Toyota Motor Corporation is known mostly for building rock-solid SUVs and family sedans for customers around the world. Early in its life though, times were tougher. Exporting Japanese vehicles to the United States and other Western Countries was difficult. People saw Japanese products as inferior products at the time. In the creation of the 1960s Toyota 2000GT, the first Japanese Super Car, Toyota was instrumental in changing the face of the Japanese motor industry and shifted the perception of Japanese vehicles to the world. The 2000GT would go on to not only developing an iconic role on the silver screen as a Bond car but would become the first Japanese vehicle to sell for over $1,000,000.
The Beginning of the 2000GT
At the end of World War II, Japan struggled to rebuild itself as a nation. Rebuilding its industries and finding buyers for Japanese products was a top priority. Most Japanese consumer products, unfortunately, were seen as inferior by consumers in the U.S. and established western nations.
The management of most Japanese industries struggled to understand their new western markets. They did finally begin to succeed by using new technology and produced consumer-friendly cameras, binoculars, and transistor radios of excellent quality.
But larger manufacturers, like those in the automotive industry, found themselves at a disadvantage. Except for the very rich, most people in Japan did not own automobiles. With such a limited, small market in their homeland, the Japanese auto manufacturers looked for other markets to conquer. They recognized that the market for small inexpensive vehicles was beginning to boom in Britain and Europe, and decided to try to also market their cars there.
Toyota named their new export vehicle, “Toyopet“, thinking it would be “cute” and appeal to western customers. Unfortunately, the company name in English sounded too much like “Toy motor” to the Europeans, and the automobiles were generally laughed at by European car buyers. Needless to say, Toyota’s Toyopets did not sell well.
Never taunted, Toyota and the other Japanese manufacturers persevered. They doggedly continued to refine and upgrade their manufacturing processes until the 1960’s. Then things began to turn around.
In 1961, Honda made the first European Market breakthrough with motorcycles. The British motorcycle industry bogged down by years of tradition, fell victim to the Japanese breakthrough. Meanwhile, Toyota had changed from being a manufacturer with bad design and limited options to becoming a provider of vehicles with a modern European look, generous warranty, while also offering low fuel consumption.
Designing the Toyota 2000GT
The Toyota 2000GT came into fruition by the Japanese car manufacturer, Nissan, looking for a replacement for their Datsun Fairlady 1500 and 1600 sports cars. The company realized that the traditional roadster-style sports car market was relatively small and wanted to create a coupe that would attract a wider range of buyers.
Nissan contracted American designer Albrecht Graf von Goertz and Yamaha to design a suitable model. The result was the Nissan A550X, a prototype that closely resembled the second-generation 1963 Chevrolet Corvette. Nissan declined to continue with the A550X project but Yamaha was interested in continuing development work. In September 1964, the company produced a functioning prototype.
Yamaha had spent a lot on designing the vehicle but with Nissan not interested, they had no buyer. They decided to approach Toyota. Even though a sports car wasn’t considered to be a good commercial risk, Toyota said yes.
Toyota had some success in the first and second Japanese Grand Prix events in 1963 and 1964. With enthusiasm for all forms of motorsport on the rise in Japan, motorists began to ask automobile manufacturers to produce higher performance road cars.
In response, Toyota developed several grand touring models to produce practical, high-performance coupes that were comfortable in everyday use yet could be effective on a race track with only minor modifications.
Soon after the 1964 Japanese Grand Prix in December 1964, the joint development project began in earnest between Toyota and Yamaha. The design brief was simple and to the point. Toyota told the team was to produce a vehicle that would be equal to or greater than the Porsche 911, the Jaguar E-Type, and even more stylish than Ferrari or Maserati. “Do whatever necessary to produce the greatest car in the world,” the Toyota 2000GT.
The original design work for the new vehicle went a different direction than Nissan’s A550X. Instead of unibody construction designed with a moderately priced mass-production vehicle, the new Toyota 2000GT would be based on a backbone chassis similar to the Lotus Elan, with an “X” shape designed for the engine to fit into the front of the “X” while the differential would go inside the rear fork of the “X”.
