The Toyopet Crown: Rocky start for a future giant
It was neither.
In the past 50 years, Toyota has launched several vehicles that didn't sell well — the Van of the early 1980s, the T100 pickup in the 1990s and various small cars such as the Tercel, Starlet, Paseo and Echo. But those vehicles didn't flop like the Toyopet Crown.
Yanked in 1961 after fewer than 2,000 were sold, the compact Toyopet Crown sedan stands today as Toyota's only outright failure in the United States.
The company line is that the Crown — "the first car of the Orient to be introduced in the United States," said the early ads — didn't sell here because it was not engineered for the American market. The car was basically a converted Japanese taxicab that was too slow and too heavy for America's highways.
Some of that certainly is true. But the story of the Toyopet is more complicated.
In defense of the Toyopet Crown, it should be noted that the car was only two years old when it was introduced here. It was Toyota's first real passenger car, and it debuted in Japan in 1955. So Toyota was fairly new at building cars.
That first Toyota carried more baggage than perhaps any other import ever had to tote. In the 1950s, America was a hostile place for Japanese products. Many Americans still were angry at Japan because of World War II. And Japanese products had a generations-old stigma of lousy quality that would take years to overcome.
In the late 1950s, Sony transistor radios, along with Minolta and Pentax cameras, began to change Americans' image of Japanese consumer goods. Then came Honda's Cub motor scooter, which broke down more stereotypes.
But buying a Japanese automobile in 1959 was still far too controversial a prospect for most U.S. drivers, many of whom were World War II vets.
"The Toyopet was a tough sell," says Stan Rood, who was general manager at Hawkins Buick in Seattle and an early Toyopet dealer.
"There was still a lot of ill will against Japan, still a lot of pent-up animosity," says Rood, now 89.
With so few Toyopet Crowns sold and fewer than a dozen known to survive, Toyota can blame the car for the failure and neatly brush aside the fact that Americans were biased against Japan. But digging a little further tells a different story.
The Toyopet Crown actually was one of the best of the early imported economy cars, according to four major reviews of the car published in magazines from 1958 to 1960.
In the fall of 1959, the most influential automotive journalist of the day, Tom McCahill of Popular Mechanix, tested the Toyopet Crown.
His review largely shoots down the official Toyota line that the car was not engineered for the United States and couldn't perform well here.
While the Toyopet Crown did not offer the same 0-to-60-mph performance as an American car, it was able to match the performance of other imported economy cars that were selling well. McCahill found the Toyopet could pass traffic on the Pennsylvania turnpike at 70 mph.
He found a lot more to like in the Toyopet Crown, saying it "has a better ride than any other imported car selling for less than $2,500." He also praised the car's high-quality chrome and interior.
The language McCahill used is a good window into American attitudes about Japan in the late 1950s. Nowadays, such writing would earn a reporter a quick trip to his company's human resources department or the unemployment line.
McCahill refers to the Toyopet Crown as "the little slant eye," and the article uses such words as "Jap" and "Nip." McCahill describes what buying a Toyopet would be like:
"You'd have to sit up for at least a half-dozen nights with your friendly witch doctor to dream up a better saloon talking-piece than owning a Japanese car. A three-cylinder, two-cycle Swede (the Saab 93) or a pancake rear-engined Kraut (Volkswagen Beetle) becomes as mundane as sand on a beach when faced with a product from the Land of the Rising Sun."
Early Toyota dealer Frank Hawkins kept his distance from the car and from Toyota. Rood remembers the day in 1957 that a local newspaper came to photograph the dealership's signing of its Toyota franchise deal. "Hawkins wouldn't even be in the picture with the Japanese fellow, so I signed the document," Rood says.
BAILED OUT IN 1958
Hawkins Buick sold about 50 Toyopet Crowns before dropping the franchise in 1958 and taking on Opel, which was distributed by Buick.
It wasn't the Toyopet Crown's price, styling or quality, Rood says, but the bias against Japan and a lack of performance that hurt the car.
Says Rood: "Looking back, we made a mistake by dropping it. Toyota was disappointed. But later they had the last laugh."
Had the Toyopet Crown been British, French or even German and had it been priced closer to its competitors — such as the Morris Minor, Renault Dauphine and VW Beetle — it might have sold better. The Crown's 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of 24 seconds was slow, to be sure. But it was equal to or better than that of other small imported economy cars.
It probably was Toyota's lack of marketing prowess in the United States, combined with the Toyopet Crown's $2,187 price, that really doomed the car. The Toyopet cost $600 to $700 more than British, French and German imports and about the same as the first U.S. compact cars. Toyota had only 45 dealers in early 1959, most of them in California and on the West Coast.
American Motors' Rambler Deluxe Six debuted in the fall of 1958 with a six-cylinder engine and a starting price of $2,047. In 1960, Detroit fired back at the imports with the Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon and Plymouth Valiant. Those cars had bigger engines and better performance. They delivered good fuel economy and sold for the same or less money than the Toyopet Crown.
There was no way the Toyopet could compete. Sales plunged.
TALK OF IMPORT CURBS
Still, Toyota thought it had to establish a foothold in the United States. Imports were grabbing market share in 1959, and there was talk in Congress about imposing restrictions on imported automobiles.
Susumu Yanagisawa, who was Toyota's Americas section manager from 1971 to 1983, says the failure of the Toyopet in the United States was deeply disappointing for the company. Yanagisawa, who joined Toyota in 1958 and is now 74 and retired, sticks to the company line, saying that the car was wrong for the United States, and that selling it here was a big mistake.
"The United States was a very important market for Toyota right from the beginning," he says. "The car was too heavy, and the engine was too small.
"About 200 cars were unsold. Dead stock. Management decided to ship back all the unsold Crowns to Japan, to Okinawa. Chairman (Taizo) Ishida said, 'Throw them away into the Pacific.' He was so frustrated."
Maybe that frustration was due to Toyota's really trying to make the Toyopet Crown appeal to U.S. buyers. With dollops of ch-rome trim, upright styling, curved front and rear glass, plush upholstery and suicide rear doors, the car looked like a scaled-down version of something from Detroit.
Tatsuo Hashiguchi was a fresh-faced Toyota service manager when the Toyopet was introduced. He recalls a Toyopet shakedown trip he took with his wife from Los Angeles to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The Toyopet struggled on the long, sloping Arizona highways.
"We'd come to a hill and have to go into low gear. We were driving up those hills at less than 15 miles per hour, and the big trucks would go roaring past, giving us dirty looks," says Hashiguchi.
Hashiguchi, who worked in Toyota's parts department until he retired in 1997, said there also were reliability problems.
"Our motor had three main bearings for a four-cylinder engine, when it should have had five main bearings," he says. "So when you drove it at 50 miles per hour on American roads, it would shake like hell. More than that, the engines busted."
Toyota's U.S. operations were suffering heavy losses, and a decision was made to withdraw the Toyopet Crown and quit the car business in the United States, according to the company's official history. But that didn't happen.
Although Toyota did focus on selling Land Cruisers, Toyopet cars were available in the United States after the Toyopet Crown. The next car, in 1962, was the Toyopet Tiara, a redesigned Crown with a bit more horsepower and conventional rear-opening doors. Sales of the Tiara also were abysmal.
The Tiara was replaced by a new compact, the Corona, in 1965.