The Nissan Z-Car is an icon in its own right. For over 50 years, the sports coupe has captured the hearts and minds of enthusiasts worldwide. But one could argue that the Z Car story wouldn't have continued if the first-generation hadn't been styled the way it was. That was all thanks to one man named Yoshihiko Matsuo.
Sadly, Matsuo passed away last July 11, just a day after his birthday. He was 86 years old.
Yoshihiko Matsuo was born in 1934 and, according to reports, quickly drew a fondness for sketching cars. One of his earliest designs came out while he was still studying at the Nihon University College of Art. As a student, he helped out in the design of the Daihatsu Midget which debuted in 1957. He then worked for Nissan after that.
But while he's best known for the 240Z, he first made his presence felt with a more humble car. It was in the '60s when the Japanese automaker first dabbled into injecting more style into their family cars. They first tried it out with the Bluebird 411 when they asked Pininfarina to design it for them. However, Matsuo voiced his dissatisfaction with the look, challenging his higher-ups, according to Jalopnik. In that interview, Matsuo mentioned that his boss at the time said, “who are you to criticize the model design of a world-class artist?”, referring to Pininfarina.
Matsuo said the rear end of the 1964 Bluebird “like somebody squatting on the toilet”. The buying public seemed to agree with his sentiments, as sales of the car didn't pick up. With Matsuo being a vocal critic of its design, Nissan then tasked him to redesign the car. He cleaned up the lines of the Bluebird, and his redesign saw that model pick up in sales.
Because of the success of the facelifted 411 Bluebird, Nissan “rewarded” Matsuo by appointing him as head of design. At that point, he thought of coming up with a relatively affordable grand tourer. With that, the 240Z project began. Matsuo's design caught the attention of Yutaka Katayama, widely considered to be the father of the Z Car. Like Matsuo, Katayama was at odds with the conservative higher-ups at the time.
The two would then work together to fine-tune the final look of the first Z Car. Both Matsuo and Katayama wanted the car to reach production, and the latter even said that he would be put on the chopping block if the car sold poorly. The car reached production in late 1969 and it became a smash hit in Japan and, vitally for Nissan, the U.S as well. Some credit the 240Z as one of the cars that changed the image of Japanese cars in America.
Aside from the Bluebird 411 and 240Z, Matsuo penned other Nissan models such as the Cedric 230 (also known as the Datsun 200C/220C), and the Bluebird 610. Shortly after, Matsuo left Nissan in 1973 but has kept in close contact with Nissan Z club members in Japan and worldwide since then.
He may no longer be around today but his impact on the company is still felt to this day. When the Z Car was revived in 2003, it took cues from his original design. The same applied for the 370Z with Randy Rodriguez interpreting Matsuo's 1969 car for the modern age. Years before his passing, Matsuo even showed a unique and bespoke version of the 240Z, turning it to a shooting brake. It was displayed at the 2014 Japanese Classic Car Show in the U.S.
As the next-generation Z continues the sports car line, it too follows the precedent set by its original designer.