Toyota’s first car for the United States: the Toyopet
Toyota’s first postwar car was the Toyopet; the company started building them in 1947, using a 27 horsepower engine and a backbone-style chassis. Sales were minimal; in addition to postwar shortages, Japan was short on people who knew how to drive, and over the first five years, just hundreds, not even thousands, were built.
When Toyota began to export cars to the United States in 1958, they chose to apply the Toyopet name to the Crown, which was essentially a modified Toyopet with a 1.5-liter engine. The car had an upsacle name and a three-speed manual transmission, shifted from the column; it was first launched in 1955, with the first major restyling coming with the 1964 series. The ’64s moved up to six and eight cylinder engines, with exports in mind.
The 1959 Toyopet was the first to be sold in the United States. With just 60 horsepower from the 89-cubic-inch engine, a 99.6 inch wheelbase, and a 172-175 inch length, they were both small and underpowered by American standards, though light weight (2,650 pounds) helped make up the performance gap (which was higher than it seemed; American engines were torque-biased, and the Toyopet had just 80 pound-feet of torque, eventually going up to 84 pound-feet). The cars were also cheap, at $2,187.
Technologically, the Toyopet was fairly conventional, having a three-speed manaul transmission shifted from the column, rear wheel drive driven by a front engine, semi-elliptic leaf springs in back, and coil springs with unequal-length A-arms up front. All that sat on unit-body construction, with the usual hydraulic drum brakes and hypoid rear axle; the most popular options were likely a radio and whitewall tires.
The car didn’t set any performance records, with 0-60 coming in around 26 seconds and a leisurely 23.5 quarter-mile at 58 mph. Gas mileage was variously reported, but seemed to range around 24-34 miles per gallon — quite good for the time. Styling was similar to American brands of the time, with hooded headlights, a large grille, and plenty of chrome.
The 1962 Toyopet Tiara was a new model for the United States, based on the Japanese Toyopet; it had a five-inch-shorter wheelbase, but kept the Crown’s 89 cubic inch (1.45 liter) engine, now up to 75 horsepower and 84 pound-feet of torque. That came partly by boosting compression from 8.0:1 to 8.3:1. Tiaras were sold as four door sedans only, and weighed under 2,200 pounds; the price was much lower, too, at around $1,620.
Buyers who wanted more power could still get a Toyopet Crown, supposedly capable of six passengers, and sold in sedan and wagon form; the 116 cubic inch (1.9 liter) four-cylinder pushed out a respectable 95 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque, similar to domestic straight-sixes in horsepower if much lower in torque. This one weighed 2,700 pounds and cost $1,800 for the sedan, $2,100 for the wagon. Technology on both cars was still about the same, with the three-speed column shifts, worm-and-sector steering, and similar suspension and brake designs. Eventually, the Tiara gained the Crown’s 1.9 liter four-cylinder, at least in the US.
Production was booming in Japan, even if Toyopets weren’t making much of an impression in the States; the company went from making around 74,000 cars in 1961 to 128,843 in 1964 and a stunning 316,189 in 1966. U.S. sales were a drop in the bucket, going from around 1,100 in 1963 up to 21,000 in 1966.
Car & Driver explained part of the reason for the sales rise in their review of the Tiara, in which they referred to its “utterly solid construction,” without rattles or flexing, and fine fit and finish. They praised the tight steering (absent from earlier Tiaras) but criticized the ease of entry and exit and the lack of interior space — and slammed the brakes, which they called “foul” — weak and uneven. Their test found that 0-60 came in 15.7 seconds (with the 1.9 liter engine), a real improvement; the quarter mile ran around 16 seconds.
That review tells us, in addition, that the carburetor was a single-barrel sourced from Aisan, and that power had settled to 85 hp and 110 pound-feet, with 28-32 mpg in their testing. The car still had a generator, rather than the newer alternator. The magazine claimed curb weight of 2,260 pounds, with a 56/44 ratio.
The 1964 Toyopet would be the last sold in the United States — under that name; the 1965 Toyota line was called just that, Toyota. The Crown and Tiara continued, but were no longer ’pets.