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Racecar Driver Looks Back At His Role In Helping Americans Discover Japanese Cars

Photo by Steve Jackson

The name John Morton may mean little to you, but this race car driver is one of the reasons why Japanese cars finally made inroads into the American market. Morton was in Spokane this past weekend as the guest of honor at the Festival of Speed event.

In the 1960’s automobiles from Japan were widely scorned in the U.S. The quality of the cars was seen as questionable, much like the cheap tin toys that came from the Asian country at the time. But as the 1960’s turned to the 1970’s, Americans started to purchase the small fuel efficient cars like Toyotas and Datsuns.

One driver involved in motorsport at that time helped to popularize the Datsun brand, as well as dispel the notion the little cars were unreliable.

That driver's name is John Morton. He appeared in a Datsun TV commercial from 1971. At the time Morton was a driver with Brock Racing Enterprises, one of the first racing organizations to enter the Datsun 240-Z, and later the Datsun 510, into competition. 

Morton had been enthralled with racing after his father took him to Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin to witness a race in the late 1950’s. 

He eventually was able to go to a driving school run by motorsport legend Carroll Shelby and learned to race in the very first Shelby Cobra, a powerful British sports car with a custom American V8 power plant.

Six years later, in 1969, he was hired as a driver for Peter Brock's racing organization in California, the first West Coast group to race the brand new Datsun 240-Z. At first they raced the two-seater Datsun roadster.

"The car became a front runner any time it raced in its class, and then we sold the cars and got an arrangement with Datsun to get their new Z car, because that was going be their new thrust. It was 1970, and we were given one of the very early Z cars. And we prepared it. We had a lot of teething problems in the beginning. But by the end of the season we won the run offs in the national championship with the car,”  Morton said.

The Z car had the good looks to capture the American public’s attention, and now the Brock team with John Morton as driver, racked up two national championships with it, over other more well-known and prestigious names, like Porsche.

The team switched to the Datsun 510 sedan and raced that for two years in the Trans Am series, and totally dominated the BMWs and Alfa Romeos in that category.

Suddenly the little Japanese cars began to sell in record numbers in the U.S. Datsun and Toyota became household names. Morton says having a real race pedigree helped.

“Moving a mentality that had been developed since World War II. Takes a while to move it, it’s like a battleship, turning around an aircraft carrier or battleship. It takes momentum and I think we were the impetus for that momentum. Today, I mean you look around, you can't find a parking lot that doesn’t have a bunch of Japanese cars in it, and that isn’t the way it was in the beginning,” Morton said.

The little Datsuns were relatively inexpensive back in the day. A 1970 240-Z was listed at $3,500, when a new Corvette cost about $5,000.

Now the original Datsun 240-Z’s are suddenly very collectible. A totally restored 240-Z sold just this week on the Bring a Trailer auction site for $124,000.

Steve was part of the Spokane Public Radio family for many years before he came on air in 1999. His wife, Laurie, produced Radio Ethiopia in the late 1980s through the '90s, and Steve used to “lurk in the shadowy world” of Weekend SPR. Steve has done various on air shifts at the station, including nearly 15 years as the local Morning Edition host. Currently, he is the voice of local weather and news during All Things Considerd, writing, editing, producing and/or delivering newscasts and features for both KPBX and KSFC. Aside from SPR, Steve ,who lives in the country, enjoys gardening, chickens, playing and listening to music, astronomy, photography, sports cars and camping.