The very first Japanese Grand Prix was held at Suzuka in 1963. Toyota entered whatever cars it had sitting around, which happened to be the Publica, T20 Corona, and S40 Crown. It’s probably fair to say that Toyota surprised even itself when each of these cars won their respective classes.
But as thrilled as it was, these cars qualified only for Touring Car classes, created for mostly stock, road-going sedans. The real action took place in the Sports Car classes, which were dominated by European imports. The only competitive home-grown car was the Datsun Fairlady roadster, and even that didn’t qualify for the upper echelons, which were filled with large-displacement Jaguars, Porsches, and Lotuses.
Toyota was not about to let that stand. The company had always been about bringing Japan’s auto industry up to par with the world’s best, even when that goal was delusionally ambitious. This was one of those cases. In a flight of child-like fancy Toyota decided to throw all caution to the wind and build a world-class supercar.
The Toyota 2000GT was unveiled at the 1965 Tokyo Motor Show. Gleaming in the brightest of whites, it was a two-seater grand touring coupe unlike anything Japan had seen before. Its drop-dead-gorgeous silhouette swathed state-of-the-art running gear and a Yamaha-developed powerplant good for 133 mph. It flat out stole the show, as well as thousands of hearts.
Keep in mind that it was just 10 years after the original Toyopet Crown. Just imagine if, in the mid 1990s, Hyundai came out with a Maserati rival merely one decade after foisting the 1986 Excel upon the world. That’s how shocking the 2000GT was, and it was Toyota’s goal to shock, boldly declaring to the world that the Japanese auto industry had arrived.
As pre-production specimens went on a tour of international auto shows, Toyota got to work testing the 2000GT’s mettle on the track. The peak of this endeavor came in 1966 at Yatabe Test Track when the 2000GT broke 16 FIA-sanctioned international and world speed records during a 72-hour endurance run. During the trial, a typhoon-level downpour unloaded on the crew, making the occasion even more dramatic. A legend was born.
As with many legends, surrounding facts get lost or twisted over time. The most widespread and persistent one claims that Albrecht Goertz (the same designer mistakenly credited with the S30 Fairlady Z and CSP311 Silvia) styled the 2000GT. Going hand in hand with this rumor is the myth that the 2000GT was first rejected by Nissan. As the story goes, Goertz, working with Nissan and Yamaha, styled a prototype intended to become the S30 Fairlady Z. After Nissan and Yamaha dissolved their partnership, Yamaha took this design to Toyota and voilà, 2000GT.
In reality, it was Toyota’s own Satoru Nozaki who shaped the 2000GT, based on sketches from when he was an industrial design student in 1963. Nozaki was hand-picked by Jiro Kawano, Toyota’s factory racing manager, who had been put in charge of the 2000GT project after his wins at the 1963 Japan Grand Prix.
Yamaha possessed tremendous engineering skills but lacked manufacturing capacity. It decided that low-volume, coach-built projects better suited its abilities and collaborated with Nissan on projects such as the CSP311 Silvia and a GT car code-named A550X. The Silvia came to fruition, but before the A550X was completed tensions between Nissan and Yamaha ended the partnership. That left Yamaha scrambling for a new partner to recoup costs. The company shopped around its coachbuilding resume and caught the eye of Toyota’s Kawano, who had just the car for them to build.
The A550X gave Yamaha credibility, proving to Toyota that it could build the 2000GT, but did not “become” the 2000GT. It never became a production car for either Toyota or Nissan. Goertz often played coy with journalists, leading them to believe in his involvement without actually saying it. To this day, the Goertz myth is still perpetuated, but if any doubts about the 2000GT’s origins linger, simply look at the mountain of evidence in Shin Yoshikawa’s definitive book, 2000GT: The Complete Story of Japan’s First Supercar. It includes old Yamaha photos and documents, as well as Nozaki’s own sketches.
With Yamaha on board, all systems were go for engine development. Toyota supplied the cast-iron bottom end from the S40 Crown’s 2M six. Yamaha added pistons and a hemispherical head forged of aluminum alloy. A duplex chain drove twin overhead cams capable of spinning the engine to 7,000 rpm while being fed via three dual-throat Mikuni-Solex sidedraft carbs.
