Turning Japanese

Anthony Peacock
19 Oct , 2022

If cars were a rock group (and technically they once were; The Cars being a band founded in Boston in 1976, with their biggest hit predictably called Drive) then the Toyota Museum in Nagoya would be their greatest hit. 

And I’ve not only bought their album but I’m wearing the T-shirt, having been given the opportunity to visit one of the most fascinating car collections I’ve ever seen.

All the classics are preserved there for posterity: from the Jaguar E Type to a pink Cadillac Eldorado to a Porsche 356. But naturally, being the Toyota Museum, it’s the more obscure Japanese stuff that’s most interesting: including many cars you will never have seen before, as they were rarely on sale outside of Japan (also because of import quotas). 

Despite being called the Toyota Museum, you’ll find more than just Toyotas exhibited: although Japan’s leading car manufacturer plays a very prominent role, as you would expect. It’s a spectacularly huge facility, located on the outskirts of Toyota’s home city, and it tells the story of how the car industry – specifically the Japanese car industry – evolved over the years. In the beginning, Toyota wasn’t even called Toyota: instead, the company was called Toyoda, after its founder Sakichi Toyoda (Akio Toyoda, his great-grandson, is still president of Toyota now).

The very first Toyota was launched in 1936, called the AA. Ironic for a company that subsequently built its reputation on reliability…

Very few of these early cars are left now, but it was successful enough to lay down Toyota’s credentials as a serious car maker that was blazing its own technical trail, independently of what the rest of the world was doing. The rather fetching baby blue-coloured vehicle you see in the photos was the Toyota SA from 1951: the first car in Japan with independent four-wheel suspension and a column shift, which achieved such widespread popularity that it was known as the ‘Toyopet’, like a family dog.

Small cars were all the rage in Europe in the 1950s, thanks to models such as the 2CV, Fiat 500, Volkswagen Beetle and Mini (you can see pristine examples of all of them in the Toyota Museum). But did you know that Japan had its own peoples’ car too?

The Subaru 360 from 1959 was Subaru’s first production car, slightly resembling the love child of a Fiat 500 and a 2CV. This bulbous yet compact creation, in stark contrast to the fire-breathing rally monsters that Subaru became famous for much later, was a best-seller throughout the 1960s, as mass motoring really came to the people. After a slow start, Japan had well and truly caught up.

But perhaps the two most significant cars in the museum’s collection are a pair of models that launched within three months of each other in 1966 and would go on to become fierce rivals that shaped the course of automotive history. Those two cars were the Datsun Sunny and Toyota Corolla, and although to some they looked like washing machines and were about as interesting to drive as them, this pair of compact hatchbacks would redefine the concept of an affordable but spacious family car, with the Corolla name going on to become the most sold car model in the world.

The joy of this museum is that you get to see the very first iteration of cars whose names shape childhood memories: such as the original Datsun Bluebird from 1965. When I was growing up, our sales rep neighbour had a boxy sky blue Bluebird: its ancestor was a much more elegant beast. 

One car that really stood out at the time was the original Honda Civic from 1973: my friend’s mum had an ageing example in the 1980s and occasionally I was ferried to school in it. Bizarrely, it was exactly the same shade of coral red as the car displayed in the Toyota Museum: after just one glance at it, I was suddenly 11 all over again and I hadn’t done my homework. It’s funny how old cars have that immediate visceral effect on you, and this probably lies at the heart of their appeal. 

There are so many other significant cars I could pick out from my visit, for all sorts of different reasons. A favourite is the 1970 Toyota Celica TA22, just because it was such a muscle car but with real engineering prowess behind it – like a thinking man’s Dodge Charger. 

The very first Toyota Land Cruiser from 1951 (which matched the Pepsi blue of my Seiko SKX009 - but that’s another story you can read here) is incredibly important too, as it marked the birth of the best and most reliable 4x4 in the world (sorry, Land Rover). 

If you wanted to – and there’s absolutely no reason why you would – you can see the very first generation of Toyota Prius in Nagoya as well: surely a landmark moment for anyone who is fond of mini cabs. And, much more interestingly, there’s a full-fat Nissan Skyline, which perfectly encapsulates the meaning of the words “Tokyo Drift”.

In spite of this embarrassment of riches, it’s actually not hard to choose a favourite – and it happens to be the star of the show as well. The Toyota 2000GT is such a stunningly beautiful work of art that if even played a leading role in a Bond film: You Only Live Twice (with Daniel Craig recently saying that this was his very favourite Bond car). 

Single-handedly, this Toyota transformed the image of Japanese cars – and you only need to take one look at it to understand why. It had the sporting credentials to match the glamorous looks as well, setting 13 records for speed and endurance at a 72-hour test in Japan. The only bad news is that it’s the most expensive Japanese car in the world as well; one sold at auction earlier this year for $2.5 million dollars.

I might just have to settle for the cutesy Mazda Carol instead. It’s probably just as rare, but considerably less sought-after.

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