Que Sera Sera

The Sera, one of Toyota’s more eccentric creations, is thirty this year. DTW remembers it and wonders what inspires the conservative Japanese automotive giant to go off-piste like this, as it has done regularly in the past.

1990 Toyota Sera (c) techeblog.com

For me, Toyota Motor Corporation has always been something of an enigma. Ostensibly, it is a deeply conservative and risk-averse company. For more than eighty years, it has meticulously and systematically developed its mainstream vehicles to align exactly with its customers’ evolving expectations. Whether you drive a Corolla, or are driven in a Century, you can be confident that the replacement model, when it arrives, will always be essentially similar and comfortably familiar, but just a little bit better.

Toyota has often been a late adopter of new technologies, such as front-wheel-drive*, happy to allow more pioneering manufacturers to take the technical and business risks in proving the new technology first before itself committing to it. This iterative approach has generated huge loyalty and satisfaction, at least amongst the vast majority of customers who regard motor vehicles as appliances that are expected to perform efficiently, reliably and economically over their service life.

Like other automotive companies of course, Toyota has had problems (usually with third-party suppliers) that involved recalls, but its reputation is still such that buying a Toyota is a pretty low-risk option: you may not be thrilled with your new car, but you are highly unlikely to be surprised or seriously disappointed by it.

It is, however, the case that more than fifteen million Toyota and Lexus-branded hybrid passenger vehicles have been sold since 1997. How did such a deeply conservative company become the world leader in developing these powertrains and selling hybrid cars? Firstly, Toyota had the financial resources to do so, generated by the company’s highly profitable mainstream model lines. Secondly, hybrids are, as might be inferred from the name, essentially an interim and iterative step towards the ultimate elimination of internal combustion engined vehicles.

Hence, and notwithstanding the novelty of the first Prius, its development aligned entirely with Toyota’s cautious and iterative philosophy. Hybrids presented no range-anxiety or external charging network concerns, over which the company could have no control. Toyota is the very antithesis of an industry disruptor like Tesla, and something of a latecomer to the EV party. That said, Toyota’s investment in Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles remains an intriguing if relatively modest side-bet.

So far, so conservative, yet Toyota has a long and honourable tradition of producing somewhat eccentric vehicles for which the business cases must have been weak, or at least highly questionable. For me, this makes the company rather more interesting than it might otherwise be. One such vehicle is the Sera, which celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of its launch this year.

1990 Toyota Sera (c) favcars.com

The Sera was a conventionally engineered FWD three-door 2+2 liftback coupé, powered by a 1,496cc inline four-cylinder fuel-injected engine producing 104bhp and torque of 97lb/ft. Transmission was five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. The mechanical package was sourced from Toyota’s contemporary FWD small cars, the Tercel and Starlet.

The Sera’s stand-out feature was its butterfly doors, with a large glazed area that wrapped over to meet the T-bar roof structure. The doors hinged upwards and forwards to open, their hinge pivots being on the A-pillar at the base of the windscreen and on the top rail, near to the centre of the screen. The doors were large and heavy, and needed the assistance of gas struts to open and remain in that position.

1990 Toyota Sera (c) techeblog.com

There was a smaller moveable area of glass within each door for paying parking tolls etc. Such doors are occasionally seen on supercars such as the McLaren F1, but never before or since on a modest small coupé. In such a car, the doors’ only practical advantage, being openable in a confined space**, was of questionable value when set against the cost of engineering them.

The rear hatchback was an all-glass wraparound item that also hinged from the T-bar structure. The abundance of glass made the interior very bright and airy, but kept the standard air-conditioning working hard in hot weather. The stout T-bar rollover hoop, required to support the doors and maintain structural integrity, did create an over-the-shoulder blind-spot, however. The Sera was also one of the first cars to come with projector headlamps fitted as standard.

The Sera was produced in right-hand-drive form for the Japanese domestic market only, although a small number became grey market exports, mainly to the UK and US. It remained in production for five years and a total of 15,941 were built. Its novelty value saw strong sales of around 12,000 in its first year, but thereafter sales slowed to a trickle. Modifications in production were limited mainly to trim and cosmetic details, but side-impact beams were incorporated into the doors in June 1992, from which time airbags and ABS were offered as options.

