To convey the importance of Sakichi Toyoda, the Japanese describe him to American tourists as “the Thomas Edison of Japan.” Similar to Edison’s residence in New Jersey, the small wooden house that Toyoda grew up in, on the shores of Lake Hamana in Shizuoka Prefecture, is now a historical site.
Toyoda’s parents were poor. His father was a carpenter and his mother a weaver. As the story goes, the entire Toyota manufacturing empire began because young Sakichi couldn’t bear to see his mother toiling away on a primitive manual loom. He invented a footpowered version to ease her work and never looked back, devoting the rest of his life to conjuring up all manner of weaving equipment. The culmination of his efforts resulted in the 1924 Toyoda Type G, the world’s first automatic loom with non-stop shuttle-change motion. By then Toyoda had already built a moderately successful textile business, but the Type G allowed him to license his invention to the Platt Brothers & Co. of Great Britain for £100,000.
That amount was about ¥1 million (or $45 million in 1929 dollars), a considerable sum for Toyoda to invest in a new venture. His son, Kiichiro, suggested a
contraption he had grown fond of while traveling for business: the automobile. At the time, only the extremely wealthy could own a car in Japan. Moreover, the country had few paved roads, but both father and son foresaw that one day it would change. Kiichiro immediately began researching gasoline engines in a corner of the family’s loom factory but, sadly, Sakichi Toyoda passed away in October 1930, long before his son built the first Toyoda car.
The few vehicles that did exist on Japan’s roads then were mostly imported Fords and Chevrolets. The DAT Jidosha Seizo Company (Nissan) was the primary domestic firm making inroads with smaller passenger cars, but Japan’s auto industry had yet to adopt mass production and could not compete. Kiichiro’s goal was simple: Build a car that could take the imports head on. Though it took him five years to build it, it was no surprise that the 1935 Toyoda A1 prototype had styling that looked quite American, perhaps best described as an amalgam of the Nash Lafayette, Chrysler Airflow, and mid-1930s Plymouth sedans.
During its gestation, however, Kiichiro correctly guessed that use for a 1.5-ton truck would be far greater than that of a passenger car. More resources from Toyoda Loom Works were diverted to the development of the Toyoda G1 prototype, based on the prevailing class of Ford and Chevy trucks popular in Japan at the time. Unfortunately, production techniques and craftsmanship trailed far behind that of American imports, and before long newspapers were running stories about Toyoda’s poor quality as dealers overflowed with complaining customers.
Such mishaps nearly bankrupted Toyoda Loom Works. Kiichiro and his top executives traveled across Japan, humbling themselves before existing dealers and convincing Chevrolet sellers to take a chance with Toyoda. According to Toyota executive Seisha Kato, most early converts probably agreed simply due to Kiichiro Toyoda’s dream of a domestic auto industry, but it worked.
Engineers continued to make improvements, and the A1 and G1 became the basis for Toyoda’s first production vehicles, the 1936 Toyoda AA sedan and GA truck. They were quickly joined by a convertible called the AB Phaeton, but in total only 1,404 AAs and 353 ABs were built. In August 1937, Kiichiro spun off Toyoda’s automobile division into its own entity, naming it the Toyota Motor Company.
As keen observers will note, the “D” in Toyoda was changed to a “T”. In Japanese, the katakana “da” is written similar to “ta”, but with two additional apostrophelike strokes. That meant “Toyota” took eight strokes to write, a lucky number in most Asian cultures. In addition, Toyoda literally meant “bountiful fields of rice”, a notion thought to be too provincial for a modern industry such as automaking.
Under the Toyota banner, the company began introducing more trucks, but soon all automobile development was forced to a halt as a result of the war in the Pacific. Supplies became scarce, and any manufacturing capabilities were requisitioned for the war effort. For the next decade Toyota built only a handful of passenger cars, mostly slight updates to the AA.
On the second-to-last day of the war, Allied bombers destroyed one of Toyota’s two factories. The war ended the next day, but with half of the company’s operations wiped out, it took another two years before Toyota built another car. The 1947 Model SA, an all-new design from the ground up, employed a Y-frame chassis, four-wheel independent suspension, and a 27-horsepower 1.0-liter inline-four. The same engine and 3-speed transmission was used in an accompanying light truck called the SB, underpinned by a ladder frame and solid axles.
Toyota came out with a new promotional campaign that pitted the SA against the Tsubame, the train connecting Osaka and Tokyo. Such a race would be a massacre today as the Tsubame is now a bullet train, but back then the SA was victorious. As Toyota’s first “small” passenger car, it was given the catchy little name of Toyopet—the “pet” suffix chosen to evoke the notion of a loyal companion.
Toyota didn’t have much luck selling the SA or any of the slightly redesigned models based on it. Their tooling was still sub-par and Japan’s roads so bad that they devoured the SA’s independent suspension. What Japanese drivers really needed were solidaxle cars such as the early Datsuns.
Slow car sales took their toll. Layoffs and union strikes forced Kiichiro Toyoda to step down and by 1950 Toyota was on the brink of bankruptcy again. Its saving grace was the Korean War, for which Toyota was once again conscripted to build trucks, this time for the Americans. Borne from this deal was the 1951 Toyota BJ, a military-grade four-wheel-drive vehicle larger than the Willys Jeep and Land Rover Series I. It boasted a powerful 3.4-liter straight-six, as opposed to the Jeep and Rover fours, and the BJ soon gained a reputation as a strong, go-anywhere truck. To demonstrate its prowess, the BJ ascended Mt. Fuji, a first for any motorized vehicle. The resulting 1954 FJ chassis code was called the Land Cruiser, a name that has gone on to become the badge of choice in harsh terrains from Africa to Australia to the Amazon.
Soon Toyota found non-military uses for it as well. A fire truck built from the underlying Jchassis was equipped with a larger 3.9-liter F-series six-cylinder. Bolstered by its success, Toyota regrouped its efforts toward passenger-car development. However, Kiichiro Toyoda passed away in 1952 at the age of 58, never to witness the future he had helped create.