The newly christened 2.0L 3M engine and 5-speed transmission was slotted between the front legs of a reverse-backbone frame, in which the body straddled a single beam forking out to a Y at either end (each arm of the rear fork ended in a shock tower). Kawano’s engineers chose this layout for many reasons, including its low cost of production. After all, this car was already going to cost more than a Porsche 911. It also made for a front-midship layout that yielded an ideal 48/52percent weight distribution. The lack of frame rails on either side of the cabin allowed the body to sit impossibly low, placing both the driver’s backside and the car’s overall center of gravity just above the pavement.
Occupants were treated to a sumptuous interior styled in the height of 1960s luxury. For the racy bucket seats and various panels, Toyota used only the deepestblack leather upholstery. Rings of chrome outlined every button, switch, gauge, and meter, including a built-in rally clock. The dashboard, console, steering wheel, and shift knob were carved out of the same rosewood Yamaha used in its grand pianos.
The low-slung seating position put the driver not above, but next to the 5-speed transmission and compact driveshaft measuring just 21 inches. From there, power flowed through Japan’s first use of a limited-slip differential. The 2000GT was also Japan’s first car with a four-wheel independent, double-wishbone suspension and four-wheel disc brakes. Although the rest of Toyota’s lineup got by with a recirculating-ball steering system, the 2000GT used a light, quick rack-and-pinion setup.
The total package weighed 2,470 pounds, putting performance right in the middle of the supercar pack. But if you’re looking at numbers only, you’re missing the point of the 2000GT. What really shined was its stellar handling. Road & Track wrote, “When it comes to ride and handling, nobody in his right mind could need or want more in a road vehicle”.
Offhand, observers often dismiss it as a copy of the Jaguar E-type, but take a second look. Most British and Italian sports cars of the era were still obsessed with round, organic bulges. The defining facet of the Toyota, on the other hand, was creases. At first glance the 2000GT has such a flowing shape but, similar to a fine jewel, its most striking virtues emerge only at certain angles and under the right lighting.
It was a design far ahead of its time. Unfortunately, so was the car itself. In 1965, there were few places in Japan where such a machine could stretch its legs. Toyota expected most sales to come from overseas, identifying the United States as a key market. The production version went on sale in March 1967, but only 343 were built before manufacture ended in late 1970. Some attribute poor sales to the fact that the 2000GT’s 150 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 130 ft-lbs of torque at 5,000 rpm was still weaker than the Porsche 911S, which had debuted during the intervening two years.
More likely, the 2000GT’s fate was sealed by Toyota’s lack of cachet and unknown heritage. To say the world wasn’t ready for a $7,230 Japanese car, one more expensive than an established marque such as Porsche, would be an understatement. Toyota had only been selling cars in the United States for a decade and the next-priciest model was the $2,765 Crown.
Toyota tried to compensate by releasing a cheaper, single-cam 2.3-liter version for the US market. It had larger side markers and other differences to meet US safety guidelines, but that didn’t help sales either. Only about 60 2000GTs were imported into the United States, and Toyota probably lost money on every single one.
Curiously, despite becoming one of the world’s largest automakers in the intervening decades, Toyota didn’t attempt anything remotely close to the 2000GT until 46 years later with the Lexus LFA supercar. Today, the LFA’s $375,000 price tag is on the low end of the 2000GT’s going rate.
The legacy of the 2000GT, however, lies not in profits or sales figures. It is thus far the only Japanese car that has been recognized as a classic in traditional collector circles. In March 2013, a Belatrix Yellow example sold at auction in Texas for $1.2 million, making it the most expensive Japanese collector car in history. Just two months after the launch of the 2000GT, the Mazda Cosmo Sport went on sale. And before the end of the decade Nissan unleashed the Skyline GT-R and Fairlady Z. It was an exciting time to be in Japan, and the 2000GT was a demonstration of its unrestrained automotive ambitions. It was, most of all, Japan’s first supercar.