Shelby’s Oriental Fling

An unlikely but effective pairing that was sadly short-lived.

Image: channel-auto.com

Had Carroll Shelby ignored Lee Iaccoca’s advice, he might have amassed even greater financial wealth. In the latter half of the 1960s, Shelby, the gritty Texan and former racecar driver, was approached by Toyota of America and offered the company’s distributorship for his home state. Shelby’s auto business was certainly in those days relatively small in scale and to represent a foreign carmaker with big plans would be no small undertaking. Consequently, Shelby thought it wise to consult his friend, Lee Iaccoca, to see what he thought of the idea. Iaccoca’s advice was to decline the offer since he was confident that the US auto industry “was going to push the Japanese back into the ocean”.

Iaccoca’s typically trenchant remarks deterred Shelby from taking up Toyota’s offer, but he nevertheless put his old racing buddy, Tom Friedkin, in touch with the Japanese giant and, by 1969, Friedkin was in charge of Gulf States Toyota Inc. This would prove to be a very successful (and lucrative) enterprise and, with Friedkin’s son currently at the helm, it is still doing well today.

Carroll Shelby and Toyota USA VP Shoji Hattori. Image: mecum.com

Not much later however, Toyota called on Carroll Shelby again, and this time the proposal was much more up his alley. Not yet the force it is today, Toyota USA wanted to enhance its image and visibility in the important North American market and chose to enter domestic car racing (the SCCA(1) C/P class) for the 1968 season with their recently introduced 2000GT coupé. On home soil in Japan, the 2000GT had already scored some notable results: victory in the Suzuka 1,000km and the 24 Hours of Fuji in 1966, winning the Fuji 1,000km in 1967 and setting thirteen FIA world records for speed and endurance.

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Offered a substantial US $500,000 budget, which would have been almost enough to run an F1 team in those days, and three 2000GT coupés(2) shipped to Texas from Japan, Shelby signed an agreement with the Vice President of Toyota USA, Shoji Hattori, and set to work.

In testing at the Riverside and Willow Springs circuits, the handling of the 2000GT was deemed excellent by drivers Ronnie Bucknum, Scooter Patrick and Dave Jordan, and was further improved by fitting custom made magnesium alloy wheels and special low profile tires that together lowered the ride height by about 2 inches. The Yamaha-designed engine, however, presented Shelby with a few headaches: he needed more power, but increasing the compression ratio in search of more horsepower resulted in several blown powerplants. In addition, the three Weber carburettors Shelby initially replaced the original Mikuni’s with, resulting in a healthy power increase, were not allowed under SCCA C/P rules so had to be removed.

Nevertheless, when Shelby had completed his upgrades, his fettled 2000GTs delivered 200bhp (an increase of 50bhp over the standard car), the early reliability issues were solved and the cars were ready for the 1968 season.

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The car to beat in the SCCA C/P class was the Porsche 911, while the Triumph TR250 was also a force to be reckoned with. Over the entire season, the 2000GTs usually had the better of the TR250s but, although there was often some very close racing with paint being swapped, when the dust settled at the end of 1968, Porsche occupied first and second place in the standings with Toyota in third and fourth. Still, this was a respectable showing for what was the 2000GT’s competition debut in the USA and Shelby already had some ideas on how to improve the car for the next racing season.

Driver Dave Jordan had enjoyed piloting the 2000GT: “The handling was phenomenal. Great brakes, very stiff. The only thing that was lacking was by mid-season we couldn’t match the horsepower that Porsche was developing.” To his great disappointment, however, Toyota of America informed Shelby that they would not continue to compete in SCCA or any other racing series with the 2000GT.

The reason was simple economics: to date, Toyota had sold just 62 2000GTs in the USA. At a price of over US $7,000 it faced stiff competition in the form of -again- the Porsche 911 and the Jaguar E-Type, which were both were between US $1,500 and US $2,000 cheaper, and the Corvette, which was almost US $3,000 less. Hence, the Japanese manufacturer elected to focus instead on the mainstream and economy passenger car market. In that context, the commercial benefit of racing the 2000GT was thus perceived as virtually zero, and expensive to boot.