Ironically, the collapse in Sera sales after the first year may well have been caused by Toyota itself when it launched the Paseo in 1991. This was a resolutely conventional three-door FWD coupé, similar in size and using the same mechanical package as the Sera. The Paseo had an 80mm (3”) longer wheelbase and was 285mm (11”) longer overall, so had a rather roomier interior than the Sera. It was sold in Japan, but also exported widely and remained in production until 1999.

image: autoevolution

Shorn of the Sera’s complexities and with much greater economies of scale, the Paseo was undoubtedly more profitable for Toyota. Moreover, you really had to want the novelty of those trick doors (and live in Japan) to choose the Sera over the bland but not unattractive Paseo.

There can never have been a compelling business case for the Sera, so why did Toyota build it? Was it to test the engineering feasibility of those doors, perhaps to use them later on a Supra? Was it just a skunkworks project that was green-lighted for fun? Was it an image-enhancing project for the company? I guess we will never know the truth, but we should be glad that Toyota allows itself these momentary flights of fancy.


* I realise that front-wheel-drive was not a ‘new’ technology, but its complexity was regarded with suspicion by many motorists and only became the industry standard for mainstream cars in the late 1970’s and early 80’s.

** They required only 430mm (17”) of lateral clearance to open fully.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

36 thoughts on “Que Sera Sera”

  1. My, oh my. Thirty years? It still looks very fresh. That´s mainly down to the timeless character of well-resolved design. I suppose the general near-organic roundness dates it a bit though only a bit. You can still perceive structure – a residual linear aspect – under the big radii. The detailing is very disciplined, unusual for Toyota. They often stumble a bit up close (see the current Auris for more fuss). I can´t see why sales should have dropped so fast so soon. The Paseo is a different beast in many ways. You´d think there were more people who wanted a stylish coupe with a cool door solution. Toyota makes this kind of car for the same reason they make the Century and Will Vi, to show they have lots of surplus and also to explore markets just in case. It´s not much of a risk – the Century is made in tiny numbers for a big price, and their other oddities are all icing on a Tercel/Starlet cake. I bet if I sent in auditors I´d find the Sera broke even.
    Next up, the Picnic!

    1. A possible explanation for the early drop in sales numbers could be the Nissan NX100 which appeared in autumn 1990.
      Slightly larger but similar in concept it looked strikingly similar when seen from the rear and it had removable roof panels without the hassle of the impractical large and heavy butterfly doors and it didn’t fry its passengers and it most probably was cheaper and could be had with significantly bigger engines.

    2. Good morning Richard and Dave. Good point about the 100NX, Dave. Together with the Paseo, buyers of small coupés were spoilt for choice in the early 1990’s:

      I think the Sera is a more interesting design than either the 100NX or Paseo, but ‘interesting’ often doesn’t equate to large sales and the other two were probably more practical propositions for everyday use.

  2. Hi Daniel, your article made me think of a b suv that was launched by toyota around 2006-2008 and that was a flop for sales, ahead of its time considering the success they have now. do you remember the name?

    1. Good morning Marco. Are you thinking of the 2009 Toyota Urban Cruiser, a faux mini-SUV based on the Yaris?

      It was sold in the US under the Scion brand.

    2. Hi Daniel, yes this is it! Thank you very much! By the way I am italian and i live since 2012 in Germany.

    1. That’s very well spotted on your part, Bernard. I’m sure I’ve never seen one in the metal.

      (I’ve amended your comment to display your photo directly. I hope that’s ok.)

  3. Toyota aren’t strangers to small scale experimentation, its just that they seldom commit to the experimental models for long enough to loose serious money on them, like a lot of other companies 😉
    The electric vehicle topic is an interesting one, as they did dabble with electric cars in the US in the early 2000s, and the second generation rav4 EV was even made in collaboration with Tesla – bet they regret canceling that colab too soon!

    1. Thanks Daniel. Yes, that’s what I’d intended, but obviously didn’t quite get right.
      I didn’t know what it was when I photographed it, though it looked unusual, but found out soon after. The full photo was actually for the building which had some nice period tilework.

