Akio Toyoda is no longer president of Toyota. We were sad to hear of his resignation, as he is was the most outspoken “car guy CEO” in the industry. His advocacy for fun-to-drive cars resonated throughout Toyota and Japan at large. However, it seems that retirement has given Toyoda the freedom to do even more for enthusiasts, even subtly pulling the strings to champion the revival of the Celica.
Before we get into Akio Toyoda’s thoughts on the Celica, let’s take a look at how his role has changed. Morizo, a nickname he’s known by in enthusiast circles, remains a beloved and respected figure in Japan, but unshackled from the role of Toyota’s leader, Toyoda has the liberty to speak up for and about other brands that he wasn’t able to as president. He’s even bankrolling a private racing team, Rookie Racing, because he’s able to do things
He was even seen giving a thumbs up from behind the wheel of a Honda, something that he surely would have never been caught dead doing before. A recent interview with The Toyota Times illustrates just how more active Toyoda’s been. While Morizo has less direct influence in Toyota, he still has a ton of connections and is using them to full effect.
He’s been talking with the FIA to help get Subaru back into WRC, for example. even though they would compete directly against Toyota’s own GR Yaris Rally1. Turns out, Toyoda even thinks Mitsubishi should take a shot. He explained in the interview how more competition means more opportunities to develop racing talent, as well as the chance to draw in more racing fans before the changing automotive landscape leaves the sport behind. Said Toyoda:
The reality is that the WRC’s top category, Rally1, currently has just three teams. Even if each of them fields three cars, that makes only nine spots for top drivers and co-drivers. To make rally a sustainable and ongoing sport, I think we need a few more teams competing at the top level.
Toyota also returned to the rally world (in 2017) after a 17-year hiatus. Thanks to the many people who still remembered those Celicas and Corollas from 17 years earlier, we enjoyed a rather warm welcome when we made our comeback.
Subaru and Mitsubishi both still have many fans, and those memories are still alive. That’s why there’s this feeling that they might just be taking a little break.
The decision to go for it or not ultimately rests with Subaru. For our part, we welcome having more competitors. Above all, I think that’s important for the fans and developing talent, and in the sense of having extra seats for anyone hoping to be a part of rally someday. I will continue to invite them.
Toyoda is even bankrolling his own privateer team, Rookie Racing. Though Toyoda’s fame and position allow his team to enjoy perks like widespread media coverage and moonlighting engineers, he does it because Toyota is so big that even the president and grandson of the founder can simply do what he wants:
When it comes to mixing business with personal affairs, most people imagine that someone in my position would use company assets, but I guess Toyota is tight-fisted (laughs). Since they won’t provide (vehicles), I said alright, let’s use mine. That’s what mixing business with pleasure looks like at Toyota, all backwards.
Originally, I created Gazoo Racing to lead the charge in reforming Toyota. But as things grow bigger and bigger, you get more people on the admin side. What starts out from a love of cars ends up like any other large corporation. I realized there were things we couldn’t do at Gazoo Racing, which is why I set up Rookie Racing.
As privateers, there are certain things we can do that a Toyota factory team could not. The amount of information coming through to Morizo has certainly changed since starting Rookie Racing. People might not tell the head of a factory team, but as a privateer, I am taking on the financial burden and going through the same hardships. Being a privateer put me in a position where I can relate.
Finally, the interviewer asked Toyoda about a Celica revival. There have been breadcrumbs suggesting there is momentum for it, including Toyota trademarking the name and new president Koji Sato stating it’s been his life-long dream to bring it back. Toyoda gave the surest sign yet that he’s been trying mastermind a comeback. Toyoda was initially coy, resulting in the following back-and-forth between he and interviewer Hitoshi Hongo:
Hongo: If I don’t ask this next question, the viewers won’t forgive me: is a new Celica really on the cards?
Morizo: You’ll have to ask Toyota Motor about that. I’m not on the executive side.
Hongo: But you could put in a request, right?
Morizo: Well, I have, but I don’t know what name it will come out under.
Hongo: Surely no one would refuse a request by Morizo?
Morizo: Oh no (laughs). Plenty would. Some people are sick of hearing what Morizo has to say.
Then Toyoda revealed why he’s been seen `so many times at rally events with Juha Kankkunen, four-time WRC Drivers’ Champion, most recently in 1993 behind the wheel of a ST185 Celica GT-Four. Toyoda has even nicknamed him “Mr. Celica.”
I’m not just saying this because we’re at a rally event, but Kankkunen (who was invited to the demo run) is Mr. Celica. He was champion four times in the Celica. Now you can all have a think about why I’m using Kankkunen so much. See if you can guess!
Clearly Toyoda has been trying to drum up support for the Celica, but even with the weight of Japan’s most respected automotive executive behind it nothing seems certain. It’s not entirely obvious where a Celica would slot in Toyota’s performance car lineup either, which already includes the GR Yaris, GR Corolla, GR86, and Supra. But if Morizo himself is giving this to us, we’re won’t look a gift horse in the mouth.