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Lifelong Pursuit
After a 40-year search, Shunichi Kasai finds his grail.

I n the late fall of 1965, Shunichi Kasai was five years old. Like many boys, he had a preternatural affinity for mechanical things and found the world a wide and wondrous place. Tokyo had not yet become the humming Metroplex that exists today, but the future capital of the world's second largest economy was undergoing a modernization boom never before seen. A year prior, Tokyo's unofficial reemergence from the devastation of World War II had culminated in the first television broadcast across the Pacific - coverage of the 1964 Olympic Games. Churning out everything from cameras to cargo ships, the tremendous rate of growth soon thrust Tokyo into the position of world's largest city. A sense of boundless possibility permeated the air and every citizen, from ramen vendor to industrialist, fueled the historic expansion simply by going about their daily lives.

None of this was of any concern to young Shunichi, however, because on this new autumn day, his father was taking him on one of their many outings. As is the case when such things happen, neither had a clue that the course of their lives would be immensely altered as they headed out, to Harumi Showplace, for the 12th annual Tokyo Motor Show.

For a nostalgic car devotee the 1965 Tokyo Motor Show attendance ranks slightly above attaining nirvana and does so for one reason - it was the venue that Toyota Motor Corporation chose to reveal their new 2-seater grand touring coupe, the 2000GT, to the world. To comprehend the impact of this event, consider that in 1965, Japanese products exuded about as much prestige as a cat food coupon. "Made in Japan" meant cheap, in both cost and quality, just as a "Made in China" label today makes one think of a fluorescent-lit maze of steel shelving and disposable plastic.

Despite the massive industrial transformation under way, the vast majority of Japanese cars and trucks consisted of a steel carton easily dwarfable by a 2007 Honda Fit, and a motor whose displacement was no larger than that of a modern sportbike but with half the horses. Two-liter cars existed, but wheezed like a one-lunged mule to reach 80mph and accounted for less than one percent of all sales.

Imagine then, the lunacy that the 2000GT represented. There in 1965, sitting atop a circular platform under gleaming spotlights, was an automotive jewel with the heavenliest of space-age running gear and a Yamaha powerplant good for 133mph, all luxuriously embodied by a sleek silhouette any European GT would die for. Imagine Hyundai in 1996 coming out with a worthy Maserati rival for six digits, just one decade after the '86 Excel and you'll appreciate the 2000GT.

More importantly it declared boldly that the Japanese auto industry had arrived. Not to be relegated to the kiddie table assembling licensed kits, the creators of such a world-class automobile should from this point on be taken seriously. For Shunichi and his father though, the message was more personal - both instantly fell in love with the car. Alas, its accompanying world-class price tag put it squarely out of reach for not only Shunichi's father but nearly every Japanese citizen.

As pre-production copies went on to tour auto shows abroad, Toyota got to work testing the 2000GT's mettle on the track. The peak of this endeavor came in 1966 at Yatabe Test Track when the 2000GT broke 16 FIA-sanctioned international and world speed records in a single 72-hour rain-splattered endurance run. And with that, the car became a legend.

Unfortunately, as with many legends, surrounding facts get lost or twisted in the march of time. The most widespread and persistent error haunting the 2000GT says that Count Albrecht von Goertz, the famous German-American stylist of the BMW 307 and 507, conceived its beautiful lines. Von Goertz's brilliance can't be denied, but in reality it was Satoru Nozaki, a young car enthusiast and designer working for Toyota, who gave shape to the 2000GT based on sketches he had been toying with as an industrial design student in 1963.

According to Shin Yoshikawa, author of Toyota 2000GT: The Complete History of Japan's First Supercar, after placing first in every class it entered at the inaugural 1963 Japanese Grand Prix with its Publica, Corona and Crown, Toyota was inspired to build a limited-production sportster to showcase its engineering prowess. Jiro Kawano, Toyota's own factory racing manager headed the internally-named 280A project and hand-picked Nozaki for body design. At the same time, motorcycle and piano builder Yamaha sought to enter the car-building business. Lacking heavy manufacturing facilities, they decided that commissions for low-volume coachbuilding would better suit their abilities and collaborated with Nissan on a variety of projects. Among them, a Fairlady Roadster-based coupe and a 2-liter GT codenamed A550X.

