TOKYO -- Takeshi Uchiyamada, the enormously influential Toyota Motor Corp. executive who next month takes on the largely advisory role of vice chairman, drew inspiration from Japan's doomed push to build a jet fighter in the last days of World War II.
The saga, as Uchiyamada told it in a speech to Toyota executives, kept him plugging away as lead engineer on the first-generation Prius, another project that was short on time, long on ambition and against heavy odds.
It was early 1945, and designs for Japan's jet plane, based on Nazi Germany's Messerschmitt Me262, were on their way to Tokyo from Berlin when the submarine shuttling the plans was captured.
The blueprints were lost. But Japan's determined engineers kept at it. With little more than photos of the German original, they cobbled together their own working jet from scratch.
Never mind that the Nakajima Kikka flew only once -- just a week before Japan's surrender. The lesson, according to executives present at his speech: Think outside the box and never give up.
"It was quite inspirational," one of them recalls.
Uchiyamada has channeled that same never-say-die attitude during 43 years at Toyota during which he not only created the Prius hybrid franchise but also revamped the company's manufacturing and product-development processes during the financial, recall and natural disaster crises of the past four years.
Soft-spoken and athletic, Uchiyamada, 65, was born in the castle town of Okazaki, not far from Toyota headquarters in Toyota City. He grew up dreaming about building cars, partly because his own father was a Toyota legend, having designed the Toyota Crown flagship sedan.
Yet the younger Uchiyamada labored in relative obscurity testing vehicles for noise, vibration and harshness -- until he was tapped in 1994 to spearhead the Prius.
His marching orders were deliberately vague: Build a car for the 21st century. When Uchiyamada reminded his bosses that he had never been a chief engineer before, they replied: "That's why you were selected."
Hybrid drivetrains weren't even part of his brief. But when he showed his bosses plans for a car that got 50 percent better fuel economy than the best similar-sized car on the market, he was told that wasn't good enough. Make it twice as good as the best out there.
What emerged was one of the carmaker's greatest thinkers -- nay, rethinkers. In true Toyota fashion, he made kaizen -- the principle of continuous reinvention and improvement -- an art.
Rethinking things was a must if Uchiyamada were to score with the Prius. It had a radically new drivetrain, needed to appeal to the masses and had to come to market in near-record time.
He commandeered nearly 1,000 people to work on the project and gambled with the car's futurist triangular silhouette. Then he took the biggest risk of all in deciding that a far-out gasoline-electric drivetrain might just work after all.