The auto industry is always marking some kind of milestone, but few milestones mean as much as the one we celebrate this week: the 50th anniversary of Toyota's arrival in the United States.
Toyota's rise in the past half century is in many respects the story of the industry in that period. This is the company that changed the world. Not only has Toyota's growth been astonishing (it may surpass General Motors in U.S. sales before celebrating its 55th anniversary); the one-time loom manufacturer from Nagoya, Japan, also has influenced how every other automaker operates.
Much of what has happened in the car business in the past 50 years either was initiated by Toyota or was a response to something that Toyota created or achieved. It has been the industry's benchmark in many areas. The list of advances is long: the single-minded focus on quality, the striving for customer satisfaction, the early emphasis on fuel economy, Lexus, lean manufacturing, collaborative supplier relations, hybrid vehicles. Yes, Toyota is just as capable of making mistakes as any other automaker. But it is seemingly more capable than others of learning from them.
In a way, Toyota has embodied the best of three men who dominated the U.S. auto industry from 1907 to 1957 — Henry Ford, Alfred P. Sloan and Walter Chrysler. Ford, Sloan and Chrysler were, respectively, masterminds of manufacturing, corporate governance and engineering. In the past 50 years, Toyota seemed to combine and codify their genius and shape it into a single corporate culture.
Toyota is not a faceless institution. It has been driven by a collection of brilliant and colorful individuals — such people as Taiichi Ohno, Norm Lean, Bob McCurry, Fujio Cho, Jim Press and, of course, the stalwarts of the Toyoda family. But unlike most of the great auto companies of the first half of the 20th century, Toyota is not a reflection of a single powerful person. Rather, it is the ultimate team.
At Automotive News, we tend to look at the auto business in the short range — on a weekly and, nowadays, daily and even hourly basis. But from time to time, we sit back and take the long view. We are proud of our 192-page tribute to the anniversary, Turning Points: 25 Pivotal Decisions in Toyota's 50 Years in America.
Everyone who has learned from Toyota — and that includes just about all of us — should take time to pay homage to the company and its people.