At this point, von Goertz may have contracted for Yamaha on these designs. The CSP311-chassis coupe became the 1500 Coupe, later renamed the Silvia. But before the A550X could make a public appearance, tension between the two firms prompted Nissan to end the partnership. The sudden loss of all production contracts for the Silvia and A550X meant Yamaha desperately needed a new partner to recoup their costs. They shopped their coachbuilding resume around and caught the eye of Toyota's Kawano, who had just the car for them to build.

The A550X's significance lies in the cred it gave Yamaha, providing Toyota with enough faith to enter into the partnership, but did not "become" the 2000GT as many have suggested. In fact, explains Yoshikawa, upon meeting "the 280A group found Yamaha's earlier GT machine to be unrefined and in many ways inferior to their own preliminary design." Nevertheless, having found a team with common vision, Toyota joined Yamaha to proceed with the 280A and Nozaki's design. Indeed, Road & Track's Dennis Simanaitis wrote that in a July 1981 interview with von Goertz, the 2000GT was notably absent in his citations. To put the final nail in the coffin of the von Goertz myth, Yoshikawa's years of research has uncovered decades-old volumes of Nozaki's sketches and blueprints unmistakably showing the evolution of the 2000GT's shape.

With Yamaha on board, all systems were go for engine development. Toyota supplied the cast-iron block, 7-bearing crankshaft and connecting rods from the M-series straight-6 of an MS41 Crown. Yamaha added aluminum head and pistons, capping off a six-pack of hemispherical combustion chambers. A duplex chain drove twin overhead cams, capable of spinning the engine at 7000rpm while fed via three dual-throat Mikuni-Solex sidedraft carbs.

Regrettably, here we must pause to quell another rumor, that Yamaha somehow reverse engineered the Jaguar E-type's 3.4-liter inline-6, shrinking its proportions in the process. Simanaitis points out that both mills may use dual timing chains, but they take entirely different paths due to clashing locations for intermediate gears. Not to mention that the low-revving Jaguar six's bore and stroke don't square off like the 2000GT's perfect 75 by 75mm.

The British marque that Toyota did draw inspiration from was Lotus, and the Elan's reverse-backbone frame. The body straddles a single beam forking out to a Y at either end. The engine and transmission squeeze between the longer prongs of the forward branch, while each arm of the rear fork sprouts a tower to accommodate a shock and spring assembly. Selected after much deliberation for its low cost, it precluded the expensive new tooling required for a unibody.

This setup allowed simultaneously, a reduced center of gravity, the driver's rump to hover inches above pavement, and dignified entry unimpeded by a high door sill sitting on a frame rail. Once inside, any attempt to resist the charms emanating from the height of Sixties luxury will surely end in defeat. Ornate chrome bands outline every dashboard component, from gauges to buttons, glovebox to gearshift. Any cabin surface not swathed in either brightwork, grained vinyl or deep black leather is graced with handsome rosewood, particularly fetching when adorning the shiftknob and 3-spoke wheel. And naturally, any discussion of the 2000GT's interior would be remiss without noting the link between the brilliant woodwork and Yamaha's familiarity with grand pianos.

Bucket seats coddle the occupants but remain spacious compared Japanese cars of like vintage. A dash-mounted rally clock boldly proclaims the vehicle's sporting intentions. Magazine reviews from the late 60s gushed over the opulence, especially the AM radio's seek function, prompting Car Life to quaintly warn that "the machines are taking over" in August 1968.

