William Gorham was born in San Francisco in 1888. His father was a traveling salesman, but not the type one might think when discussing that profession. No, as the Far East regional manager for B.F. Goodrich, he traveled the Orient selling rubber for tires to the burgeoning bicycle industry across China and Asia and American oil for their lamps. Once he took his young son with him on a sales trip to Japan, where that country would leave a lasting impression on the young man. Later in life, the reverse would be equally true.
Gorham had been born at the right time in history for a major leap in technology. Unlike at the Industrial Age’s beginnings, new inventions now seemed likely to benefit the masses, not just those who could afford to finance large-scale industrialized factories. By the time young William turned 14 and built his first motorized wagon — stealing the engine off the family’s lawn mower to do so — automobiles, movies, electricity and telephones, to name but a few, were already starting to make their mark on society.
The very next year the Wright Brothers flew a distance of 852 feet, and the age of flight began. William Gorham wanted to be part of that industry. He would graduate from Heald College in Honolulu, then form an engineering company with his father in 1911. While they came up with numerous products, Gorham felt his best design was a breakthrough water-cooled aircraft engine. Apparently, no one in the aviation industry agreed.
At that point he saw an ad placed by the Japanese government inviting aviation engineers to come to that country and design fighter planes. Gorham was accepted and moved his family to Japan, but soon after they arrived the Great War ended. There was no need for new fighter planes and apparently no money to return to the U.S. Not that it mattered; the Japanese people, their austere lifestyle and dynamic work ethic appealed greatly to the Californian. And one way he saw he could make a vast improvement in their lives was creating the first motorized rickshaw.
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Here his financial partner would be Gonshiro Kubota, best known today in America for his company’s line of tractors. As it turned out, those motorized rickshaws, three-wheeled cars to be more exact, were a hit not just in Japan but across Asia. From there came the four-wheeled car, the Lila, and in time their companies, Jitsuyo Jidosha and Kaishinsha, would be merged into the company we know today as Nissan.
Along the way Gorham designed a new diesel engine that would power the Japanese fishing industry. And with his every new invention and his willingness to show Japanese industry how to produce such equipment properly — as well as the widespread recognition that this American greatly respected and admired Japan’s culture and people — William Gorham was literally treated as a minor god in Japanese society. Fine by him. Japan had finally found an outsider who could help the country realize its dream of becoming an industrial powerhouse.
Somewhere in his period he met, befriended and did work for Yoshisuke Ayukawa, considered the man who really founded the modern Nissan in the early 1930s. Ayukawa wanted badly to be in the automotive industry, while Gorham had already designed and built his first real car. Not much of one, but a four-wheeled vehicle nonetheless. During the Twenties he advised Ayukawa and designed a number of engines both for boats and farm equipment for his company. Still, according to David Halberstam in his book, The Reckoning, Ayukawa dreamed of building a Japanese car as durable and elegantly simple as Henry Ford’s Model T. Likewise, Gorham admired Ford and his vehicle’s simplicity and durability. In fact, Gorham felt great disdain for General Motors products, believing them the antithesis of great engineering.
It would be the Great Depression that truly cemented both men’s legacy. Because of the severe downturn and numerous bankruptcies in the American automobile industry, Ayukawa sent Gorham to Detroit. There he not only purchased the entire assembly line and all machinery of the Graham-Paige Motor Company to ship back to Japan, but Gorham also found many key automobile engineers, manufacturing experts and line supervisors willing to move to Japan just to have a job.
The next year, 1933, the very first Nissan car, designed almost completely by William Gorham, came off the assembly line in Japan. In time most of the Americans hired by Gorham to help set up Nissan returned home, but he was so entrenched in Japanese business society that he and his wife chose to stay. Funny thing: Gorham never learned much of the Japanese language, although his two sons, who attended local schools, were fluent. His wife, Hazel, often taught English to the children of her husband’s numerous partners and employers.
