Legend 03: The man who found his calling, Hiroyoshi Kato

Hiroyoshi Kato
Hiroyoshi Kato

Born 5 September 1957 in Akita Prefecture. After he finished middle school, he entered Nissan Industrial Vocational School (now Nissan Automobile Technical College) and then went on to join Nissan Motor in 1976. He was assigned to Vehicle Test Section 3 of Vehicle Test Department 1, where he worked with the Cedric (330) team before being assigned to the Fairlady Z (S130) team.

In 1988, he joined the GT-R (R32) team in Chassis Test Section 3 of the Chassis Test Department. In 1993, he was assigned to Dynamics Performance Test Section 1 of Product Test Department 1, where he was involved in the development of the GT-R (R33, R34), the Skyline (V35), the Fairlady Z (Z33), and other cars. In 2008, Kato became a technical meister of the Vehicle Test Department and since then he has been responsible for the overall dynamics performance of Nissan and Infiniti vehicles. He was named a ‘Contemporary Master Craftsman’ by the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare in 2003 and awarded the Medal with Yellow Ribbon in 2004.

Read More

No licence

Black Test Car is a best-selling novel that was written by novelist and journalist Toshiyuki Kajiyama. It depicted cut-throat competition among car manufacturers and became so popular that it was made into a film. Hiroyoshi Kato, technical meister in the Vehicle Test Department of Nissan Motor and the focus of this issue, read the book when he was in primary school and in the process discovered his true vocation.

‘I’d always loved cars and like all the other boys who loved cars at that time, I wanted to become a race car driver. But my parents didn’t like the idea, telling me that “driving a race car is too dangerous”,’ recalled Kato with a laugh. ‘Then I happened to read this novel and the words “test car” sounded fresh and new and I discovered that there was in fact a profession called test driver. It’s a dream job: you get to drive cars just like a race car driver and you get paid for it! My parents were willing to accept this idea because they seemed to think that it wasn’t likely to be dangerous, because no automaker would give their employees dangerous work.’

Around 1985, when Kato was driving all the time to acquire and develop his driving skills. This photo was taken on the occasion of his team winning an internal award.
With the prototype of the Laurel powered by the VG turbo unit. Kato was around 30 years old.
While he was in the second year of middle school, Kato did some research on schools and careers and discovered that Toyota Motor and Nissan Motor had their own schools. ‘I saw a report on a Safari Rally and thought that the black and red Fairlady Z in the race was so cool that I had no hesitation about choosing to enrol at Nissan Industrial Vocational School (now Nissan Automobile Technical College).’ As soon as he started classes on the Automobile course, where he studied how to be a mechanic and other subjects, he constantly petitioned the teaching staff to help him become a test driver. At the time, the third-year students at Nissan Industrial Vocational School went through on-the-job training at Nissan Motor in addition to completing school lessons. Kato was assigned to work as a trainee in the Vehicle Test Department in Oppama, Kanagawa Prefecture, thanks in part to the special efforts of his home room teacher, who was greatly impressed by young Kato’s intense commitment to achieving his goal.

‘But there was one problem. I was only 17 years old and thus too young to have a driver’s licence, even though I wanted to become a test driver,’ he told us with a laugh.
‘There was another fellow who joined the company in the same year as I did and he and I are the only people in the history of the company to ever be assigned to the Vehicle Test Department without holding a driver’s licence,’ recalled Kato. He was counting the days until his 18th birthday and when the big day finally arrived, he took the application form for a driving school to his superior to obtain the latter’s signature as a guarantor. To Kato’s chagrin, his boss had a totally unexpected reaction to this request.
‘You want to become a test driver who helps us produce cars for customers to enjoy and you’re telling me that you are going to be taught how to drive by a mere amateur?’

At the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre at Futamatagawa near Yokohama, the Cedric 130 was used for driving tests at that time. When Kato was looking to practice driving in a Cedric 130 that he found at the company, his boss told him that he had to meet one condition before he could drive the vehicle: he had to dismantle the car first. As Kato tells it, ‘He didn’t just make me dismantle the car. Rather, he made me break down even the engine and the transmission into all of their component pieces, down to the last part or the last gear. And then when I thought that I was finishing up, he told me to put everything back together again (laughter). He probably wanted to see how good a mechanic I was. I think he also meant that I needed to care of the car I drove, that I should maintain it in the best condition at all times.’
A rare photo of testing on ice taken around 1986. This is an R31 Skyline chassis combined with the four-wheel-drive system of the R32 GT-R.

