William Gorham: A Forgotten Pioneer in Japanese Car Engineering

William Gorham may not be a household name, but his contributions to the world of automobile engineering, especially in Japan, have left an indelible mark on the earth. His work with various companies laid the foundation for what would eventually become Nissan Motor Company under the leadership of Yoshisuke Aikawa, who was not just a business partner but also a close friend of Gorham.

In this blog post, we delve into the life and legacy of William Gorham, an American engineer who made an indelible mark on the Japanese automotive industry.

Early Life and Move to Japan

William Reagan Gorham, born in San Francisco in 1888, was the son of William J. Gorham, an Asia area manager for tire manufacturer B.F. Goodrich. When he was young, he often joined his father on business trips to Japan. After completing his education at Heald College, he and his father started Gorham Engineering in San Francisco in 1911. The company specialized in creating hot bulb engines, fire pumps, and motorboats.

Gorham was infused with the spirit of innovation from a young age. He grew up during a time when the automotive industry was in its infancy, a period rife with opportunity and innovation. Gorham’s early life, though shrouded in relative obscurity, laid the foundation for his later achievements.

In 1918, during World War I, Gorham moved to Japan with his family. Initially interested in aviation, he aimed to develop air mail systems and set up an airplane manufacturing company. However, when he arrived in Japan, he ended up designing and introducing various technologies, including engines, airplanes, automobiles, telephone switches, and advanced turret lathes.

He soon turned his focus to the automotive industry.

Pioneering Work in Japan

In Japan, William Gorham found a country eager to embrace industrialization but still in the early stages of developing its own automobile industry. He quickly recognized the potential and the challenges of working in this new environment.

Designing Three-Wheeled Automobile

Gorham was hired by Gonshiro Kubota, founder of the largest agricultural machinery manufacturer in Japan. Kubota was eager to break into the automobile market, and he made Gorham his chief designer. Gorham’s role included designing vehicles and setting up manufacturing plants for his three-wheeled automobile.

He co-founded Jitsuyo Jidōsha Seizo with Kubota and other investors, producing the three-wheeled “Gorham” and, later, a four-wheeled car named “Lila.”

During this time, this venture was one of only two Japanese automakers. Gorham’s company operated alongside Otomo, which was built by Mr. Hayataya Toyokawa from 1924 to 1927 at the Hakuyosha Ironworks in Tokyo.

Pioneering Work at DAT

Jitsuyo Jidōsha and another company, Kaishinsha Motor Car Works (founded by Masujiro Hashimoto). After the merger, which took place in 1919, it became known as DAT Jidosha Seizo Ltd (DAT Motor Car Manufacturing Co. Ltd).

The company initially focused on producing three-wheelers based on designs by Gorham. The Gorham automotive tricycle featured a blend of a Harley engine and a rickshaw, creating a basic yet effective vehicle suited for a nation still developing industrially. This design, reminiscent of simple vehicles like Thailand’s tuk-tuk or the Filipino jeepney found in emerging economies, laid the groundwork for Jitsuyo Jidosha Co., Ltd’s first four-wheeler, the 1921 Lila light car. Jitsuyo Jidosha was one of the companies that eventually merged to form modern-day Nissan.

The Lila car, popular as taxis in Japan, continued to be produced for several years, even after the formation of DAT.

Gorham’s Influence on the Japanese Automotive and Engineering Scene

If Japan hadn’t been open to learning from Gorham, Nissan might not have become the success story it is today.

David Halberstam, in his 1986 book “The Reckoning,” highlights Gorham’s pivotal role at Nissan, stating, “In terms of technology, Gorham was the founder of the Nissan Motor Company.” He also notes that, as late as 1983, Nissan’s young engineers, who had never met Gorham, revered him as a legend, familiar with his contributions and inventions during his tenure at the company.

