For nearly a century, General Motors was the top-selling automaker in the United States. In 2021, Toyota took first place with 2.33 million vehicles. The Japanese company sells more vehicles than any other manufacturer in the world and is second behind Ford in Canada. Part of its success in 2021 was due to the way it handled the chip shortage compared to some major rivals, but partly due to the fact that it has spent more than six decades learning what North Americans want to ride.
Toyota broke into the North American market in 1958 with a sedan that barely sold, but achieved success by breaking new ground and introducing vehicles never before seen in this market. That list includes vehicles from small, fuel-efficient sedans to practical minivans and from stunning sports cars to the world’s first mass-produced hybrid gas-electric car. Here’s a look at ten classics, nestled in a rare history museum at Toyota Motor North America’s headquarters in Plano, Texas.
1958 Toyopet Crown
Toyota’s first breakthrough in the North American market came with the 1958 Toyopet Crown. It was the first Toyota passenger car to be sold in the US. Powered by a 65 hp four-cylinder engine, mated to a three-speed manual transmission, it had a top speed of 120 kilometers per hour. The price tag was US$1,989. Unfortunately, it was not a big hit in the US. By the end of 1960, only 1,913 had been sold and Toyota pulled the plug on Toyopet imports.
The 1966 Corona was an instant success compared to the Toyopet Crown. It was a small car designed for North American drivers. It was packed with new features for a compact car, including armrests, sun visors, tinted glass, a glove compartment, full carpeting and white sidewall tires. The four-door model sold for US$1,760. It was the first Toyota vehicle to sell more than 10,000 units in a year in the US
The 2000GT became famous in the 1967 James Bond film You only live twice† It was specially designed for racing and was the first true high-performance sports car from a Japanese car manufacturer. The rear-wheel drive vehicle had a 150 hp six-cylinder engine coupled to a five-speed manual transmission. It cost $7,230 and the production run was limited. From 1967 to 1968, 337 were built and only 54 were imported to North America. Today, this gold version is worth a fortune—it’s one of only two 2000GTs painted gold for the 1967 Toyota Motor Show.
1970 marked the introduction of the fourth generation Corona. Taking to the streets in an era plagued by oil shortages and inflation, it was no surprise that Toyota’s fuel-consuming sedans were an instant hit. Corona’s lineup quickly expanded from two to five models. All versions came with a new strapless automatic transmission that shifted smoother, accelerated faster and was more durable than the previous system. The price was US$2,532.
1977 Celica GT
Move over Mustang and Charger – Toyota’s answer to the popular American pony cars of the 1960s and 1970s was the two-door coupe Celica. Built on a sedan platform, this stylish body was designed by Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, California. Performance features included wide radial tires, chrome rims, dual racing mirrors, powerful disc brakes and a MacPherson front suspension for cornering fast. It was powered by a 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine with 95 hp and a three-speed automatic transmission. All for $4,699.
Camry hit the streets in 1983 as a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback designed to replace the Corona. It was a huge success and quickly became the most famous nameplate in Toyota’s lineup. It has been one of the best-selling passenger cars in North America for two decades. It originally sold for US$7,798. In 2007, Camry was also the first vehicle built by an international manufacturer to compete in the Nascar Nextel Cup Series.
1984 Van Wagon
In 1984, the minivan segment was born. Toyota launched its version which was simply called “Van” in North America – in the UK it was called the “Space Cruiser”. Revolutionary in its design, it had many features still seen today, including dual sunroofs, removable seats, a built-in icemaker, and a rear-wheel drive design in the center of the engine. With service intervals of nearly 100,000 kilometers, the Van was popular with families and sealed Toyota’s reputation for quality and reliability. It cost $8,998.
Toyota changed the game eco-friendly when it launched the Prius in 2001, the world’s first mass-produced hybrid gas-electric car. Thanks to the 70 hp 1.5-litre petrol engine, mated to a 25 kilowatt 34 hp battery pack and a four-speed automatic transmission, the Prius could only run on gas or electric. It also delivered unprecedented fuel savings – about five liters per 100 kilometers of combined highway and city traffic. The retail price was US$19,995.
2006 F3R Concept
Toyota was ahead of its time with this cool concept, the F3R, which stood for Freedom Three-Row concept car. Designed in California, the F3R was intended to attract younger buyers who didn’t want to be seen in an ‘uncool’ minivan. So the Calty designers created a hybrid-powered luxury lifestyle lounge vehicle with three rows of seats that was unique, spacious and a fairly accurate look at the future.
Toyota entered the history books with the Mirai 2021 and officially entered the Guinness World Records on October 8, 2021. It won the title for driving the longest distance with a hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle without refueling. In total, the Mirai covered 1,360,378 kilometers on a single, five-minute full charge of hydrogen during a tour of Southern California on August 23-24, 2021.