Theme: Japan – Toyota’s First Supra-Car

Toyota’s late-’60s image builder comes under the DTW zoom-lens.

Image:wheelsage.org
Image:wheelsage.org

Commercially speaking, Toyota seems to have fared perfectly well without image-building halo cars. While enthusiasts have been well served by numerous performance models over the decades, the Japanese car giant eschewed outright exotics. Not so fast though. As long ago as 1965, crowds at the Tokyo motor show were enraptured by the introduction a sleek and beautifully proportioned coupe from that most conservative of Japan’s burgeoning manufacturers. Deliveries began two years later, but by the decade’s end, after a mere 337 cars, the Toyota 2000GT evaporated from view as quickly as it emerged.

The story begins in the early 1960s. Graf Albrecht Goertz had forged a successful design consultancy in the United States, having been involved in the design of a number of post-war BMW models, notably the 507 roadster. Commissioned by Nissan to design a two-seater coupe, he drew up a low-slung concept, a running prototype of which was subsequently built for Nissan by Yamaha. Nissan’s management elected to pass on this proposal, opting instead to adapt their Fairlady model along slightly more mainstream lines, introducing the highly successful 240Z series in 1970.

Undeterred, Yamaha pitched the concept to Toyota and to their surprise, they elected to run with it as a low-volume image builder. Yamaha received a contract to develop and build the car and work commenced in 1964 to modify the prototype under the supervision of Toyota’s Jiro Kawano. Technically, the 2000GT was a world away from mainstream Toyota’s. Using the block, crankshaft and connecting rods from the M-Type Crown engine, Yamaha produced a delightful twin cam in-line six, developing a creditable 150 bhp. This elegant unit with its machined and crackle-finished cam covers, breathed through three Mikuni-Solex carburettors and was red-lined at a revvy 6,600 rpm. Top speed was an impressive 137 mph – impressive for only two litres. (Later cars were fitted with a larger 2.3 litre single-cam variant of the powerplant).
Sitting on a Lotus-inspired steel backbone chassis, the 2000GT featured unequal length wishbone suspension all round, disc brakes, rack and pinion steering and a five-speed manual gearbox – all technical firsts for a Japanese car of this era and well in advance of many highly regarded European sports cars of the time.

Image:blog.hemmings
Image:blog.hemmings

Clothing all this technical delight was a body of outstanding visual allure. As much child of Elan as E-Type, the purity of its aluminium silhouette eclipsed even that of Jaguar’s own Sixties masterpiece. And naturally, unlike the British pair it took some inspiration from, the Toyota was also beautifully finished. Only the detail design lets it down. The nose and tail lamp treatment is clumsy and somewhat baroque, which is a pity because the shape edges perfection elsewhere. Nevertheless, the excesses of brightwork lends it a distinctly Japanese style; certainly little else in its shape suggests the land of the rising sun. What isn’t immediately apparent is just how small and delicate it is. Measuring a mere 4175mm in length, 1600mm wide and 1160m high, the 2000GT hit the scales at a lightweight 1120 kg. This made for a decidedly snug driving environment, but Toyota engineers ensured there was sufficient space for most European-sized occupants.

It drove as well as it looked, Road & Track saying the 2000GT was; “Thoroughly impressive… When it comes to ride and handling, nobody in his right mind could ever need, or want, more in a road vehicle than the 2000GT has to offer.” Supercar & Classics magazine admired a well preserved example in 1991, calling it; “a very capable coupe that’s a delight to drive. It bristles with surprising features and a special ambience all of its own, abetted by its extreme rarity.”

The 2000GT was always intended to be built in tiny volumes and such was the depth of engineering it was never likely to turn a profit, even at the prices Toyota were charging. More expensive than contemporary European exotics like Jaguars and Porsches, only 62 cars were sold in the US and even less elsewhere. Survivors are unsurprisingly highly prized and now fetch colossal sums; perhaps the first Japanese car to become seriously collectible.
Best remembered is the roadster, two of which were built expressly for the production of the James Bond film, ‘You Only Live Twice’. It is said the conversion was made because actor, Sean Connery didn’t fit in the coupe’s tight cockpit. This variant was of course immortalised by the Corgi diecast toy – which sold in far larger numbers.

The 2000GT’s big problem was its eye-watering cost allied to a name that failed to resonate with enthusiasts. As well known and regarded as Toyota is today, few had even heard of them in the mid-to late Sixties. Toyota have always been more interested in making money than making statements and there was more profit to be made in economy saloons and in miniturised pony cars like the long-running Celica series, so can we really say Toyota made the wrong decision in the long run?

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However it isn’t strictly true to say the 2000GT represented the apogee of Toyota’s exotic car ambitions. Inspired by its Sixties forebear, the 2010 Lexus LFA coupe, an even more technically dense and witheringly expensive design and engineering statement remains among one of the most revered performance supercars of recent years. Also produced in tiny numbers and set to become equally collectible, these two cars neatly bookend Toyota’s commercial imperatives and amply demonstrate what this conservative motor company can achieve with the will and the budget. Because if Toyota ever get really serious, heaven help the opposition.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

17 thoughts on “Theme: Japan – Toyota’s First Supra-Car”

  1. Fantastic article, and an immensely pretty car. I was lucky enough to see a 2000GT at a classic car show and I could not believe how dainty it was. I am not surprised to learn that the 2000GT was originally intended for Nissan, as to my eyes the roofline immediately suggested the 240Z and contemporary Nissan coupes such as the GTR and 370Z.

