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