After the devastation of World War II, most of Japan’s automakers were starting from scratch again. Many had entered into agreements with foreign companies to build “knock-down kits”, assembled in Japan but not designed there. Hino had a deal with Renault, Isuzu with Hillman, and even the formidable Nissan was licensing Austins. Kiichiro’s dream had been to build a domestic auto industry from the ground up, and though he had already passed away, in 1955 the dream moved one step closer to reality with the advent of the Toyota Crown.
Along with the Land Cruiser, the Crown is one of the longest-lived names in the Japanese auto industry. Currently in its fourteenth generation, it’s been in continuous production for more than a half century. The first Crown came about when the idea of personal car ownership was just starting to take hold in Japan. A car was still out of reach for most, but some wealthy citizens could purchase a four-door sedan slightly smaller than a modern-day Corolla. Though small by modern standards, it was considered quite a luxury in those early days.
The Crown is definitely a car of the 1950s, with headlight nacelles framing a wide, upright grille and understated tailfins bookending a suitcase-like trunk. It had minimal brightwork and in black, the color that most were painted, it appeared quite austere. Its most interesting feature was a pair of suicide doors, which garnered it the nickname kannon Crown (a kannon is a Buddhist shrine common in Japanese households, with twin doors that open away from each other).
The stout body sat atop a durable X-frame chassis. Having learned a valuable lesson from the Model SA, Toyota devolved the rear suspension into a sturdier solid axle and leaf-spring setup to tackle Japan’s rough roads. The front suspension remained independent, however, with a wishbone and coil-spring system. Power came from a 1.5-liter OHV Toyota inline-four that produced about 48 horsepower, the first of Toyota’s long-lived R-series. The only choice of transmission was a three-on-the-tree column-shift manual.
The kannon Crown soon became a frequent sight in larger cities, mostly as taxis. For now, the Japanese fascination for automobiles still exceeded the means to purchase one. The Crown was the first Toyota passenger car to see widespread success, and because it was wholly conceived, designed, and built in Japan, it became a source of great national pride.
Encouraged by the positive reception, in August 1957, Toyota entered a single Crown into the Mobilgas Around Australia Trial, a 19-day rally looping the entire continent. It was a brutal test of endurance and Toyota’s first foray into international motorsports. The route covered 10,563 miles, only 532 of which were paved.
Toyota sent two mechanics with no professional race experience on this trek, accompanied by an Australian navigator. The trio had no support vehicles of any kind and had to conduct all repairs themselves. The Crown finished mid-pack, but the important thing was that it finished at all, a claim that only about half of the 86 cars entered could make. The campaign was touted with such fanfare back home that rival Nissan entered the same race the following year with a Datsun 1000.
There’s one other fact that makes the Crown a meaningful part of Toyota’s history. In 1957, it became the first Japanese car officially imported into the United States. At almost the exact same time the Mobilgas Crown was circumnavigating Australia, two others—one black, one white—made landfall in Southern California, greeted by a small cadre of reporters snapping photos of the first Japanese automobiles they’d ever seen.
The black Deluxe model included luxury items such as whitewall tires, a heater, a vacuum-tube radio, and copious amounts of chrome, which prompted the press to liken it to a baby Cadillac. However, the Crown was wrought of steel 50 percent thicker than the average 1950s Detroit car. It felt similar to a vault, and reporters were duly impressed. Toyota executives looked on proudly.
Lamentably, that feeling faded almost immediately. Toyota set up its first dealership on October 31, 1957, in Hollywood, California, but problems began as soon as the first batch of cars hit the road. Despite all the dressing and attractive features, Toyota had greatly miscalculated driving conditions on the American highway. The Crown might have been suitable for plodding at low speed over irregular Japanese roads or the Australian outback, but not on America’s vast interstates. Its 60-horsepower 1.5 lugging all that bulky steel could barely accelerate up an inclined on-ramp without overheating. The Crown had a speedometer that glowed a serene green until it hit 55 mph. Then it turned red to alert you of the impending maximum speed of 68, but on California’s highways it read more like a self-destruct countdown. Toyota had grossly misjudged the American market, and in the first year sold only 288 cars—287 Crowns and 1 Land Cruiser.
Back at home, things were changing rapidly. Spurred by the growth of automobile sales, Japan’s landscape was quickly evolving toward the concrete matrix that it has today. To coincide with the coming Expressway Age, Toyota released a wholly redesigned Crown in 1962. This generation, identified by the S40 chassis code, was a proper modern sedan, longer and wider and with four doors that opened in traditional fashion.
Stylists canned the S30 Crown’s late-1950s look, leapfrogged the entire megatailfin era altogether, and landed squarely in the mid-1960s straight-line aesthetic. The S40 had been dechromed and cleaned up, and was even a bit on the plain side, its only flourish a stylized T grille.
