Toyota’s First Supra-Car

Toyota City upstages Europe. 

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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[1] 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.

retrojdm.com

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).

2000 GT brochure. retrojdm.com

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.

2000 GT brochure. retrojdm.com

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.

2000 GT brochure. retrojdm.com

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?

Image:wheelsage.org
Image:wheelsage.org

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.

[1] 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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

22 thoughts on “Toyota’s First Supra-Car”

  1. Good morning Eóin. Nice as the 2000GT is, I think Nissan was right to go its own way with the 240Z and its successors. If Sean Connery, not exceptionally tall at 6’2″ (188cm), couldn’t fit inside the 2000GT, the cramped cockpit would have been a significant issue in its biggest potential market, the US.

  2. The 2000GT seems to have been about a foot longer, and fractionally lower, than the Triumph GT6. I sat in the Triumph once, at the Earls Court Motor Show, but never the Toyota – though I did see one briefly in 60’s London. By the time I had identified it, it was gone, but I subsequently found that the manager/ boyfriend of Twiggy owned one and lived not-too-far away.

    1. I would have said white, but it might have been gold. Certainly it was a light colour.

  3. Good afternoon, Eóin. I’m late to the class because of migraine. Starting to feel a little better now.

    The 2000GT is one of those cars that I’ve known about for quite a while, but it took some time to grow on me, mainly because of the front light situation and I probably would have liked it better without the doors in the wings. The one the right gives access to the battery, the one on the left covers the air filter and the window wash tank.

    But its’ a car that right up my alley: twin cam straight six, double wishbones, small size. All things that don’t hurt.

    I’ve only seen it two times in the Louwman Museum. I’m about the same size as Connery was, so I won’t fit. Now if I can only get my hands on that roadster.

    1. He’s a clip, including bonus Subaru and Toyotas. I wonder what colours it was available in – the brochure seems to show a very dark red one, which looks lovely.

  4. Some time ago Toyota announced that they will make spare parts for the 2000 GT to help owners enjoy and use their valuable and cherished cars. Spares will be available only to proven owners and will be documented and traced and the number of parts per car will be limited.
    That’s customer service for you.

    A 2000GT was sold at an auction for 1.5 million US$…

  5. Apropos nothing of any consequence, did the 2000GT have the largest reversing lamps of any production car ever?

    Just wondering…

    1. And is this where the Lexus IS200 got the inspiration for its rear light cluster?

  6. I wonder if I’m the only one here thinking that the lamps are the necessary imperfection to bring the rest into perfect focus?

    A lovely car either way. Strangely, I have no recollection whatsoever of seeing it at the Louwman museum.

  7. The part that catches my eye is the way the crease over the rear wheels carries on back to become a lip over the license plate: in section, the line change from convex to concave which is rather a hard trick to pull-off. It is a lovely line. The rest of the car is rich with fine detail. I happen to like the grille and lamps up front. The form is so simple it can carry detail at the business end. I imagine this car was easier to live with than a Ferrari. It´s a bit like the Honda NSX in that way (which is the only supercar I´d want to own on the grounds its as easy to drive as a car should be).

  8. That Yamaha’s a delightful car, and there’s a clear stylistic link to the 240Z. I note that the author of the accompanying narrative is no fan of Graf Goertz.

    Perhaps a cutting-edge sports car was just too big a step for Yamaha on their own, amazingly diverse though the company was, and still is. They didn’t make a four-stroke motorbike until the 1969 XS-1, and there are suggestions that elements of its 650cc SOHC engine informed the design of the 2000GT engine.

    I’ve only seen one 2000 GT outside of a museum or car show. Early ’80s, parked incongruously and illegally outside Glasgow School of Art. My enduring impressions were firstly that its perfect proportions made it look far bigger – about E-Type size – than it was in reality; nearly 400mm shorter than a SWB E-Type. Secondly, the precision of its construction was astonishing. The only comparable cars were British and Italian, and they shamelessly carried shoddy assembly as a signifier of hand-made exclusivity.

  9. This car is simply superb. Full stop.
    However, I wonder whether Toyota’s 86,
    which I regard as an admirable pastiche,
    shows tangible references to the 2000GT…

  10. Quite like both the 2000GT and the early prototypes done by Yamaha for Nissan, it is just the detailing at the front (particularly the popup headlights, etc) and back that is off-putting.

  11. Also find it curious that it took Toyota about 8 years after the 2000GT to produce the original Supra, when the latter could have appeared much earlier as an indirect replacement for the 2000GT (had it of course been based on the Celica A20/A30 and appeared in 1971).

  12. Ι am sure that, some years ago, I read about a new carrosserie being built from scratch following just the “blueprints” by a Japanese -I think- blacksmith. It was a very difficult and admirable effort and achievement!

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