Gorham collaborated with several companies that were integral to the formation of Nissan Motor Company, including Jitsuyo Jidōsha, Tobata Castings, and Nihon Sangyō. In 1936, he left these ventures to start his own business, Kokusan Seiki, a company specializing in precision manufacturing. This company eventually became part of Hitachi. He greatly contributed to machine tool design.

Interestingly, Gorham also contributed to the design of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter aircraft. He also played a role in importing and selling single-engine biplanes to the Japanese military.

Naturalization and Work During the War

As international tensions rose in the early 1940s, Japan began deporting foreigners. After careful consideration, Gorham and his wife Hazel gave up their US citizenship and chose to become a Japanese citizen on May 26, 1941. He adopted the Japanese name Gouhamu Katsudo (合波武克人).

During the war, he continued his engineering work at Hitachi, focusing on multiple lathes and jet engines. After the war, the U.S. government didn’t charge him or his wife with treason, as they had become Japanese citizens before the war began. He even worked with the headquarters of Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers Douglas MacArthur on industrial issues.

Throughout the 1940s, Gorham also consulted for Canon Inc., advising on procurement and factory management. He developed a close relationship with Canon’s president, Takeshi Mitarai. Gorham passed away in 1949 with Mitarai by his side.

The Enduring Legacy of William Reagan Gorham

William Reagan Gorham, an American-born engineer who moved to Japan and significantly influenced its automotive industry, has left a legacy that is both profound and multifaceted. His contributions, particularly in the early stages of the Japanese automotive industry, helped shape the sector’s future and laid the groundwork for what would become one of the most significant automotive markets in the world.

He had foundational influence at Nissan

Gorham’s work with several companies that later merged to form Nissan Motor Company was pivotal. He brought innovative engineering and design techniques to these companies, setting a high standard for future developments in the Japanese automotive industry.

He introduced advanced manufacturing practices

Gorham’s introduction of advanced manufacturing and precision engineering to Japan played a critical role in modernizing the country’s industrial capabilities. His establishment of Kokusan Seiki, later integrated into Hitachi, was a testament to his forward-thinking approach.

He bridged American and Japanese engineering

Gorham’s career stands as a symbol of cross-cultural collaboration. He successfully integrated American engineering principles with Japanese industrial practices, creating a unique blend that propelled Japan’s automotive industry forward.

He inspired future generations

The legacy of Gorham’s work and his approach to engineering and manufacturing continues to inspire engineers and business leaders in Japan and globally. His work was revered by future employees at Nissan, even though they did not get the chance to meet him as he died at an early age.

He showed dedication to Japan

Gorham’s decision to become a Japanese citizen in the 1940s reflected his deep commitment to his adopted country. This move, during a period of increasing tensions and challenges, underscored his dedication to contributing to Japan’s industrial growth.

His attachment to Japan also influenced the life of his sons. His first son, William Jr., born in 1915, spent his early schooling in Japan before moving to the United States for high school. In 1943, he joined the Office of Naval Intelligence at Pearl Harbour. His role was crucial – he specialized in interrogating Japanese POWs. At the end of the war, he was involved in surrender arrangements on Saipan and analyzed the impact of US bombing raids on Tokyo.

Don Cyril, born in 1918, also started his education in Japan but went on to graduate from Tokyo Imperial University in 1941 with a degree in Japanese language and literature. At his father’s encouragement, he moved to Washington, D.C., just before the onset of war with Japan. Like his brother, he served in the Office of Naval Intelligence during the war and continued there as a civilian post-war. In the 1970s, he embarked on a second career as a translator.


William Gorham’s story is more than just a historical footnote; it is a narrative of innovation, cultural exchange, and enduring impact. His journey from the United States to Japan and his work in automotive engineering highlight the importance of embracing new challenges and the value of cross-cultural collaboration.

As we look at the modern Japanese automotive industry, with its emphasis on quality, efficiency, and technological advancement, we see the lasting legacy of William Gorham, a true pioneer in the field. His life and work inspire future generations of engineers and entrepreneurs, reminding us that boundaries are there to be crossed and that the exchange of knowledge and ideas is key to progress.