Toyota in the U.S.: From nearly failed brand to NASCAR champion

Photography by J.A. Ackley

The number one-selling passenger car in the U.S.

Three NASCAR titles.

Yet Toyota’s success today seemed far out of reach early on. The automaker left the American market for nearly four years after its first car failed to sell.

Inside Toyota’s U.S. headquarters lies a treasure trove of vehicles that chronicle the company’s time in the country. Here are 10 significant pieces that mark key points in Toyota’s history as it grew from awkward startup to dominant powerhouse.

1958 Toyopet Crown

Toyota made its introduction to the U.S. market with the Toyopet Crown. While the Crown featured the bling and glamour of a late-1950s American luxury car, it seriously lacked in performance. Toyota simply did not design the car for U.S. highways.

Toyota admits “problems, including a lack of output while traveling at high speeds, inadequate high-speed stability, extreme noise and vibration, abnormal vibration and breakage of parts due to deformation, occurred.”

Top speed was just 75 mph. It did get 33 mpg, though.

In July 1960, Toyota upgraded the engine to add 14 more horsepower to the 65 it originally came with, but it was too late. Toyota suspended U.S. car sales at the end of 1960. The company sold only 1913 Toyopet Crown vehicles in America.

1966 Toyota Corona

After the disappointing introduction of the Crown, Toyota learned from its mistakes. It reentered the U.S. passenger car market in 1964 with the Toyota Corona.

For a small car, the Corona had plenty of features that we take for granted now. Armrests. Sun visors. Full carpeting. Tinted glass. A glove compartment. Radio. Factory-installed air conditioning.

Most importantly, the Corona had a 90-horsepower, 1.9-liter engine to propel it with no problem at highway speeds. The Corona became the first Toyota vehicle to sell more than 10,000 units in the U.S. and launched the brand as a player in the American market.

1967 Toyota 2000GT

The roots of this car actually start at Nissan. The company hired the services of freelance designer Albrecht Goertz and technical partner Yamaha to produce a world-class sports car.

Nissan, though, eventually canceled the project. Yamaha then shopped the car to other manufacturers.

At the time, Toyota produced vehicles focused merely on practicality. The company noticed how other automakers used sports cars to draw attention to their respective marques: Ford with its Thunderbird; GM with its Corvette; Chrysler with its 300 line.

Looking to shake off its conservative image, Toyota accepted Yamaha’s proposal and brought on its own designer, Satoru Nozaki, to apply its own touches.

A 2-liter straight-six, with three two-barrel carburetors, powered the 2000GT. It produced 150 horsepower. The car came with a limited-slip differential, power disc brakes (all around), rack-and-pinion steering and coil springs attached to double wishbones front and rear.

If you’re a James Bond fan, you may recognize the vehicle from “You Only Live Twice.” However, Toyota never offered a convertible version to the public.

This particular 2000GT is one of two painted gold for the 1967 Tokyo Motor Show. Toyota built 337 2000GT coupes, with only 54 imported to North America.

1977 Toyota Celica GT

Some call the Liftback version of this car (pictured) the “Japanese Mustang” or “Mustang Celica.” The Celica and Mustang share similarities beyond the aesthetics.

Both coupes were based on a sedan platform. Their four-cylinder engines made roughly the same amount of horsepower, with 89 ponies out of the Ford and 95 out of the Toyota.

While the Mustang had its fastback versions in the 1960s, the Celica had the Liftback, a term Toyota coined. A Liftback is a hatchback with a sloping design. A fastback may or may not have a hatch; instead it refers to the uninterrupted slope from the roof to the rear bumper.

Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, California, designed this Liftback. Performance features included wide, radial tires; chrome wheel trim; dual racing mirrors; power front disc brakes; and a MacPherson front strut suspension.

1983 Toyota Camry

The most recognizable model for Toyota in the U.S. debuted in 1983. It eventually became the bestselling model in America from 1997 through 2021 (except 2001, when the Honda Accord took that title).

