July 06, 2017

Sayonara, Toyota さよなら

From the collection of John Lloyd (CC BY 2.0)

When you visit the Toyota USA Automobile Museum in Torrance, the attendant encourages you to watch a couple of videos that introduce you to both the history of the company and its collection.

The video is a little outdated, though, because it fails to mention that the North American headquarters of Toyota is moving from California to Texas and that some of its museum's historic cars are being relocated from this LA suburb to a new visitor's center in a suburb of Dallas.

But it helps to watch the video regardless, because while Toyota may now be one of the best-selling and most valuable car brands, the company didn't start out that way.

In fact, manufacturing cars in Japan proved to be more difficult than its founder, Kiichiro Toyoda, ever thought it would be.

You might say that the road was rocky, to say the least.

It's a good analogy, because in the research and development of its early automotive models, Toyota was testing on the roads of Japan—which, at the time, were flat and rocky.

Though the company was incorporated in 1937, it wasn't until the release of the Corona in 1965 that the Japanese automakers had come up with something that could handle the rolling hills of, say, California...

...and the expansive freeway, highway, and byway system that had basically taken over the entire United States by the mid-20th century.

Toyota's previous models were beautiful, but they weren't practical enough to be exported.

In fact, when the company opened its first U.S. dealership in Hollywood, it did so with 287 Toyopet Crown sedans, which were discontinued in 1961 for underperforming. The Corona ("crown" in Spanish) was its more successful successor.

In between the company's founding and its first profitable export, there was the matter of World War II and anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S.—a prejudice that didn't end with the peace treaties that ended the war.

In fact, throughout the 1960s and '70s, while Toyota continued to grow its business on our shores, Americans were discouraged from buying Japanese anything.

And then the 1973 oil crisis (a.k.a. the "gas shortage") hit. And since Toyota offered fuel-efficient cars that were designed with economy—as well as looks—in mind, people wanted to buy them to save money (since Toyota was one of the first to publicize its fuel economy, at an average of 25 to 28 mpg) and still be cute and sporty.

Meanwhile, America's "Big Three"—GM, Ford, and Chrysler—took a big hit. And while Americans became more environmentally aware and regulations on automotive pollution got tighter, Toyota was the first to earn approval of its emission control system in the state of California, two years before the founding of the EPA.

Toyota also entered the field of auto racing, making its car bodies light enough to practically fly down any course...

...and even having its own Formula One racing team.

But most people who drive a Toyota aren't race-car drivers. They've got keys to a Camry, which has been the number-one selling car in the U.S. for several years running (and replaced the Corona in 1983).

Given the fact that Toyota has been at the forefront of environmental engineering basically since its inception, it's no wonder that the company is also the one to have brought us the first mass-marketed gas/electric hybrid car, the Prius.

But ironically, the only model to have been continuously sold in the U.S. since Toyota's stateside inception is the gas-guzzling Land Cruiser (currently branded as the FJ Cruiser).

The Toyota Museum in Torrance is only open until September, when it will vacate and some other Toyota team will move into the leased space, as the rest of the operations shift to the Lone Star State.

I wish I'd seen it before they'd removed any of the cars. But I'm glad I got to see it in its extant form—since it's yet another piece of LA history that will soon be lost.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Manzanar, The Wartime Japanese Prison Village
Photo Essay: The Secret Street Legal Collection at Vic's Garage

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