Sadly, even a state of the art machine like the 2000GT shows its age after four decades, but contemporary analyses uncovers heaps of adulation for its stellar handling. In June 1967, Road & Track wrote, "When it comes to ride and handling, nobody in his right mind could need or want more in a road vehicle... The excellence of the rear suspension made itself known at the drag strip, too. We tried various engine speeds before the usual clutch-dump and found that regardless of technique the rear wheels simply spin, evenly and smoothly." Likewise, Motor Trend similarly noted in May of '68, "Obviously the 2000 isn't a drag machine, but it can surely hold the road with any iron cradling a powerplant with double or triple the displacement... Cornering is effortless and smooth. On long winding bends, or short, sharp curves, aim it and the 2000 does the rest. Even bumpy roads and dips have no effect on the ride or handling qualities."

Such acclaim owes much credit to the front-mid engine layout and the sublime 48/52 weight distribution it yields. The chassis' low center of gravity and the light, quick rack and pinion steering help too, inducing universal praise for the Toyota's driving dynamics. Editors at Car Life discovered that, "At breakaway speeds the 2000GT is beautifully balanced... Four-wheel drifts can be set up, controlled and ended with either steering wheel or throttle." We did not attempt to verify this.

If one complaint pervaded, it was directed at the unnecessarily notchy synchronized 5-speed transmission. Makes sense, as Toyota sourced a 4-speed from the FA truck parts bin, mainly for its wedgability into the frame, and tacked on extensions for fifth and reverse.

Once free of the grinder, power passes through a mere 21-inch driveshaft to the standard LSD. In fact, the 2000GT pioneered the Japanese auto industry's first use of a grippy pumpkin, not to mention independent double wishbone suspension and discs at all four corners as well. The latter, massive 11.0 and 10.5 rotors front and rear, yank the machine to a stop without fade but with unanimous approval. To solve the parking brake issue with this new phenomenon of drumlessness, engineers devised a separate cable-actuated clamp to grasp the rotor directly.

Okay, so it's easy to take such innovations for granted today. At least one aspect that has no modern equal and never will - the styling. Wind tunnels, computers and mountains of regulations have changed the game. Those nominal bumpers, for example, aren't actually bolstered by the frame, offering no protection except from the softest of taps. And therein lies the beauty. The body is old school, savagely hammered over wooden bucks, yet the 2000GT's steel skin exudes a purposeful elegance. Every surface, whether metal or glass, is comprised of an elaborate fusion of compound curves. The combined effect is simply gorgeous.

The most striking facet emerges only at certain angles. It's a trait so stereotypically Japanese that they've taken it to a geometric extreme on modern cars like the Scion xB and Nissan Cube. Creases, baby. Razor sharp. Starting from the sweep of the front fenders and cresting in the rear haunches, the crisp edge arcs around the corner to form a crisp upturned edge at the tail, almost like a vestigial integrated spoiler. A calligraphy brush could have drawn the resultant blend of concave and convex curves encompassing each aft quarter. Look at it. You will fall in love.

Accusations of plagiarism often arise here, most frequently in reference to the E-type. But look closely at the two. God is in the details. The Jag couldn't develop creases like that if it put on pressed pants. Most European sports cars of the era were still obsessed with rounded, organic bulges, headlights burrowing out from two cylindrical shafts assimilated into either side of a long hood. Further sharpness can be found in the 2000GT's so-called "Chinese eye" side windows that converge on a point, a perfect complement to the C-pillar. This, along with the more acute rake of the Toyota's windshield, conspires to make the E-type's dome resemble an abandoned shell of a box turtle.

Another ever-so-slight crease travels down the hood's centerline and terminates in a pointed grille flanked by two driving lamps in a fixed gaze of slight malevolence. Nozaki integrated these lights to prevent rally car-like add-ons from blemishing the purity of the shape, and sliced the whole graphic horizontally with yet another origami fold. Even the most derided cue, the fender access panels, look vaguely mechanical and Japanese, possibly a compartment concealing the hands of a 20-foot transforming robot. Disappointingly, they merely house the air filter and wiper fluid reservoir on one side, the battery on the other.

