In Nagoya in the early 1990s, you could see the anxiety in the faces of Toyota executives. Many were convinced that trying to sell a full-sized pickup in the United States was a huge and probably unnecessary risk.
Not only was Toyota going after Detroit's last remaining — and fiercely defended — profit center. It also risked roiling the protectionist waters.
Oh, and Toyota had zero experience building big trucks.
But their counterparts at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. had persisted. The Americans wanted a big ol' truck, with all the trimmings.
The two sides never really got together, and the result was a tentative and ultimately unsuccessful first effort to enter the large-pickup segment.
Getting it right took about 15 years — not the kind of learning curve Toyota is accustomed to. Although Toyota didn't deliberately set out to blunder with its first two efforts, some insiders think the company had to fail before it could succeed.
"We looked at it as a three-generation strategy," says Chris Hostetter, vice president of advanced product strategy and product planning. "We saw it as, 'Get into the market, improve it, then get it right.' "
One reason it took so long was that the executives, engineers and product planners in Nagoya simply did not understand the U.S. full-sized pickup market.
Not that Toyota didn't have experience with pickups. After all, Toyota had made its mark during the Voluntary Restraint Agreement era of the early 1980s, selling scads of bulletproof Hi-Lux compact pickups. But leaping into the full-sized segment was another matter.
In the United States, Executive Vice President Bob McCurry insisted that a larger truck was necessary. McCurry and his U.S. management team had just gotten Japan to approve a separate luxury channel, so they thought it would be a cinch to get a true full-sized truck approved as well.
Sorry, Bob, not so fast.
Each American entreaty for a larger pickup was rebuffed, no matter how much market research was shoveled to Japan. Frustrated U.S. product planners sent ten-gallon cowboy hats to Japan to show the necessary headroom the truck needed. The Americans even invited the Japanese team to California to drive Ford and Chevrolet pickups around shopping mall parking lots.
It didn't matter. The ruling from Japan was that Toyota could build a smarter, smaller full-sized pickup. This truck, the T100, was one of the few errors Toyota made in its 50 years in America.
Jim Press, former president of Toyota Motor North America, understands the Japanese engineers who thought smaller would be sufficient.
"We didn't know how to build it," he said. "It's easy for the sales guy to say, 'This is what we need.' But there's no magic chemical in the lab where we pour some red stuff and blue stuff together, and then there's some smoke and boom, you have a full-sized pickup. It wasn't a matter of scaling up a Tacoma."