Toyota's decision to build an assembly plant in Georgetown, Ky., was only partly about the U.S. auto market. The decision was also about Toyota itself.
Georgetown was Toyota Motor Corp.'s effort to prove to itself that it could be a global automaker and that its very particular way of building cars could be replicated outside Japan.
But to become a global corporation, Toyota had to learn how to become a local employer.
Shoichiro Toyoda, the family member who was president of the parent company in the 1980s, championed the idea of manufacturing in the United States as a critical step in Toyota's global evolution.
Toyoda, who held a doctorate in engineering, knew that American input was needed to make Toyota products more appealing to American consumers. He also understood that embracing input from outside Japan was necessary.
Today, as construction crews work on what will be Toyota's ninth North American auto plant in Tupelo, Miss., the enormity of the decision to build the Georgetown factory has become somewhat lost.
But in 1985, Toyota leaders in Japan fretted about the Kentucky idea. They worried about overreaching in their quest for growth. They wondered about the wisdom of a remote, rural Midwestern factory location, with even more remote suppliers sprawled out over thousands of square miles.
They also remained anxious about the image of the American worker.
A year earlier, Toyota had opened New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. in Fremont, Calif. That 50-50 joint venture with General Motors, located safely on the West Coast in a major urban area, gave Toyota a taste of foreign operations. But the automaker needed to know whether it could really fly solo.
The challenge was large. Toyota executives in Japan feared their company would not be accepted in the American heartland, recalled Fujio Cho, who presided over the launch of Georgetown as CEO of Toyota's operations there. It was American car country with low Toyota sales.
"The Midwest was a blank area for us," Cho, now 70 and chairman of the Japanese parent company, said through an interpreter.
Executives in Japan weren't the only ones who were nervous about a Kentucky factory.
"Our dealers were extremely worried about the quality of the products we could produce in Kentucky," Cho said. "If the Camrys produced in Kentucky turned out to be inferior in quality, then customers would start asking for Camrys built in Japan. Dealers said that would seriously affect their business."