Toyota City upstages Europe.
Editor’s note: A version of this piece was originally published in April 2016 as part of DTW’s Japan Theme.
From a purely commercial perspective, the Toyota motor company appears to have fared perfectly well without the benefit of image-building halo cars. While enthusiasts have been well served by innumerable performance versions of regular production models over the intervening decades, the Japanese car giant has largely eschewed outright exotics. Not so fast however. As long ago as 1965, crowds at the Tokyo motor show were captivated by the introduction a sleek and beautifully proportioned coupe from that most cautious of Japan’s burgeoning carmakers. Deliveries began two years later, but by the decade’s end, and after a mere 337 cars, the Mayfly Toyota 2000 GT disappeared as quickly as it had emerged.
The story (as commonly told) begins in the early 1960s. German nobleman and designer, Graf Albrecht Goertz had forged a successful consultancy in the United States, having been involved in the design of a number of post-war BMW models, most notably the acclaimed 507 roadster. Commissioned by Nissan to assist in the design a two-seater coupe, he is said to have drawn up a low-slung concept, a running prototype of which was subsequently built for Nissan by Yamaha. Nissan’s management however opted to adapt their in-house Fairlady model along different lines, introducing it as the highly successful 240Z in 1970.
Undeterred, Yamaha pitched the concept to Toyota and to their surprise, they elected to adopt it as a low-volume image builder. Yamaha received a contract to develop and build a new car and work commenced in 1964 under the supervision of Toyota’s Jiro Kawano.
Technically, the 2000 GT was a world away from Toyota City’s mainstream offerings. Employing 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 an in-house-designed body shape 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 exquisitely finished.
Only aspects of the detail design let it down. The nose and tail lamp treatment was a little heavy-handed and somewhat baroque, which seems a pity because the overall form edges perfection. Nevertheless, the excesses of brightwork lends it a distinctly Japanese style – certainly little else in its shape suggests its country of origin.
What isn’t immediately apparent is just how small and delicate the 2000 GT was. Measuring a mere 4175mm in length, 1600mm wide and 1160m high, the 2000 GT hit the scales at a lightweight 1120 kg. This made for a decidedly snug driving environment, but Toyota engineers made efforts to ensure there was sufficient space for most European-sized occupants.
It drove as well as it looked, US imprint, Road & Track describing the 2000 GT as, “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 2000 GT 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 2000 GT was always intended to be built in small 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 huge sums – perhaps the first Japanese car to become seriously collectible.
Best recalled is the roadster, two of which were built expressly for the production of the James Bond movie, ‘You Only Live Twice’. Allegedly, the conversion was made because leading man, the rangy Sean Connery didn’t fit in the coupe’s decidedly intimate cockpit. This variant was of course immortalised by the Corgi diecast toy, which sold in far larger volumes.
The 2000 GT’s problem was its eye-watering cost allied to a name that failed to resonate with enthusiasts. As well known and well-regarded as Toyota is today, few had even heard the name in 1967. Not that it truly mattered at Toyota City – the 2000 GT served its purpose as a statement both of intent and of capability. After all, the Japanese carmaker has always been more interested in making money than making statements, so can we really say Toyota made the wrong decision in the long run by limiting the 2000 GT’s lifespan?
However it isn’t strictly true to say the 2000 GT represented the apogee of Toyota’s exotic car ambitions. Inspired to some extent by its Sixties forebear, the 2010 Lexus LFA coupe, an even more technically dense and witheringly expensive design and engineering statement was amongst 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 requisite will and budget. Because if Toyota ever get really serious, heaven help the opposition.
 The text has been modified to acknowledge doubts raised about the level of Graf Albrecht Goertz’s involvement in both the Yamaha A550X project and Datsun’s 240Z. While some accounts also accredit Goertz with the 2000 GT’s body shape, it was an entirely in-house Toyota design.