Why Fairlady? ‘My Fair Lady’ and the Datsun sports cars’ unusual name

1957 Datsun SPL-211

The 1957 Datsun SPL-211, not a Fair Lady yet (Nissan photo0

Why Fair Lady?

It’s impossible to know what’s in someone else’s head, unless of course they tell you. And even then they may not be telling the truth. But there has been much speculation and pontification on exactly how the Datsun/Nissan sports cars came to be called Fairlady.

There are some things that we do know. We know that the Kwaishinsha Motor Car Works was founded by Masugiro Hashimoto, an American-trained engineer, in 1911 and began series production of automobiles in 1914. His car was named the DAT, after his investors. Several models and company mergers later, DAT Automobile Manufacturing Co. became part of Tobata Imono Co. in 1931. When a new model was introduced later than year, it was called the son of DAT, or Datson.

However, Datson sounded too much like the Japanese word for “ruin,” and combining the company’s new factory being destroyed by a typhoon, a modicum of superstition, and a reluctance of customers to drive a car named Ruin, a name change seemed in order. Datson became Datsun, which depending on whom you believe, was either an invocation to the sun against disaster, or a reference to the Land of the Rising Sun, or perhaps both. In 1934 the company’s name was changed to Nissan Motor Company Ltd., a contraction of Nippon Sankyo, or Japanese Manufacturing Company.

Nissan began building cars in earnest in 1935, including the Datsun 91, a homegrown sedan with a 495cc engine, and the Nissan 70, which was essentially an American Graham Six, built with the tooling and related equipment that Graham-Paige had sold to Nissan.

The came World War II.

After war the war ended, truck manufacture was emphasized under American administration to help in reconstruction of Japan, though for the few who could afford a car, Nissan made an 850cc version of a prewar design. After the war, most carmakers entered into agreements to build foreign-designed cars in Japan. Isuzu made Hillmans, Hino made Renaults, and Mitsubishi assembled Kaiser-Frasier Jeeps. A 1952 agreement allowed Nissan to make a version of the Austin 40, a small British sedan, followed in 1955 by an A50 variant.

Nissan car production climbed from only 865 cars in 1950, to 7,800 in 1955, and to 66,000 in 1960, more cars than any other company in Japan.

1952 Datsun DC-3

Nissan’s first postwar “sports car,” the 1952 Datsun DC-3

Nissan roadster production started in Japan with the Datsun DC-3 in 1952. The DC-3 looked like a foreshortened MG-TD. Only 50 DC-3’s were ever built and the project set aside.

In 1957, Nissan made a more modern attempt at a sports car. Built on the chassis of a Datsun 1000 sedan, and powered by the sedan’s 37 horsepower engine, the SPL-211 mimicked the Austin-Healy, albeit a condensed version, complete with a two-tone swoosh. It was rendered in a new composite material used in an American sports car called the Corvette, so it must be good. The new little sports car would be exported to the United States to modest praise, beginning in 1959.

Datsun had already begun selling the Datsun 1000 in the U.S. by then. Both Nissan and Toyota debuted cars for the America market—Toyota the Toyopet Crown, and Nissan the 1000—at the 1958 Imported Car Show in Los Angeles on the theory that a country that bought a million cars a year could easily absorb 5,000 Japanese cars. They were wrong, at least for then, with the product they had.

Katsuji Kawamata, president of Nissan Motors Japan, also came to America in 1958, and while he was in the U.S. saw the Broadway musical “My Fair Lady.” He was apparently impressed because when the SPL-212 was released in 1960, he directed that it be renamed the Fair Lady. Neither the name nor the car were a hit in the U.S. Altogether, the 211, the 212 and the SPL-213, the last version of the chubby little roadster, did reach 300 sales before being replaced in 1962.

The SPL-213’s replacement was the Datsun SPL-310, also known as the Datsun 1500 Sports, or more generally, the Datsun Roadster. It would be replaced by the Datsun 1600 Sports, and later joined by the Datsun 2000 Sports. Note to the persnickety: Yes, the “Sports” wasn’t usually used in casual conversation. Suffice it to say that the roadster, or Roadster, went by many names.

But for the U.S. market, it would not be known as the Fairlady. The Fairlady name dropped at the insistence of Yutaka Katayama, president of Nissan USA, who knew that American sports car enthusiasts would rather have a more ferocious name than Fairlady. Which, come to think of it, includes just about everything. If a wild animal couldn’t be used, the engine displacement number would work just as well. Still, the Fairlady name would be retained for the Datsun home market, and in Australia, where Nissan didn’t have a “Mr. K.”

But why “Fairlady”? It has been suggested that Kawamata-san just liked the play and therefore the name, or that he chose it because the Japanese culture appreciates beauty and that My Fair Lady was beautiful, and buyers would make the connection.

But perhaps it’s a little deeper than that. My Fair Lady was a Broadway musical was based Pygmalion, a play by George Bernard Shaw. The plot line is that a London misogynistic phonetics professor makes a bet that he can take a Cockney flower girl and refine her speech sufficiently to pass her off on London society as a lady. He succeeds, but falls in love with her in the process. There’s a whole bunch of other stuff, but that’s the gist of it. (For the record, Pygmalion was the protagonist in a poem by Ovid, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved. There’s a whole lot more there too, but that’s that gist).

The major theme of Pygmalion and My Fair Lady was of a poor common girl being raised up and made into a beauty. It would not be unreasonable for Kawamata to see Nissan as the Eliza Doolittle in his own My Fair Nissan Broadway show. The history of Nissan had been one of small Japanese cars, often castoffs from larger Western carmakers, cars suitable only for the Japanese market. The Datsun SPL-212, and its successors, were Eliza at the ball. Although most Americans think it odd to name a sports car Fairlady—or to think of Audrey Hepburn as a sports car—we can’t know what was going on in someone else’s head. After all, wouldn’t it be loverly?