The flipup headlights don't look half-bad either, or at least much more elegant in their chrome rings than boxed-in retractables from the 80s. Plus, they meet California's minimum height standards of the day. Here then, a clue to debunk yet another stateside myth, that the 2000GT was never intended for export to America. Anyone living in 1965 Japan could have told you that the nation's highway system had yet to be completed and few roads where the 2000GT could run free even existed. Again, Yoshikawa tells us that the 280A team fully expected most sales to come from overseas and identified the US as a key market.

The production version went on sale in 1967, but only 343 were built before manufacture ended in late 1970. That's the official count until someone unearths more data, though published numbers will range from anywhere from 337 to 351, which would include 8 pre-production units. Some attribute poor sales to the fact that the 2000GT's 150hp at 6600rpm and 130lb-ft of torque at 5000 was outmatched by Porsche's lighter and more powerful 911S, which debuted during the intervening two years. Then again, that seems like odd behavior, akin to dismissing the Enzo because the Bugatti Veyron is faster.

Both were fine machines, and more likely, the 2000GT's fate was sealed by Toyota's lack of cachet and unknown heritage. To say the world wasn't ready for a Japanese car that cost, at $7230, more than an established marque like Porsche would be an understatement. Toyota had only been selling cars in the US for a decade and everything else stickered at the Crown's $2765 or lower.

Had the 2000GT debuted in the mid-1980s, it surely would have sold in greater numbers. Japan had maintained its stupendous pace of growth and its citizens no longer had any problem buying cars. Big cars. Expensive cars. And rare cars. As a young man, Shunichi Kasai could now indulge his passion for the automotive. As part-time rally racer, he couldn't leave any car he owned stock. As a businessman, he spotted a nascent fascination with American-style hot rods. When he opened Deuce Factory, a total of 5 of the original tuner cars existed in all of Japan, but that would soon change.

A wave of cosmopolitan attitudes came with the new wealth, and interest in American classics flourished. For his enterprise, Kasai traveled to the US, and at a gathering of car enthusiasts in 1984, stumbled upon a pristine red example of Toyota's bygone masterpiece. Dusting off long-filed memories from the Tokyo Motor Show, he reminisced for a moment before taking a snapshot and moving on to conduct business.

Today Deuce Factory ranks as one of Japan's premier rod shops, with full restoration and customization services. They even fabricate a line of hot rod parts you can buy in America. Naturally, a successful business and a voluminous repertoire of skills have afforded Kasai a spectacular roster of vehicles. Highlights from his collection include an Austin-Healey "Bugeye" Sprite swapped with a Nissan Sunny A14 drivetrain and suspension; a pair of Toyota Sports 800s, one museum quality and one rollcaged for racing; true to his company, a '32 Ford Woody and a black '34 Phaeton; a '64 tube-frame pro-street Publica powered by a Toyota Century V8; a '67 Crown Masterline pickup and a 1970 TRD Celica.

Still, one car always eluded him, the 2000GT, that once seemingly absurd demonstration of Japan's automotive ambitions. Now with Toyota poised to become the world's top automaker at any second, it seems folly to have ever doubted their aptitude for fine machinery. Ironically, with one of the deepest pockets and most capable engineering staffs in the business world, Toyota hasn't attempted anything even close to the 2000GT since. A downscale version was considered, but quickly shelved in fear of diluting the original's hard-earned status. Even in 1965, Toyota knew the importance of a halo car. The only effort remotely like the 2000GT was the fourth-gen Supra Turbo, last seen on these shores in 1998. Things may come full circle soon though, if the sightings of a camouflaged test rig ever materialize into a Lexus-badged supercar.

For Shunichi Kasai, things came full circle when he answered a classified ad in 2001. The stereo wasn't the original signal-seeking unit that amazed journalists in the 60s, and many of the exquisite rosewood surfaces had developed cracks, but otherwise it seemed well cared for. At last, the now middle-aged proprietor of Deuce Factory could afford the dream that both he and his father had been chasing for 40 years. Turns out, this Solar Red 1967 2000GT was the very same one he happened upon during that early visit to the States years ago. When asked which of his multitude of cars, some wildly modified labors of love, is his favorite, he chuckles and replies, "The 2000GT, of course." end

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