  2. Was there ever a more frustrating design career to track than that of Albrecht Graf von Schlitz genannt von Gortz von Wrisburg? (a good job this isn’t Twitter or I’d have used up my character count on the name alone). He didn’t actually design the Datsun 240Z, but his lawyers got a nice letter from Nissan agreeing that they were ‘influenced’ by his fine work. He didn’t design the actual Toyota 2000GT. Apparently he didn’t work for Porsche. He did design the pretty Silvia CSP311 and, as far as I understand, the BMW 507. But soon we might be told he didn’t do that either.

    1. Why frustrating? Being credited for everything without actually doing someting doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

    2. He had enough vons in his name to suggest he might not have needed the money, but he probably did. The Yamaha/Nissan photos available possibly give a bit of a hint at the 2000GT and 240Z, but not really. I guess at some point in a designer’s working life, they might consider a bit of exaggeration is excusable on a CV. But the cold light of history judges that sort of thing a bit more harshly. A bit like the who-designed-the-Miura saga, you tend to know whether something was your brainchild or not.

    3. He did work for Porsche – Porsche gave him two 914 – one to built a more beautiful car out of it – and the other as his wage.
      His creation was a not very convincing Lotus Europa brother…. I saw it in metal in the car museum of Langenburg (in the middle of nowhere).

    1. Perhaps you are thinking of the museum at Sinsheim – not very far away from Langenburg. With trains, planes and hundreds of cars. The Tupolev Tu-144 can be seen from the Autobahn. It is worth a visit.
      But i would prefer a visit in Speyer (with nearly the same programm as Sinsheim) – Speyer has the greatest romanic building in the world – very beautiful there). And Langenburg is very pretty too – even the Queen was there in the sixties.

      I think it has the unchanged interior as the Porsche 914 – with the same ashtray 🙂

      Kris Kubrick : I agree, the 507 is the rarest BMW sportscar and therefore it is so famous. The design is nice but not breathtaking. The 503 has more elegance and character in my opinion.
      I prefer a BMW M3 E30 – i just hope that the prices for them are collapsing soon. Rare versions of the M3 E30 in good condition have price tags with 6 numbers….

  3. This month’s theme leaves many avenues unresolved. In particular the thing about European (and then American) input into Japanese design. Undoubtedly, houses like Pininfarina were involved in projects, both openly and anonymously. And I freely admit that, when I read in Car Magazine, probably sometime in the late 70s, that a German designer called Goertz had styled the 240Z, my Europhile pride made me assume that ‘they’ invariably needed ‘us’ to show them how to do cars properly. Since then it’s become perfectly apparent that there were, and are, Japanese designers who are more than capable of doing the job themselves. I find it hard to imagine that the designer of that 914 could ever have been suspected of styling either the Toyota or Nissan.

    1. Yes, it is really hard to believe, Graf Goertz had an influence on these cars. The Toyota has such a nicely detailed shape and Graf Goertz did never pay attention to such details. (such as the timid double-bubble-roof, the extra-rearlights or the curved doors).
      For me the 2000GT has an advanced shape based on the Toyota Sports 800, made by Shozu Sato:

      Concerning Graf Goertz, here is a german article of his career:
      porschecarshistory.com/albrecht-graf-goertz-autobild-klassik-mag-022011-deutsch/
      Look at his proposal for BMW´s new class (the strange white car on Page 3 on the right side). If Bmw would have built this car, we don´t need to think about any new BMWs…

    2. Markus, that BMW ‘mittelwagen’ is new to me. Taking the ’55-57 dates at face value it is earlier than the Neue Klasse which was only developed from 1960, when the Quandts invested in the ‘rescued’ business.

      The Horst Mönnich BMW history refers to a study circa. 1956 by newly appointed MD Heinrich Richter-Brohm proposing a 1600cc, 80bhp car to be produced at a rate of 24,000 per annum. The Goertz design would fit in with that period. The design looks bigger than might be expected for a 1600 but these things can be deceptive.

      Work also started on the Standard-Triumph ‘Zebu’ Vanguard replacement in 1957. Michelotti gave that a reverse rake rear window.but quickly redesigned it out when Standard-Triumph management got wind of the Ford Anglia’s design.

      There are several Triumph-BMW parallels at the time. Both in a desperate financial state by the end of the 1950s, both rescued in 1960, the mechanical similarities between the Neue Klasse and the 2000, Michelotti’s involvement.

      Triumph should have done far, far, better.

  4. Markus and Kris: that´s the one. I drove by dozens of times and never stopped to take a look. That was a big mistake. If I want to see it now it´s a few days of travel and a big fuel bill…

  5. Beautiful car indeed. Really shows up the E-type’s awkward proportions and ridiculously silly narrow track with its body bulging over the wheels like someone doing 10 McDonald’s meals a day.

    1. I agree. The rear aspect is especially pretty. The front has the same problem as the XJ-S: the lamps are fighting with the grille aperture for supremacy. The overall outline of the ensemble is like an Escort’s. However the Escort’s dogbone shape encloses the lamps; on the Toyota the lamps dominate due to their brightwork frames. It’s all a bit untidy while not detracting from the car’s general excellence.

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