Powering this new generation of family sedans was an inline-six, the first application of Toyota’s legendary M-series engine. With 95 horsepower and 110 ft-lbs of torque, the Toyopet was no speed freak, but it had enough oomph to not embarrass itself on American roads when it appeared in 1965. The transmission added a fourth-gear overdrive for highway cruising, and for the first time a 3-speed Toyoglide transmission was optional.
The inherent balance of the straight-six gave it a smooth, quiet ride on top of a double-wishbone front suspension and a four-link rear. For its size, the Crown made excellent use of its interior space, whether in sedan or elegant wagon form. The standard four-door carried six with ease and in 1966 the engine was upgraded to the 2M, bumping displacement to 2.3 liters and horsepower to 115.
It should be noted that the S40 Crown was actually raced in Japan. In the early days of the Japan Grand Prix, competitors ran cars that were more or less showroom stock, à la pre-Winston Cup NASCAR. The S40 Crown won its class in the first-ever Japan Grand Prix, held in 1963 at Suzuka International Racing Course. That was its only win, however, as competition heated up and it was defeated by the Prince Gloria the following year.
When toyota pulled the sheets off the third-generation toyopet crown in 1967, it created quite a stir. Toyota reengineered the frame to let the body sit closer to the ground, which made the car appear lower, longer, and sleeker. Its sensational contours and elegant detailing gave it an upscale yet sporty aura that was truly unmatched in the Japanese market.
In 1968 the line was expanded to include a gorgeous hardtop coupe that further cemented the Crown’s upscale image. That same year the S50 sedan and wagon were introduced in the United States, with the 2.3-liter inline-six as the only available engine choice. Despite its changes, the new Crown fared about as well as the S40 did in the United States, which is to say not spectacularly. Despite its quality and style, in horsepower-hungry America, the Crown simply didn’t have impressive enough numbers on the spec sheet.
It was a different story back at home, where the Crown’s market share jumped by 50 percent. It solidified its position as an executive town car, frequently ordered in piano black by CEOs. Ingeniously, Toyota’s advertising team launched a massive ad campaign promoting the “White Crown” as a luxury car for cool drivers. Soon, white-and-chrome Crowns were prowling the streets, creating a fascination with white luxury cars that lasts even to this day in Japan.
The following generation came as a mid-year replacement in 1971. For once, America received the redesign with no delay. Toyota offically dropped the “Toyopet” name and from that point on the cars were known as Toyota Crowns. This causes some confusion, however, as both S50 and S60 Crowns can officially be called 1971 models. Emboldened by the S50’s success, Toyota’s stylists went all out with a new design. Perhaps they went a little too far out, with an odd terraced step sweeping the hood, reminiscent of a flying saucer, and body-colored bumpers instead of chrome. In Japan, it’s simply known as the kujira Crown for its resemblance to a baleen whale. The wagon version looked even more UFO-ish thanks to its dazzling array of taillights in the rear.
Underneath its space-station exterior, the chassis remained largely unchanged. Americans got only the top-of-the-line 4M engine, which had its displacement increased to 2.6 liters, good for 140 horsepower and 156 ft-lbs of torque. Americans received the hardtop coupe for the first time, arguably the handsomest of the bunch, but its presence was short lived. The Crown had never been a top seller in America, but the radical styling made it even less so. Meanwhile, Toyota had made inroads with the six-cylinder Corona Mark II, so the whole Crown line was discontinued from the US market in 1972. But in Japan, the Crown’s polarizing styling gave the market lead to Nissan’s Cedric and Gloria twins.
Having learned its lesson, Toyota severely toned down the styling of the Crown for the S80 generation (S70 was used for the two-door hardtop), returning it to a formal, dignified town car. Though each subsequent generation of Crown remained among the most conservatively styled sedans in Japan, they did carry a certain air of reserved elegance. They were frequently used as taxis, police cars, and government vehicles; the 1980s Crowns in particular became popular platforms for VIP tuning.
In recent years, the Crown has experienced a resurgence as both a collector car and a popular resto-mod platform. Much of this credit goes to Shige Suganuma, head of the hot rod shop Mooneyes. His Crown Classics endeavor and dedicated car shows have created a fan base and community devoted to preserving old Crowns.
Because the Crown name wasn’t a constant fixture in America, most of these cars are long forgotten. For decades, not a single mention of the model was uttered in automotive circles, and Toyota was probably just as eager to sweep the Toyopet debacle under the rug. However, recent interest in Japanese classics has brought many Crowns out of the woodwork, prompting Toyota to change its tune. Toyota USA has even restored a 1958 Toyopet Crown to mark its fiftieth anniversary in the United States, proudly displaying it as an example of how far the company has come.