In late 1950s, the United States found itself in the midst of a sharp recession, which caused a market shift towards small imported economy cars. One company who noticed this trend in the United States was Toyota Motor Corporation, a then-small Japanese automaker that marketed its products under an odd-sounding nameplate: Toyopet. In an effort to tap this potentially huge market, Toyota imported the first Japanese car to be officially sold in the United States: the Toyopet Crown.
First imported to the United States in 1957, the Toyopet Crown was designed for the small, but growing, Japanese market, which was in the latter stages of its recovery from the devastation of World War II. When the Crown was first introduced, private automobiles were rare in Japan because they were too expensive for the average Japanese citizen to own and operate. In addition to that, much of Japan’s highway network at that time still consisted of rough unpaved rural roads and narrow city streets, neither of which permitted high-speed driving. Such conditions put a strong premium on economy and durability.
In terms of design, the Toyopet Crown was a thoroughly conventional small car for its time. It rode on a 100-inch wheelbase and employed a front-engine, rear-wheel drive setup. Initially, power was provided by a 1.5 litre engine, which produced a decidedly modest 60 horsepower and gave it a claimed top speed of 65-70 miles per hour. Outwardly, the Crown was fitted with a body shell featuring American-influenced styling, which included a chrome-bedecked front end and small tailfins in the rear. Its interior was surprisingly roomy, able to seat 6 adults in reasonable comfort. The Crown was also notably heavy for a small car, weighing in at 2,668 pounds.
Although the first two examples of the Toyopet Crown arrived in the United States in August 1957, it was not released to the American motoring public until July 1958. Unfortunately for Toyota, the car did not do well in the American market. To start with, the Crown was ill-suited for American driving conditions. Overweight and underpowered, it could not be driven at high speeds for extended periods without causing serious mechanical damage. The Crown was also overpriced, costing at least $600 more than the 1958 Volkswagen Beetle, the best-selling import in the United States at that time. From a marketing point of view, its image was not helped by its use of the nameplate “Toyopet,” which some potential customers associated with toys and pets instead of cars.
Although the Crown was heavily criticized, it did possess a number of desirable qualities that were duly noted by some automotive critics of the time. It was praised for the high quality of its construction. It was also found to be economical to operate, capable of fuel mileage in excess of 30 miles per gallon. The Crown revealed itself to be surprisingly rugged and durable in low-speed city driving conditions. Such attributes greatly helped Toyota’s position in the American market a number of years down the road.
2,137 Toyopet Crowns were sold in the United States between 1958 and 1960 before it was replaced by the Toyota Tiara for the 1961 model year. Although unsuccessful in terms of sales, Toyota learned much from this car’s experience in the American market. The Toyopet Crown is credited with laying the groundwork for Toyota’s long-term presence in the American automobile market.
Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 772-773.
Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1600.
Toyopet Crown Custom Sedan…the world’s greatest automotive value, Toyota: Trade Catalogs: Specific Model: Crown Custom, 1959-1961, n.d., Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Toyopet Crown Custom Sedan for 59, Toyota: Trade Catalogs: Specific Model: Crown Custom, 1959-1961, n.d., Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Toyopet Crown, “it’s a the big little car”, “it’s the little big car”, Toyota: Trade Catalogs: Specific Model: Crown Custom, 1959-1961, n.d., Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.