The first hurdle

Taken at Fuji Speedway around 1987. The R32 GT-R was expected to participate in Group A from the beginning and the R30 race car was used for data collection.

Once he’d finally obtained his boss’s permission to drive, Kato constantly practiced driving so that he could pass the test for his licence. He made his own training ground in a corner of the test track facility, marking out an intersection and making traffic signs by hand. At the same time, he had more and more opportunities to experience the actual work of a test driver, for example by riding along with a test driver on endurance tests.

When Kato finally got his long-dreamed-of driver’s licence, he was assigned to the Cedric Development Team, but he promptly asked to be moved to the Fairlady Z team. ‘I joined Nissan because I was so inspired by the Z.’ Once again his passion touched his superiors and he was moved to the Z Development Team within a year. In the meantime, all he did was drive.

‘I drove anytime, anywhere. My superiors told me to improve my driving technique. I didn’t know what to do or how to do it, so I just drove. There was a test car that was no longer used, so I drove it during my lunch breaks, after work, and anytime I had free time. Of course, I was a terrible driver. In the end, my senior colleagues took pity on me and finally started to teach me how to drive. I’m talking about professional test drivers who worked on the front lines. I would say it was a very special education (laughter). One of them got in the passenger seat and put some documents on the fascia and told me to drive without making the documents move. When I drove, the documents fell down, but when he drove, they stayed in place the whole time he was driving. I hate to lose and I couldn’t stand that I couldn’t do what he could.’

At the Nissan garage at Nürburgring. Carrying out an inspection before the test drive event held at Nürburgring immediately after the world debut of the R32 GT-R in 1989.

Because Kato had never been taught at a driving school and had not really driven much privately, he hadn’t developed any particular habits when driving and as a result, he was able to absorb an enormous amount of the knowledge and techniques required for a test driver very rapidly, like a sponge soaking up water.

‘I never thought it was hard or wanted to quit, not even once. Because I got to drive cars that I loved and do so as much as I wanted. I was being taught by professionals among professionals. I didn’t have to pay for cars, tyres, or petrol. In addition, I received pay on the 25th of every month. Sometimes I got compliments for my driving from my seniors and then I felt like I was on top of the world (laughter).’

At this point, Kato suddenly seemed to remember something. ‘No, I take it back. It’s not true to say that I never felt like I wanted to quit. Only once, I thought that maybe I wouldn’t be good enough to do the job.’ His jovial expression seemed to turn sour all of a sudden.

Polish cars and myself

Hiroyoshi Kato had made his boyhood dream of becoming a test driver come true. It may seem as if he progressed steadily by leaps and bounds throughout his career, but in fact he hit a seemingly insurmountable wall at one point. It was when the development of the R32 Skyline GT-R was nearing completion.
‘It must have been in 1988 when I went to Nürburgring for the first time with a prototype of the R32 GT-R,’ reminisced Kato. ‘I’d vaguely heard of Le Mans and Daytona, but I’d never heard of Nürburgring. But I was cocky. Because I could drive well enough to obtain data at the Tsukuba and Fuji race tracks, I thought that I could also manage even at Nürburgring. I was sitting next to a local driver who took us out on the track and I realised that I was completely wrong (laughter). In Japan, you would never keep pressing on the accelerator pedal at over 100 km/h on a descent. The driver invited me to take the wheel but I declined, saying that I couldn’t do it. If it had just been a case of “it may be a bit dangerous,” then I would have gone ahead and done it, given my character. But it was way too much for me. The car was a prototype, the result of years of development work, and I had no knowledge at all about the layout of the track, which had a number of blind turns. Other cars were also running on the track at the same time. My cool-headed judgment was that I would damage the car if I drove it.’
Kato participated in the N1 Endurance race at Tsukuba Circuit in 1990 to improve the car and himself.
Testing a car in Sweden in 1992. WRC champion Stig Bromqvist joined the team as an adviser. The Swedish rally driver also participated with a Pulsar GTI-R and is an old acquaintance of Kato’s.

