Shoichiro Toyoda, the influential president of Toyota who captained the company during its growth into a worldwide phenomenon, passed away on February 14. The official cause, according to a Toyota press release, was heart failure. “Dr. Toyoda,” as he was affectionately known, was 97 years old. Though he only served as president for 11 years, he was actively involved with the company for over seven decades, ushering it through some of its most crucial turning points.
Shoichiro Toyoda was born in 1925, the eldest son of Toyota’s founder Kiichiro Toyoda. He is also the father of current president Akio Toyoda. One might think that with his family name on the buildings that Shoicihro Toyoda was a shoe-in to run the firm, but he most certainly earned the title of president.
Shoichiro Toyoda graduated from Nagoya University in 1947 with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. A true enthusiast from the outset, he founded a car club while enrolled there. He went on to research fuel injection at Tohoku University and received a PhD from his studies, earning him the “Dr.” honorific.
After the sudden passing of his father Kiichiro, Shoichiro joined Toyota in 1952 at the behest of his father’s successor, President Taizo Ishida. One of his earliest assignments as a manager of the R&D division brought him to America. He had been tasked with evaluating whether the then-new Toyota Crown was suitable for export. Upon concluding his test drive across several northeast states, he endorsed the Crown as ready for sale in the US.
Of course, history knows that the car bombed terribly. “I learned from my own misjudgment,” Toyoda wrote in a column for Nikkei Keizai Shimbun. “I became determined to develop a high-quality passenger car that would perform well anywhere in the world.”
Shoichiro Toyoda also led the project of building the company’s renowned Motomachi plant in what is now called Toyota City. The facility has long been the centerpiece of Toyota’s manufacturing empire, building everything from the 2000GT, Century, and Supra to the GR Yaris, Lexus LFA, and Mirai. It was a huge gamble, as it was the first automobile factory in Japan completely dedicated to building passenger cars. At the time, the domestic market share of passenger cars totaled only 50,000 annually among all companies. The Motomachi plant had a capacity of 60,000 alone.
The move paid off, as passenger car ownership took off in the coming years. “I believe the experience of leading the construction made me a better engineer. As the first manager of this plant, I learned to actually run production lines,” Toyoda recalled in his column.
In the 1960s Shoichiro Toyoda was key player in the team that created Toyota’s legendary quality control system. The philosophy of kaizen, or continuous improvement, and the allowance of employees at any level to voice suggestions laid the groundwork for the brand’s legendary reliability. The constant fine-tuning to squeeze every last bit of efficiency out of the manufacturing process has been adopted throughout Japanese industry, automotive or not.
Dr. Toyoda took over as President in 1981, a time of growing resentment in the US against Japanese car companies. Footage of American autoworkers taking sledgehammers to Japanese cars were going viral and the federal government was threatening tariffs. To quell tensions, Toyoda established a joint venture with General Motors called New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI). Toyota cars built in the US would use parts from US suppliers and be put together by US workers trained under Toyota’s kaizen philosophy.
The experiment proved to be a success, leading Toyota to open dozens of factories around the world throughout the 1980s. The strategy proved prescient when, a few years later, the 1985 Plaza Accord drastically depreciated the dollar against the yen. Having local factories helped shield Toyota from currency fluctuations and allowed them to build cars tailored to local markets.
Shoichiro Toyoda’s accomplishments made Toyota a globally recognized name, but his brilliance as a businessman shouldn’t overshadow his bona fides as a car guy. Soft spoken and humble, he always referred to himself as an engineer rather than President. After his retirement Toyoda-san stayed on as Chairman until 1999, then served as honorary Chairman until his passing. In 1994 he also became head of the Keidanren, Japan’s most powerful business lobby.
Despite these lofty titles, according to employees at the time, Dr. Toyoda nevertheless continued to take a hands-on approach to cars. He would often pop in at new model launches and testing sessions to take a spin behind the wheel himself. “[He] was always the one who would go right up to the end at test-drive events,” a young executive who accompanied Toyoda told the Nikkei. “We couldn’t go home before him, so he’d keep us waiting for quite a while.” Legend has it that even the great Toyota test driver Hiromu Naruse valued his skills as a driver.
Toyoda-san would pass on those skills onto his son, Akio. It is said the Dr. often brought home a variety of cars, including those of Toyota’s competitors, to evaluate. He would take Akio on drives or to race circuits as well, to imbue his son with a love for cars. There are rumors that he convinced Akio to take driving lessons from Naruse to bolster his skills.
Shoichiro Toyoda believed in genchi genbutsu, the code of “seeing for yourself” that governed his management style. It had been taught to him by his father, who believed that even a manager or president must get their hands dirty and really understand cars, not just business, to earn the respect of employees. As most readers know, Akio would eventually take the helm at Toyota himself, ushering in a new era of performance cars that breathed new life into the lineup.
Although Akio Toyoda has only a couple more months left in his tenure, the legacy he will leave will not just be his; it will be multi-generational. During Shoichiro Toyoda’s travels ahead of the original Crown’s US launch, the world had barely heard of Toyota. It lagged so far behind other carmakers that a Volkswagen plant manager freely gave Toyoda-san a tour and allowed him to take all the photos he wanted.
One could say that all of Shoichiro Toyoda’s experiences and challenges culminated in 1989 with the launch of Lexus. With the new marque Toyota proved it could build the best engineered cars in the world, with quality that surpassed even the long-established traditional luxury brands. From the misstep of the original Crown to what was one of the finest and most over-engineered cars on the planet, the Lexus LS400, Dr. Toyoda had come a long way. Shoichiro Toyoda’s time with Toyota was nothing less than transformational.