  4. Toyota is a perplexing company in several ways. The thing I never understand about them is the lack of styling continuity between generations of the same car (e.g. the Corolla) and why that doesn’t seem to bother a presumably conservative customer base. There’s probably something significant to be inferred there regarding ‘normal’ customer preferences, though I can’t put my finger on it.

    1. Hi Chris. You raise a good point. Is it simply the case that the ‘typical’ Corolla buyer is not much bothered by the styling of the car as long as it’s reliable, economical and easy to drive? I write this as someone who could never contemplate buying a current generation Toyota because they are uniformly hideous to my eyes, both inside and out.

    2. Hi Elvin,
      I agree with you, in the toyota corolla there is no continuum in the design, just think that in Europe it was also called auris for two generations, a mistake that fortunately has been interrupted.
      however apart from the golf, peugeot 205 and the passat also i can’t think of any other mass car that has maintained a common thread in style for several generations. the style rather seems to me to have gone on in waves depending on the designer at the head of the group

    3. Hi Daniel,
      I completely agree with you, the current yaris has a horrible rear, the corolla is passable outside, even more the station wagon which is very anonymous but inside they are absolutely not pleasant, if I were to buy a car of the segment C, this would be golf.

    4. Renault have almost no history of styling continuity either and to some extent Ford and Opel have also dodged a corporate look. At the other extreme are brands such as Alfa, Audi, Cadillac, BMW and Mercedes which have cultivated some recurring characteristics. Toyota has such a big range and so many markets that a corporate look might produce more problems than it solves.

  5. Still a very nice car after all these years- thanks for bringing it to our attention again Daniel. I always thought it funny that Toyota (and also Nissan, Honda and to a lesser extent Mitsubishi) seemed to send us Europeans and Americans the worthy but boring stuff and kept the unusual and daring cars for themselves back then. The high point for this practice were the nineties when there were the Toyota Sera, Will VI, Will Cypha, Nissan Pao, Nissan Figaro, Nissan S-Cargo and so on. Good times, and whenever I spot the occasional grey imported one I cannot help but smile and take a second look.

    1. A wll-known designer in Hampstead made a point of showing off his Figaro, S-Cargo and Will.
      So you could import them to the UK.

  6. During the last thirty years, Toyota has consistently been the most profitable and therefore viable car company of them all, which means they can plan long term strategies. In comparison for example GM, which usually invests a fortune in new tech just to abandon it after a single generation, Toyota learns their lesson for the second, third, fourth generation, improving and evolving in small incremental steps. On GM we have the Corvair, Vega, Saturn, and EV-1, and had Toyota been GM they would’ve abandoned hybrid technology when the first almost forgotten generation of the Prius ended in the early 2000nds. I don’t have the numbers, but Toyota consistently was in the black to the tune of tens of billions of dollars for a very long time, which gave them at least a ten year head start in hybrid technology. The fact that they continued with the Sera for five years, after almost all the sales happened in the first year is simply mindboggling.

  7. Nice article – thank you. I’ve always liked these, as while they’re a bit unusual, you know that they will be fundamentally sound, as they’ve been developed by Toyota.

    The Sera was developed in the late 80’s when the Japanese economy was booming; unfortunately, it all went down the tubes in 1991. I would think that wouldn’t have helped sales and nor would the launch of the second generation MR2, which it resembles, especially from the rear.

    A couple of bits of trivia – the vehicle’s name is taken from the future tense of the French verb, être – to be; and the doors apparently inspired the design of the McLaren F1.

    1. DTW’s readership is so polite! Charles has neatly skirted around my choice of title for this piece, which is toe-curlingly awful! DTW’s esteemed editor could have vetoed it but showed admirable restraint in not doing so.

  8. Frankly, I always used to find Toyota a difficult company to warm to. They made some exciting cars – such as the Celica and Supra – but their hatchbacks and sedans were the definition of boredom. As you say Daniel, there seemed to be no overarching philosophy or vision, unlike say Honda or Mazda.

    It’s a little harsh to dismiss them as always being conservative, however. They put the 2000GT into production, after all, which must have been a pretty spectacular way to lose a lot of money. And Lexus itself was a brave step. The Prius was, initially, a very bold move as well.

    This Sera looked rather wonderful but was based on very prosaic underpinnings, and I guess it proved that there is a good reason why most cars have front-hinged doors – they just work better, for all sorts of reasons.