The pictured 1983 model features a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that put out 92 horsepower. You could choose a sedan or Liftback version, with either a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual.

The Camry came in two trims, DX (Deluxe) and LE (Luxury Edition). The LE came with the following standard: body-colored bumpers, a tachometer, tilt steering wheel, upgraded stereo, electric mirrors and variable intermittent windscreen wipers.

1984 Toyota Van

The U.K. may have called this the Space Cruiser, but in the U.S. it was named simply the Van. It debuted in 1983, when minivans took off.

The rear-wheel-drive Van sported a 2-liter, 90-horsepower four-cylinder. It had several distinctive features, including a sleek aerodynamic design, a mid-engine format, twin sunroofs and removable seats. Many remember the Van for another unique selling point, a built-in icemaker.

Toyota replaced the Van in the U.S. market with the much more popular Previa in 1990 and then the Sienna in 1998.

1990 Lexus LS400

It took six years of development, but after an extensive design and testing process, Toyota’s luxury brand debuted its first model in 1989 with the LS400.

It offered a wealth of features ahead of its time. Holographic, electro-luminescent gauges. Automatic tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel. Power adjustable shoulder belts. An electrochromic, auto-dimming rearview mirror.

The LS400 also had a system to remember the driver’s seat, steering wheel, seat belt and side mirror positions. It even had an optional integrated cellular telephone with hands-free capabilities (keep in mind this was 1989).

The LS400 packed a 4.0-liter V8 engine under the hood, which delivered 250 horsepower. It could do zero to 62 mph in 8.5 seconds and topped out at 155 mph. With its sandwich steel body panels, among other sound-deadening devices, the LS400 rode quietly as you flew along the highway.

2001 Toyota Prius

Today, much of Toyota’s American lineup, from cars to trucks, feature hybrid, gas-electric drivetrains. This car, the Toyota Prius, popularized that trend. It’s the world’s first mass-produced hybrid gas-electric vehicle.

At the 1995 Tokyo Auto Show, Toyota engineers developed a concept car with a hybrid engine, which they dubbed Prius. The name is Latin for “before,” with Toyota envisioning it as the predecessor of vehicles to come.

In 1997, Toyota first came to market with the Prius in Japan. The Japanese model differed from the American one in that it primarily had less horsepower. The American version, which debuted in 2000, used a 1.5-liter, 70-horsepower, four-cylinder engine paired with a 25-kilowatt, 34-horsepower battery pack. It delivered 52 mpg city and 45 mpg highway, impressive numbers even by today’s standards.

2002 CART Champion Engine

Toyota Racing Development designed the RV8 engine specifically for motorsports, debuting the RV8F variant for CART single-seaters in 2002.

The engine was a hit. Brazilian Cristiano da Matta used it en route to seven victories and a CART championship while driving for Newman/Haas Racing in 2002.

At the time, it was the only U.S.-designed and -built engine in CART. It and its predecessor, RV8E, were the only American-built engines to win in CART for the preceding 20 years. The turbocharged 2.65-liter V8 put out more than 800 horsepower and ran up to 17,000 rpm.

2017 NASCAR Cup Series Champion Engine

This cast-iron, 358-cubic-inch V8 powered Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing to the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series championship. It produced 750 horsepower and redlined at 9000 rpm.

When Toyota first entered NASCAR through its Truck Series in 2004, the sanctioning body gave the manufacturer and TRD permission to develop a powerplant from scratch, as the brand didn’t have a pushrod engine in its portfolio. This eventually ushered in other clean-sheet designs for Ford and Chevrolet.

After success in the Trucks, Toyota entered the NASCAR Cup Series in 2007. The company struggled in its first season, posting a single top-five result in 36 races across seven teams.

The following season, though, Kyle Busch earned Toyota’s first victory, and the manufacturer won 10 races overall that year. With Busch at the helm, Toyota scored its first driver’s championship in 2015, and then its second with Truex in 2017. Busch won Toyota’s third in 2019.

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