The beginnings of the U.S. adventure were humble indeed.
Mitsuo Yamada, who then was in his mid-20s, has an August 1957 photograph of himself with an executive of American President Lines, a cruise ship company. They're standing next to the first two Toyotas exported to the United States.
Yamada was in his first year in the export department of Toyota Motor Sales, which had been unable to find a cargo ship willing to accept its vehicles for transport across the Pacific. So Toyota turned to the cruise line. The two Toyopet Crowns were placed on the ship's deck beneath a cloth cover.
On Oct. 31, 1957, Toyota officially established its American sales arm, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., in a former Rambler dealership in Hollywood, Calif. Customer response was underwhelming.
In 1958, it sold 287 Toyopet Crowns and only a single FJ20 Land Cruiser.
Things improved the next year, but not much. "The first two or three years, we were mainly selling Land Cruisers. Passenger cars were just five or 10 units a month," recalls Yamada, now 77, who worked in the United States from 1962-67 and later headed Toyota's German and Indonesian sales operations.
Toyota also had trouble attracting American managerial talent, remembers Hashiguchi, who had come to America to work for his father's Osaka import-export distributorship. One day, he met Kamiya, who offered Hashiguchi a job simply because he had heard of Toyota.
"If you graduated from Harvard in 1958, you're not going to work for a Japanese company," Hashiguchi says. "We were not getting the good employees in that sense. We had lots of hard workers, but not Harvard graduates."
Yamada says the Toyota Crown — which was renamed the Toyopet Crown for the United States — was fine for Japan, but didn't translate well to its new market.
"The driving conditions were very different," Yamada recalls. "In Japan at the time, you went only 35 or 40 mph. There were no highways. Japan was all gravel roads, and a two-hour drive was the maximum.
"But at that time in the U.S., they had a 55-mph freeway and they drove for a long time at high speed."
Yamada, who beams with delight when speaking of his early adventures in the United States, remembers the son of the Toyota distributor for Hawaii (which was not yet a state) telling him about driving a Crown to an area on Oahu with steep hills and strong winds.
"He was driving the Crown with the pedal all the way to the floor, but there was a long line of cars behind him honking. Especially uphill, the performance was not really sufficient."