward the smaller, more fuel-efficient cars built in Japan. With the Z out front attracting shoppers into Datsun showrooms, the ‘70s were a very good decade for the company.
In 1981, the decision was made to do away with the Datsun name and market automobiles under the Nissan nameplate. Sadly, the lithe little Z grew longer and fatter with each successive generation of the car. And, while the ultimate culmination of it was the exceptionally wonderful (and seriously pricey) twin-turbocharged 300ZX GT car of the early 1990s, by the end of the decade, the rest of the Nissan lineup was pretty bland.
Showroom traffic slowed to a trickle, the company started bleeding money.
The French automobile manufacturing concern Renault stepped up in 1999. Under the leadership of Carlos Ghosn, things were turned around at Nissan—largely on the strength of Nissan’s VQ-series V6 engine. The best thing about Nissan at the time, Ghosn ordered it bolted into any platform that would hold it—in the process once again carving out a richly-deserved performance-oriented image for Nissan.
The result was a spate of truly memorable high performance sedans in both the Altima and Maxima. Then, in 2003, after a thirteen-year hiatus, the Nissan Z was reintroduced to the North American lineup as the 2003 Nissan 350Z. The 2007 Nissan GT-R, based on the current Nissan Skyline (sold in the U.S. as the Infiniti G37) was brought to the U.S. in as the brand’s halo car in 2008, as a 2009 model.
Today, Nissan is known for building strong performing, fun to drive cars. However, the company also became the first mainstream manufacturer to introduce a modern series production mass-market electric car in 2010, with the introduction of the Nissan LEAF.