Image: Dan Hsu

Their racing careers terminated with immediate effect, the three 2000GTs were retired. One car returned home to Toyota but the two others remained in the USA. The car with chassis number 10001 was used as a daily driver for years, steadily deteriorating as such specialist cars in amateur hands often do, and discovered in a deplorable state in the late seventies. A fifteen-year long restoration ensued that returned the Shelby-Toyota 2000GT to its former glory and, in early 2022 chassis #10001 sold at auction for US $2,5 million.

(1) Sports Car Club of America.

(2)  One of these was chassis number 10001, the very first 2000GT produced.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

13 thoughts on “Shelby’s Oriental Fling”

  1. Good morning Bruno. Thanks for disclosing this story unknown to me. What a lovely car the 2000GT is.

  2. Good morning Bruno. Another hidden history unearthed, thank you. I agree with Freerk: the 2000GT really is rather lovely (even if its inspiration is pretty obvious):

    One wonders why Toyota didn’t develop it into a full-fledged challenger to the Datsun 240Z?

    1. If I recall correctly, the battery is on the other side. Indeed very Bristolesque.

    2. I had the idea that the concept of the 2000GT originated with Yamaha, rather than with Toyota, but I cannot currently trace the soiurce for that notion.

  3. Thanks for sharing! I love the 2000GT, such a sweet car. Never knew any of this either. That’s why I also love this place, I learn something new almost every day!

  4. It mystifies me why the 2000 GT is not on everybody’s list when talking about the most beautiful cars ever designed. Picture don’t really do it justice, it is really even much better in the flesh. Mind that it is positively tiny in dimensions (especially when comparing to today’s bloated street furniture). A real masterpiece, if there ever was one.

    As to why Toyota didn’t make it a competitor to the Fairlady Z-car: I think the 2000 GT was a bespoke showcase, a bold statement of its maker‘s capabilities and harbiger of what to expect by Toyota in the future. Translating it into mass production could not really succeed, so it’s probably for the best they didn’t bother.

    Toyota released the TA22 Celica instead, which served them extremely well.

  5. Thanks Bruno. What. A. Beauty.

    I hesitate to bring up such cantankerousness, but your mention of an F1-sized budget made me think that this was money better spent than their actual F1 budget (which by all accounts was eye watering).

    Anyway, back to happier things: it’s nice how the race trimmings still look so good on an elegant car like the 2000GT. About the car’s size: does anybody know whether the story of the Bond car being a convertible because Sean Connery wouldn’t fit into the coupé is apocryphical? I could just as easily imagine that filming would have been considerably easier with a convertible. In that sense, size might have been a factor.

    1. A marvellous article – thank you.

      It was fascinating to learn that Carroll Shelby was offered a Toyota franchise and turned it down. With hindsight, it’s easy to forget what a gamble it could have been. It reminded me of an article I saw in the automotive press yesterday regarding the extent to which the motor trade would be prepared to take on unknown Chinese makes, secondhand. A Chinese franchise could be a goldmine, or a money pit; I suspect it would be the former, if the cars were priced right.

      https://www.am-online.com/news/used-cars/2022/12/14/chinese-evs-spark-finance-concerns-for-used-car-dealers

      Here’s the 2000 GT convertible – it makes a lovely noise, but it’s clearly smaller than one might expect. Going with the Celica was a good decision.

    2. I don’t know for certain the Bond car story one way or another, but I do know that a period Car and Driver test of the 2000GT got into a fair amount of detail about the thick padding above door tops and extremely soft foam-backed headliner while observing it must be deliberate in anticipation of contact because only an inch appeared to remain between a six footer’s head and the roof. I have been fortunate enough to have seen 2000GT’s up close in the metal and they are wildly low vehicles; less than 46 inches tall (nearly 3 less than an original MG Midget). I was very taken aback by how they appear much larger in photos than they remotely are in real life.

  6. It seems Toyota could have developed an early 70s Z-car challenger from the 1st gen Carina and Celica to replace the 2000GT, since the 2nd gen models largely carried over much from the 1st gen models and would form the basis of the original Supra.

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