    Nowadays, the company is apparently pushed by Toyoda san to make more interesting cars for enthusiasts. But, again, it is hard to see a unified strategy running through their output. The Supra looks unique, but is based on a BMW. The new Yaris GR looks much like a regular Yaris but in fact has a bespoke, 3 door body and very exotic engineering. The GT86 is rather wonderful. The horrible C-HR is not.

    A brand exists, fundamentally, in the mind of the customer. And I am still not sure what Toyota means.

    1. Your last paragraph is exactly what I was trying to get at in my earlier comment… But it clearly doesn’t matter to their customer base. Daniel’s explanation is plausible: Perhaps only we car enthusiasts actually care about a brand’s identity and history.

    2. Yes – I find the company, and what they do in other countries, especially Japan, fascinating. However, they are not a brand that I think of spontaneously.

      Knowing their UK range is quite limited, I visited their global website to see what is available, and it’s a real mixture. They have something called a ‘Spade’ (as in playing cards) which looks like a Peugeot 1007.


      They also have models called Vellfire, Vitz and Voxy, so plenty there for Daniel to work with…

    3. What an extraordinary diverse range. Thanks for sharing, Charles.

      The Esquire needs a bigger grille. I want a Toyota Tank!

  9. I remember the Sera being offered by Omicron, the Norfolk Lancia specialists.
    The only non-Lancia they mrketed: not sure if they sold any.

    1. The Spade seems to be a slightly re-worked Porte – perhaps because it wasn’t any good in a storm? Sorry, it’s the excitement of the last few days.
      Vic, I remember an S-Cargo and a Pao just down the hill from Hampstead in Belsize Park – was that the same owner? And whole hoards of Figaros. Nonsense they might have been, but they they suited their environment and always made me smile.

  10. I don’t know if anyone here watches the fun YouTube aussie channel ‘Mighty Car Mods’ but they just did a video about both the Sera and the Nissan just a couple of weeks ago. They’re more about capturing the feel of the 90s modification scene but it’s a fun watch if anyone’s interested.

  11. As Jacomo said, above, the Yaris GR homologation road car is an amazing piece of work. By coincidence, a review has just been released by Carwow – I found it very interesting to see the attention to detail paid by Toyota. The reviewer clearly thinks it’s an awesome car. It certainly makes a nice noise.

  12. “wonders what inspires the conservative Japanese automotive giant to go off-piste like this”

    Toyota conservative?

    Only partially: Whit its bread and butter models, i.e, Corollas, Hi-Luxes…

    But on the other hand Toyota also is a revolutionary disruptive company, verbi gratia:

    * Lexus. It takes a lot of courage to go face to face with Mercedes-Benz with an invented brand with no “heritage”. And they have beaten Mercedes in their own game.

    * Hybrid cars. Created by Toyota in the 1990s, an era of cheap oil. A Success history today, a very risky gamble in the 1990s.

    * iQ. A new breed of ultra-compact car. A market failure, but a very interesting car.

    1. I don´t think Toyota needs the straight jacket of a clear identity. Their cars compete on a sectoral basis whilst it could be said people buy BMWs or Mazdas and Alfas on things extraneous to the exact model they pay for. It would be dogmatic to say brand values are wrong. For a smaller company or more specialised one it makes sense to have strength in numbers so you don´t have to argue the case for each car, you argue the brand and then have the car as the detailed expression of it. Toyota is too huge to have or need such an approach. In some ways that makes it unique. Other firms like Ford and Chevrolet and Peugeot could also benefit from a model-by-model approach as they are generalists. Citroen should be more specialised (and so stop competing as much with its stablemates).
      I like Toyota as it is. It so happens they don´t sell anything aimed at me though my chance encounter with an Auris was very favourable indeed.

  13. As far as I know, the variety of designs – we would say inconsistent from our European perspective – is also due to the fact that Toyota has different sales channels in its domestic market, which operate completely independently.
    Toyota is the luxury vehicle channel, Toyopet is the leading channel for the medium size car market, Corolla is the largest volume-sales channel centering on compact vehicles, Netz is for the creative and new market sector. But I don’t know if this is still the case.

