Wednesday, May 8, 2013

If At First You Don't Succeed, Drive, Drive Again

I was intrigued by this full-page ad for a little car, which I spotted in a 1959 issue of Holiday magazine.  (It goes without saying that I found the magazine at an estate sale.)

What in the world was a Toyopet?  Okay, obviously it was a car.  But why had I never heard of it?

The ads in these old Holiday magazines show lots of automobiles, both large...
1959 Cadillac

...and small.

Triumph TR3
So where did the Toyopet fit in?  The CNN Money website gives us some insight on the automobile industry in the late 1950s-early 1960s:
"European imports - sporty cars and the strange but popular Volkswagen Beetle - were causing some stir and forcing Detroit to respond with cars like the Chevrolet Corvette and Corvair and the Ford Mustang. Cars from Japan, a nation synonymous with exporting cheap toys, hardly seemed a threat.
"Some on the American side of Toyota's new venture were worried that shoppers might not take a car called the Toyopet very seriously. But Americans were embracing a car called the Beetle, weren't they?"

It turns out there was a good reason we don't hear the name "Toyopet" any more.  Even the official Toyota website is brutally honest about the failure of the company's first attempt to sell cars in the US:
"In September 1957 the first two Toyota Toyopets were unloaded at the port of Los Angeles, representing some of the first Japanese passenger cars ever to be exported to America.
"Confident in their product, Toyota extended the warranties against defective parts and workmanship for 1959 Toyopets to six months or 6000 miles compared to customary automotive warranties at the time of 4000 miles or four months.
"When road testing the Toyopet, engineers discovered that it did not have enough horsepower to pull the vehicle over the hills near Los Angeles. Under these mountainous conditions, the engine overheated, power plummeted and loud, threatening noises radiated from under the hood."
And it isn't like the mountains around LA are the Swiss Alps.
Toyota continued to sell the Toyopet, though, and its executives continued to analyze why not that many Americans were driving off their showroom lots:
"It was quickly realized that the Toyopet was not engineered for American roads or American drivers. Used as taxis in Tokyo, the Toyopet was ideal for duty on the rough and bumpy roads of post World War II Japan, but unsuited for high speeds and easy steering, weighing over 3,000 lbs. and powered by a mere 58 horsepower engine. 
"As one American executive later observed, the Toyopet was 'underpowered, overpriced ($700 more than the number one import, Volkswagen) and built like a tank.' Additionally, it was plain, uncomfortable and had serious mechanical shortcomings.
"American Sales Administrator James F. McGraw, hired by Toyota for their US division, had issues with the name 'Toyopet.'  He claimed that the name was all wrong, stating that  'Toy' sounded like a toy, and toys break, and 'pet' sounded like a dog. Other American executives concurred."
According to the company, only about 2300 Toyopets were ever sold in the US.
In retrospect, though, at least some things were right about the Toyopet.  It did come with that extended warranty.  And a 1960 road test showed it got 34.5 miles per gallon when driven around Chicago for 12 hours straight.
In 1965, Toyota replaced the Toyopet with the first Corona, which was specifically designed for the American market.  CNN Money notes:
"With its 90-horsepower engine, the Corona was almost twice as powerful as the VW Beetle, the nation's best-selling import at the time.  "It was available with air conditioning, an automatic transmission, arm rests, a glove compartment and white sidewall tires.

"In 1967, Toyota sold 32,000 Coronas, pushing the company to fifth place among import brands in America. After that, Toyota was more than just a curiosity...".


A guy who restored an old Toyopet has written about the car and the process.  He notes that his car has a crank start, and that the Toyopet's gas cap was originally attached to the vehicle with a piece of string.  (Another good innovation.)



  1. Wonder if any of those 2300 sold in the states are still in existence or in a museum somewhere?

  2. I think there must be a good number of them around. I looked online -- some have been restored by car collectors; some, apparently, have ended up as display pieces in Toyota dealerships.