He and his wife sent their eldest son, William, home to the States to attend both high school and college. Their youngest son, Don, would end up graduating from Tokyo Imperial University in 1940. But by then everyone knew a war was coming. As the belligerent militarists moved to take over the government in the mid-1930s, Ayukawa was ordered to purge Gorham from his company. After all, Japan’s military cared nothing about an inexpensive car for the masses; instead, they wanted Nissan to make large trucks for military transport.
Gorham would start his own engineering firm, which was quickly purchased by Hitachi. Knowing his financial situation, Ayukawa secretly continued to pay Gorham his small former salary to get by.
Still, by 1940 the Gorhams feared the worst was coming. On numerous trips back home William Gorham had tried to warn whomever he came into contact with that a war could be averted if America would just back off its aggressive stance toward Japan; the political sparring was playing directly into the hands of the military fascists in charge. Finally, they sat down with their youngest son, Don, and laid out the hard facts for him. The parents’ life and friends were all in Japan, but Don needed to return to the U.S. to start his own life and get as far away from the looming disaster as he could. The younger Gorham then went to meet with Ayukawa, concerned about what might happen to his parents in the event of all-out war with America. Ayukawa told him that as long as he was alive, no harm would ever come to his father at Japanese hands.
Both Gorham sons would join U.S. Naval Intelligence during the war, their fluency in Japanese making them valuable. The older son, William, would be stationed at Pearl Harbor where he would interrogate Japanese prisoners, some of whom likely knew his name from his famous father. Don Gorham would stay on in government jobs after the war as a translator, working for two presidents and numerous cabinet officials.
William and Hazel Gorham took Japanese citizenship just before hostilities broke out, although that did not keep them from being put under house arrest during the war. It was not harsh, and they were given double rations, but the military also expected Gorham to help with the engineering for machine tools and ultimately to work on aircraft design, which had always been his first love anyway. He was led to believe that, if he didn’t help advance the Japanese war effort, his friend Yoshisuke Ayukawa would pay the price for his refusal. So now Gorham was working indirectly for the Japanese military, while still helping Hitachi with the company they had purchased from him. And Gorham had become friends with and did consulting for Takeshi Mitarai, president of Canon.
When the conflict ended William Gorham turned himself in to U. S. authorities at General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters. He couldn’t be tried for treason because he had taken Japanese citizenship before the official outbreak of war. And his honesty in every last thing he had done for Japanese industry and its military, both before and during the war, resulted in the opposite of what Gorham had thought might happen to him. Instead of punishing him somehow, MacArthur’s staff realized how critically important this man was to the American decision to rebuild Japan as a capitalist and industrial society, making it a beacon of economic enlightenment across Asia.
In 1983, as Nissan celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, it seemed the person most worshiped as the real creator of the company was William Gorham. He was the man who motorized the rickshaws of Asia, modernized Japan’s fishing fleet with his exceptional diesel engine, designed the first Nissan and put in the company’s moving assembly line. He had helped lay some of the groundwork for the rise of electronics giant Hitachi, and at the end of his life was working with his friends at Canon on their first major camera, which they planned to sell worldwide.
After the war Yoshisuke Ayukawa was tried and convicted of being a Japanese war criminal for his company’s actions during the war, although in the late Fifties most of those convicted had their sentences commuted. Washington decided we needed these so-called war criminals back on the streets to run the country and its industry. Ayukawa would become a member of the Japanese Diet, or legislature.
William Gorham died on October 24, 1949, at only 61 years of age. His friend and employer, Takeshi Mitarai, was at his bedside when he passed, and he was buried in Japan. He is completely forgotten here, but in Japan he is still considered one of the key people in the successful industrialization of their world. If nothing else, Nissan might never have existed if it weren’t for William Gorham and Yoshisuke Ayukawa.
© 2017 Ed Wallace
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, conferred by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA. He reviews new cars every Friday morning at 7:20 on Fox Four’s “Good Day” and hosts the top-rated talk show, “Wheels,” 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org