    1. Nobody understands the Japanese marketing channel concept. There was decades-long research programme dedicated to it, funded through the UN. They had 1300 staff in a lab covering 22 ha in Switzerland, complete with the world´s longest, fastest test track. The idea would be to drive the cars at speeds approaching “on the limit” where different elements of the concept would fly off and be photographed to see if there were more fundamental ideas making up the larger idea.

  14. When you speak of Toyota flying off at funny angles, you must remember Cold Fusion energy in the late 1980s. Pons and Fleischmann. After the hubbub died down about it being a con or not really real, Toyota hired the pair away from the US and set them down at their Institut Minoru de Recherche Avancé somewhere in France to continue their work. They spent about five years at it with Toyota footing the bill. Quite why the Institute was in France, nobody seems to know, but it was owned by Technova, a Toyota subsidiary. The Minoru name was Japanese, btw. Perhaps the location was part of the deal that France negotiated with Toyota when they essentially prohibited import of Japanese vehicles in the early 1980s, because the upward sales trajectory was exponential. Against French tin of the day, hardly surprising. The other part of the deal was to limit Japanese imports to 10% of the market, and of course there was the little matter of a factory, where the Yaris is made today.

    Institut Minoru de Recherche Avancé (IMRA) also set itself up in Michigan in the US in 1990, so had at least two locations and is today nominally owned by Aisin which makes all of Toyota’s gearboxes, and itself really a captive Toyota subsidiary and keiretsu partner. And IMRA US turns out highly specialized laser etchers. Whatever happened to IMRA France I can find no information about.

    Toyota is a strange animal indeed, and despite being valued at less than Tesla by the overpaid frothheads involved in the completely non-productive financial and stock market world, could squash Tesla like a bug if they so chose. Instead they came up with a genuine advance, Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive over two decades ago (to which Ford has a licence) which together with the 41% thermal efficiency of their latest petrol engines, rather makes mincemeat of powering cars with electricity from a thermal power plant. For some reason, they choose not to lord it over the eco-greenies infesting European governments and the EC, so one has to hope that electricity will soon all be generated by renewable resources, and not by brown coal and natural gas as in Germany, or nuclear in France, or by biomass wood chips imported to the UK from the USA and counted as renewable when it really isn’t.

    It’s a wonderful web of technical deception we all weave ourselves when there’s money to be made by someone or other, or an agenda to push. Then to that mix, you add politicians who are notoriously technically hamfisted even with a screwdriver and stand back for complete policy nonsense.

    Toyota just seem to get on with it, making sure it covers its bases.

  15. As I recall Pons and Fleischmann weren´t knowlingly engaging in fraud but simply didn´t follow proper procedures of long standing in science practice. It´s interesting that Toyota still saw something in it but if you are Toyota, the expense of checking if P&F were wrong or right was nothing compared to the reward. If you would win a million lire would you not bet one lire? For Toyota the risk was that small.
    Without wanting to weigh in too much on the battery versus petrol, I think the appeal of batteries is not only their thermal efficiency but the fact that the source of the power at the road is electric meaning the source power can be sometimes or always renewable. An efficient ICE will always be an ICE. I think ICE engines won´t go away – does any technology ever go away entirely (I am writing this text on a Remington under organic whale oil lamps) – and so it´s good those remaining will be as efficient as they now can be.
    Good old Toyota though. Their model does challenge the Anglo-Saxon business model somewhat as they have done very well for a 100 years without the boom-bust witnessed by other firms of similar longevity.
    Now – where´s my top hat, I need to take a transom to the railway station – there´s a boat sailing on the tide I must catch !

  16. Toyota’s key attribute was quality (as in the specific engineering use of the term). Their cars were better built, far more reliable and much easier to service than those of European and American makers who just could not compete (hence used politicians to erect protectionist barriers against Toyota product). Where Japanese cars were able to compete in a market on equal footing with other makers they soon dominated- Toyota especially so.

    Toyota’s corporate identity was about quality. There is so much specialist literature available about the subject originating from Toyota. It goes back decades and continues right up to the present time. Toyota moved the goal posts with improvement to quality and they even tell us how (they kept no secrets).

    People take quality for granted now and expect (at least) reasonable quality from the cars they purchase (Euro brands included). That is the legacy of Toyota.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: