Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

March 28, 1997

In the scope of things automotive, 40 years isn't very long. Oldsmobile, Buick and Ford have been selling cars for nearly a century, and still they struggle. That's why the success that Toyota has had in the past four decades is so phenomenal. It enjoys a good reputation.

But it wasn't always so and my own first impression of Toyota was definitely not a good one. In the early '60s, I was running a one-man imported car garage in my hometown and enjoyed a reputation for working on odd-ball foreign cars. Local dealers knew it and brought me their "unusual" trade-ins when they needed repairs.

One of those dealers had taken in a low mileage '59 Toyopet Crown and while it was out on a demonstration ride, one of its pistons had shattered. Needless to say, it was a no-sale. The dealer brought it to me in desperation and among other things, I discovered that the cylinder head hadn't been tightened down correctly. It sat in my shop for over a month waiting for parts and when I finally got it back together, I found its performance was sluggish, it wallowed through even mild turns and it's three-speed manual transmission was totally unsuited to American driving.

I delivered the car back to the unhappy dealer and swore never to work on another Toyota, being sure that the company had no future here.

Toyota had been a maverick among the post-war Japanese auto makes and had decided from the start to build and market a home-designed and developed car. On the other hand, Isuzu and Nissan had brought over a couple of engineers from the British Rootes Group and Austin of England to help them build clones of Hillman and Austin sedans. British cars were fairly popular in America back then and the two companies felt replication was a step into the world market. Toyota guessed that its home-grown small sedan would do the same but it guessed wrong - at least about the original Toyopet Crown.

But the company persevered here and things got much better in its sedan business in the middle of the '60s when the company introduced its robust model 1900 Corona four-door. The Corona was big enough to stay up with American traffic and comfortable enough to seat five average-sized adults. When it acquired a four-speed transmission, it performed so well that Motor Trend magazine labeled it "Imported Car of the Year" in '69.

I had a somewhat unusual personal experience with Toyota during that era. Amateur sports car racing back then was pretty much controlled by European and British makes like Porsche, Alfa, Triumph, Austin Healey, MG and the rest. The few of us who were involved with Datsun roadsters (themselves very "British") were therefore very surprised when Carroll Shelby turned up at the Laguna Seca Raceway in California with two Toyota 2000 sports coupes that bore a strong resemblance to Maseratis of the day. I believe one of them was driven by Scooter Patrick, a Los Angles hot-shoe of the day, and the cars were very fast. One of them won easily but it was later proven that the cars were underweight and illegal so the victory was disallowed. Shelby was a rascal even then.

In the early '70s Toyota found a spot in the market that was being vacated by Volkswagen and jumped into it with a vengeance. It brought over small, inexpensive Corolla sedans and wagons that were reliable, responsive and performed very well. These cars were the building blocks of the reputation that Toyota enjoys today and contrary to the oath I'd taken a decade earlier, I owned several of them myself.

But of all the Toyotas that have come into the country the one that has inspired the most owner loyalty is the legendary Model 40 Land Cruiser. This big, tough, stone-age sports/ utility vehicle first arrived here in 1960, powered by an engine that was instantly recognized by Americans as the 3.9 liter "stove-bolt" Chevrolet straight six. It also became apparent that a small-block Chevy V8 can be slipped in with very little effort and most of them received this transplant. Those early Land Cruisers now form the lynch pin of an organization whose members take great delight in attacking the most inhospitable and rocky terrain imaginable. My son Matt is one of those who is dedicated to the Model 40 mystique and his '76 version is currently enjoying a frame-up restoration.

Toyota has come a long way from those early days in the US market. Along the way it developed a working relationship with GM through its NUMMI joint venture and has built several production plants in this country. It's been a short, very eventful 40 year trip from the Toyopet to the Camry but then even the best of families have a skeleton or two in the closet.

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