By Steve & Tamami Laser
Tucked away in an anonymous warehouse in an industrial complex in Torrance, California, is the Toyota USA Automobile Museum, a treasure trove of historic vehicles, displays, and memorabilia that trace the history of Toyota in America. Like the nearby American Honda Museum, there’s no sign outside to attract attention to the collection even though it’s not far from Toyota’s headquarters complex – that’s in the midst of relocating to Plano, Texas.
[Update: Toyota closed the museum in Torrance and moved the collection to Texas. This story will remain on CarNichiWa.com as an archive feature.]
For those who want to know more about the roots of this amazing organization, this is the place to go. The museum features more than 100 Toyota, Lexus and Scion cars and trucks dating back to 1958, along with historic racing vehicles. A history of Toyota’s operations in the U.S. and around the world is also included.
How did Toyota get its start in America? In August 1957, two Toyopet Crowns like the ones shown above and below departed from the port of Yokohama. According to the book, Toyota, A History of the First 50 Years, when they landed in Los Angeles, they became the first Japanese passenger cars to be exported to the American mainland.
The book goes on to say that the company’s first headquarters was in rented offices in Beverly Hills. Setting up its fledgling sales network, Toyota’s first dealership opened in February 1958 as Toyota Hollywood Motor. A mere 288 Crowns plus a single Land Cruiser were sold that year.
While sturdy and ruggedly built, the Crown was a hard sell due to its overtaxed 4-cylinder engine. Sales were halted in 1961 with the Land Cruiser soldering on until a more powerful and modern sedan could be built to better meet the needs and tastes of American buyers. (b/w photos: Toyota collection)
The savior of Toyota in America was the 1965 Corona like the model shown above on display at the museum in Torrance. With a more powerful 4-cylinder engine and “luxury” features like air conditioning and an automatic transmission, U.S. sales climbed to 20,000 units for 1966.
While Toyota was still planting its roots in the U.S, the automaker sold a wide variety of cars and trucks in Japan and other markets. Yet it was a major surprise when Toyota rolled out a concept sports car at the 1965 Tokyo Motor Show called 2000GT. Public reception was so great that it went into production in limited numbers two years later.
While we’ve seen several examples of the Toyota 2000GT in Japan and the U.S. over the years, the sight of one never fails to put us in awe of this rare and beautiful sports car. This gold car is one of a trio owned by the museum.
The display says that Toyota made two “Golden Cars” including this example that earned fame as a display car on Toyota’s stand at the 14th Tokyo Motor Show in October 1967. Toyota hired British model and actress Twiggy (Leslie Hornby) to serve as its hostess for its 1968 new car preview. (photo: Toyota collection)
We’re not sure who was the bigger hit of the show, yet Toyota was so appreciative of Twiggy’s appearance that it presented her with this 2000GT to take back to Britain. With a limited run of only 337 units and only 54 vehicles imported to America, the 2000GT remains highly coveted by collectors worldwide.
Twiggy’s 2000GT makes rare appearances outside the museum. We took this photo at the annual Toyotafest sponsored by the Toyota Owner’s and Restorer’s (TORC) club at the Queen Mary in Long Beach back in May 2010.
Shifting gears to the museum’s truck display reveals a variety of Toyota Land Cruisers, pickups, SUVs and vans. This 1964 FJ45 Land Cruiser four-door wagon was acquired by the museum in 2002 with its restoration completed in 2005 by the late Marv Spector and his wife and business partner Kay from Specter Off-Road, and Kirk and Keith Gasser from Gasser’s Garage.
Take a tour down memory lane in our video of the truck display inside the Toyota USA Automobile Museum. The collection includes a superb selection of vintage Land Cruisers that are extremely popular with collectors these days.
Vintage Land Cruiser pickups are quite rare in the U.S. This one features a removable top and detachable cab that allows for “pleasure driving” and all-around visibility. The inline 6-cylinder OHV engine puts out 135 horsepower via a 3-speed manual gearbox.
Unlike other Land Cruisers that played and worked hard, this 1979 FJ40 two-door hardtop is a time machine with only 3,000 original miles. Toyota has a soft spot for the Land Cruiser since it’s the only nameplate that has been sold continuously since the automaker came to the U.S.
Speaking of trucks, the collection has many examples from several generations of the popular Toyota pickups. We remember a time in the 1970s when these pickups were attractive alternatives to economy cars by virtue of their low prices and ability to haul gear.
While the 2000GT made its claim to fame as Japan’s first exotic sports car, it was the Celica that helped Toyota make inroads with American buyers starting in 1971 with this affordable sporty coupe and its attractive styling.
The museum’s collection spans each generation of Celica, starting with the first, on the left, and progressing through the years. Notice the difference in bumpers as the U.S. started to phase in more stringent safety standards in the mid 1970s.
In the 1980s, Toyota offered a choice of more sporty nameplates including the Supra (originally called Celica Supra) and mid-engine MR2. The final generation Supra from the 1990s can be seen to the left above and in our video.
From the street to the track, Toyota’s sporty cars could be found in professional and grass-roots competitions across the nation. We remember watching this Celica pace the race at the Long Beach Grand Prix in the 1970s, which was later renamed the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Toyota’s winning ways in Motorsports is highlighted in this excellent display that reaches toward the ceiling with race cars stacked vertically on modules against the wall.
This Celica was driven by the legendary Dan Gurney at the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race during the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach weekend. Toyota says it’s one of the most comprehensive, longest-running corporate-sponsored celebrity racing events.
From 1999-2005, Toyota won 38 races and 44 pole positions in open-wheel racing. The CART cars were built by Dan Gurney’s All American Racers and Cal Wells’ PPI Motorsports team while Toyota provided factory support for Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing in the IRL IndyCar Series, according to the TRD USA website.
It’s difficult to say what our favorite area of the museum is, yet we found ourselves spending most of our time in the “Concepts and Hollywood” display. One of the remarkably cool concepts is this futuristic Lexus that was featured in the film “The Minority Report,” starring Tom Cruise.
The cars are the stars in this exhibit of Toyota concept vehicles that run the gamut from customized cruisers to SEMA show cars and one-of-a-kind concept vehicles from past auto shows.
It may seem too soon for Lexus to be in a museum, yet we were casually reminded that it’s been more than 25 years since Toyota launched its luxury brand in the U.S. Our video shows some of these key players that have made Lexus a success.
Our tour comes full circle with this Crown sedan, a 1971 model representing the last of the series sold in the U.S. While the nameplate continues in Japan, the Crown was replaced in the U.S. by the Cressida and later the Avalon.
CarNichiWa.com thanks the Toyota USA Automobile Museum
Archive photos as noted courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc.
Story, all other photos and videos © 2015 CarNichiWa.com