Looking back at the episode, Kato noted that even if he could have driven the track, he didn’t have any confidence in his ability to complete the drive with the car unscathed. In fact, even a more experienced driver proved unable to return with the GT-R unharmed.
‘On the first lap I was in the front passenger seat. I kept watching the gauges because I had nothing else to do. Before we’d even reached the halfway point of the circuit, I noticed that the oil temperature exceeded 130 degrees Celsius. Our experience had already demonstrated that this not sustainable, so I immediately told the driver to slow down. If we had continued, we would have blown the engine. In other words, we could not even finish the first lap normally.’

Back in the pits, a total of around 20 engineers surrounded the car and started to work on identifying the problems and figuring out how to solve them.
‘At that point a Porsche came into the pits. A driver in a short-sleeved shirt got out of the car and lit up a cigarette, then walked around the car checking the condition of the tyres as he smoked. When he finished his cigarette, he got back into the car and drove back out on the track. He looked overwhelmingly cool to me. And what were we doing? We were driving like it was a life or death situation, kitted out in racing suits, and still the vehicle was damaged and everybody was saying what was wrong and what was right. I promised myself that one day we would make our cars like that car and I would be like that guy. That scene often appears in my dreams, but in the dream the Porsche has turned into a Nissan and the face of the European driver into me (laughter).’

Named a ‘Contemporary Master Craftsman’ in 2003. The award is bestowed by the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare.

Cars should please the entire family

Once the R32 Skyline GT-R was launched, Kato was assigned to the R33 development team. At the same time, he participated in the Group N1 Endurance races (now Super Endurance) to improve his driving skills. He increased his experience and steadily achieved results. The more frequent his visits to Nürburgring became, the more laps he became able to drive.

Awarded the Medal with Yellow Ribbon in 2004.

Generally speaking, when going into a curve, a driver slows down by pressing the brake pedal, applies load to the front of the car, turns the wheel, and takes the curve. In fact, a car will negotiate a curve without decelerating that much or without the wheel being turned that much. However, when I wanted to do that at Nürburgring, it puts phenomenal pressure on me. If it was raining, it was so awful that my body was completely rigid with tension. Then I tried to hold the steering wheel with only three fingers and I found that I could go into the curve very smoothly. If you hold the wheel with all five fingers, sometimes you steer too late or too much. Steering with three fingers, I could make subtle adjustments, as if I were slightly pushing back the sidewall distortion of the tyres.’

That was the moment when the three-finger driving technique—his unique driving style—was born. Now Kato knows not only the course marshal at Nürburgring but also the test drivers of Porsche and other carmakers. He has become known as an undisputed, first-class test driver.

Kato often speaks of ‘everyday use.’ When he does, he’s referring to the general customer driving a car daily and addressing this situation is his top priority for every car development project.

‘I wear this Tudor Chrono-Time watch every day. One day I was scolded by someone who said that I shouldn’t be wearing such a valuable watch every day. They said I should only take it out for special occasions in order to take better care of it. But this is a watch that I’d wanted for a long time and then finally bought, so I want to wear it all the time. I think a sports car, for example, is the same. If a customer has finally bought the sports car he has always dreamed of but thinks that it would be too showy to drive it to a convenience store or if he doesn’t like to drive it on rainy days, it’s such a waste. Also, when I see a sports car on the street, the driver looks happy but sometimes the front seat passenger looks unhappy. If a car fails to please your partner or your family, there’s no point in owning it. Automakers should produce cars that will make the rest of the family feel good about the purchase when the father goes out and buys one.’

The man who made his own dream come true is developing cars with all his heart and soul so that the cars customers dream of don’t remain only dreams.

Profile of the writer

Shintaro Watanabe
Born in 1966 in Tokyo. After graduating from a university in the US, he worked as an editor of Le Volant, an automobile magazine, before joining Car Graphic’s editorial staff in 1998. He left Car Graphic in 2003 and became a representative of MPI, an editorial production company, while also working as an automotive journalist. He also works as a chief editor for Car Graphic.