1959 Toyopet Crown, Toyota’s ‘bitter experience’

1959 Toyopet Crown

1959 Toyopet Crown

Who would have believed that Toyota, maker of the 1959 Toyopet Crown would have become the international automotive juggernaut of today? Toyota products have been almost immovable from the upper reaches of customer satisfaction studies. In 1959 America, they were often simply immovable–except by tow truck.

Toyota’s initial decision to send the Toyopet Crown to the United States and indeed enter the U.S. market had originally been a response to the growing sales of European cars in the U.S. during the mid- to late-Fifties, reaching close to ten percent of the American market. Toyota was afraid of a protectionist reaction against imports and feared being closed out of the American market before ever coming in.

“If the U.S. goes ahead and restricts imports, Toyota will be cut out of the American market for good,” noted then-president of Toyota Motor Sales, Shotaro Kamiya. “We’ve got to get in there now or never.”

Then, too, the United States was, and especially in the Fifties, “the world’s greatest market.” In 1955, Chevrolet sold 1.7 million cars. Even in 1958, the Toyopet Crown’s U.S. debut year, Ford sold a million cars–and that was a bad year. Meanwhile, Japan’s total automobile production in 1958 was about 50,000, of which 40 percent was Toyota’s.  Selling a mere 5,000 Toyopets in the United States would significantly reduce Toyota’s cost per vehicle. That was the Toyopet Crown’s charge.

It was a brave experiment. A pair of Toyopet Crown demonstrators were dispatched from the port of Yokohama in 1957, hitting the docks as the first Japanese passenger cars officially imported to the United States. In October, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., was formed and opened and office in Beverly Hills, California. Certification procedures to sell the cars in California was begun. These included changes to headlights and taillights, and modifications to turn-signal blinkers which, with semaphore-type turn indicators still in use in Japan, were a new experience for Toyota.  The Toyopet Crown made its U.S. debut at the 1958 Los Angeles Imported Car Show.

The Toyopet Crown had been in production in Japan since January 1, 1955, and unlike most of its domestic competition–foreign cars built under license–the Crown was an original design. It shared its body, chassis and 1500cc ohv engine with the Toyopet Master, a solid front axle version for taxi use. The Crown had double wishbone front suspension and a live rear axle on leaf springs.

Styling was an amalgam of American ideas badly shrunken onto a 99.6-inch wheelbase. The first Toyopet Crowns brought in had a grille with an insert that to the Japanese resembled “eyeglasses.” It was said to be “well received” in Japan, but Road & Track‘s review called for removal of the “antlers” from the car’s grille. By the 1959 model year the grille was changed.

The styling may have been frumpy but the car was spacious, with bench seats and room for six American adults in a pinch. The rear doors opened suicide style. Oddly, fixed armrests were attached to the outer sides of the back seat rather than the door panel. Driving controls were conventional, with three-on-the-column manual transmission, synchro on the top two gears only.

Originally cited as 60 horsepower, by 1959 the 1453cc four had found another five ponies, this to haul around 2,630 pounds. If anything, the chassis was too stout. The result, according to one test of a 1958 Toyopet Crown, was a standing quarter-mile time of 23.4 seconds. It took a 5.286:1 final drive to achieve that, and gear changes took place at about 15 and 30 mph. Top speed was claimed to be 72 mph, and though test results at the time weren’t able to verify that, an ability to cruise at 60 to 65 mph was noted.

It wouldn’t have been advisable. Valves lost their heads at such heady speeds. Toyota responded with a larger (1900cc) engine and ovedrive was designed so that it pumped lubricant away from where it was needed. And Toyopet wheel cylinders tended to blow apart with an American-sized foot on the brake pedal.

The problem was not one of “quality” but one of design for the market. The Japanese typically drove at 25 miles per hour, not at U.S. freeway speeds. What was appropriate for Japan was disastrous Stateside. As Toyota chairman Eiji Toyoda pointed out in an understatement, “the reception was horrible.”

U.S. Toyota sales totaled 288 in 1958, peaked at 1,028 in 1959, declining to 821 and 576 in the next two years. Only the introduction of the smaller Toyopet Tiara in 1962 and the presence of the Toyota Land Cruiser, introduced in 1960, kept the company in the country.

Krause Toyota of Fogelsville, PA (originally from Schnecksville, PA, the oldest Toyota dealership in the U.S.) now owns a 1959 Toyopet Crown Custom that dealership founder Robert Krause Sr. sold in 1959 and about ten years later took in on trade. The car shows hallmarks, however, of Toyota’s attention to detail: a trouble light with cord and underhood plug (“for changing flats,” Krause told nervous customers), and “door ajar” light on the dash, the gas cap that locked under the left taillight, and a speedometer that changed color with increased speed.

The 1965 debut of the Toyota Corona–“Toyopet” was mercifully abandoned–marked the beginning of Toyota’s ascendance in America. But as chairman Toyoda wrote, “This bitter experience (of the Toyopet Crown) helped us work that much harder afterward to build cars that were right for the U.S. market.”