Today is a momentous occasion. Exactly half a century ago, on Halloween Day, an upstart Japanese company set up shop in Hollywood, California with the intent of selling cars in the US. A task of such ambition had never been attempted before, and it showed. The first passenger car, the 1958 Toyopet Crown, had a 1.5L engine, 60hp, and the motivation of a crippled tortoise. 0-60 took almost half a minute.
With a fashionable chrome grille reminiscent of Mr. Pringle’s mustache stretching the width, a Jet Age hood ornament on the prow, and nifty suicide doors on each side, it was the perfect car for a slow, stylish cruise around the narrow, then-bumpy streets of Tokyo where speed was not an issue. On America’s yawning interstates, however, ill did not even begin to describe its equippedness. Not that domestic land yachts at the time were speed demons either, but the Toyopet practically moved backward in comparison, and the lines were downright staid compared to the wildly tailfinned chrome-mobiles.
It had a speedometer needle that changed colors as its velocity increased, but to give you an idea of the Crown’s intended operating range, it started out as a soothing green. Accelerate past 30 and it turned a somewhat troubling yellow. Push it above 50, and the needle would glow a panic-inducing red. To find out why their top-of-the-line machine in Japan had such pitiful sales on this side of the Pacific, Shoichiro Toyoda himself came to the US and took one for a drive on American roads, only to discover, much to his dismay, that he couldn’t even safely merge onto the highway. The Crown overheated when climbing LA’s hilly roads and the company decided to revamp its US operations.
But therein lies the secret to Toyota’s success. It quickly got to the root of the problem and corrected it. Surviving only on the sales of the Land Cruiser and the introduction of the Crown wagon, they eked by until 1965 and the debut of the Corona, which had been designed specifically for American tastes and driving habits. Although the 1960 Crown was officially a Toyota already, it was still marketed as the Toyopet. The Toyota Corona was the dawn of a new era for the company, and the name was its new flag. Good thing, too, since few would probably take the Toyopet Tundra or Toyopet Supra seriously. Following that, the Corolla appeared in 1968 and the rest is history. Soon, Toyota surpassed the best selling import brand, VW, and the Corolla eventually became the top selling car in the world.
So not only do we celebrate 50 years of Toyota in the US today, but it’s also 50 years of Japanese cars in the US, period. In addition, 2007 is also the 70th anniversary of the company in Japan, when it officially spun off (ha!) from Toyoda Automatic Loom, and Toyota is currently in a neck-and-neck race with GM for top selling brand in the world. You’ve come a long way, Toyota. Here’s to many more.
[Images: Toyota, Katysnest]