This design placed the driver and passenger within the sides of the “X” which forced a high central transmission tunnel. Combined with a height of only 45.7 inches (1.16m), the interior of the vehicle definitely had a “snug” feeling. The dashboard was designed to look like one from a small airplane except covered in a Rosewood veneer, courtesy of Yamaha’s piano division.
The new 2000GT had independent suspension with unequal length wishbones and front and rear coil springs with telescopic dampers. Power-assisted brakes were mounted on all four wheels with the fronts measuring 11 inches and the rears 10.5 inches. The dash-mounted handbrake made sure the rear discs were gripped firmly enough to work properly. Rack and pinion steering completed the superlative package.
Both Toyota and Yamaha wanted to ensure that all the technical and aesthetic details about the vehicle were done as perfectly as possible to make sure the “Toy motor” image of the earlier “Toyopet” name was dispelled as completely as possible.
The external aluminum bodywork of the vehicle was shaped to fit over the Lotus-style backbone chassis with complex curves that resembled a coach-built European sports car rather than anything created in Japan. Even though the original Nissan A550X concept might have resembled a second-generation Corvette Stingray, the new Toyota 2000GT was much more European in style with the addition of a few unique Japanese-style aesthetics.
To meet California headlight height regulations, the 2000GT designers positioned retracting headlights into the hood while changing the original lower headlights into driving lights to give the vehicle a better lighting system than most other sports cars of the era.
The six-cylinder longitudinal Toyota 3M engine measured 1,998cc. Yamaha designed the DOHC aluminum head with hemispherical combustion chambers and 79° valves with a modest 8.4:1 compression ratio. Three Mikuni-Solex 40PHH carburetors controlled the fuel mixture. The engine was rated at 148 hp @ 6,600 rpm with torque measuring 129 lb/ft torque @ 5,000 rpm.
The 2000GT gearbox was an all synchromesh 5-speed design driving a limited-slip differential with three final drive ratios available. The vehicle had a minimum top speed of 133 mph making it about as fast as a typical Jaguar E-Type exported to the U.S.
2000GT Presented at 1965 Tokyo Motor Show
Toyota’s brand new 2000GT made its debut at the 12th annual Tokyo Motor Show in 1965. The vehicle was a sensation. Acclaimed as Japan’s first supercar, wealthy customers clamored to own one. Some viewed the sleek new Japanese entry as looking like a Jaguar E-Type while others thought it was only technically inspired by Jaguar’s sports car.
But underneath the unique aluminum bodywork by Satoru Nozaki wasn’t anything like an E-Type Jag but more like what one might see from the Lotus factory in Coventry.
What wasn’t immediately clear to observers at the Tokyo show was the remarkable build quality of the new vehicle. Soon though, the car’s detail to design and meticulous manufacture was discovered by admirers near and far.
The driving performance of Toyota’s new 2000GT impressed both reviewers and owners. Despite the modest 148 hp rating, Yamaha’s engine delivered smooth and consistent power. This was most apparent once the revs reached around 3,500 rpm. From there until around 7,000 rpm, the engine revs like a turbo and sounds smoother than silk, happily reaching 100 mph in third gear with two more still to go. The vehicle reached a top speed of 136 mph and was timed from 0-62 mph in 8.6 seconds.
Handling was considered quite predictable and precise while with crisp gear changes. Admirers stated that the 2000GT was a driver’s car with a combination of a beautiful balance of power and handling while the driver sits comfortably in a snug, exquisite “old school” environment while facing an exquisite Rosewood-finished dash and as dashboard seemingly designed by an aircraft engineer.
The 1967 Official Launch
In May 1967, Toyota launched the 2000GT into the domestic market. As a low-volume model, the vehicle boasted exotic materials and unheard-of specification levels. The car wasn’t assembled on the regular Toyota production line but was outsourced to Yamaha where the vehicles could be pieced together in small batches and carefully finished by hand.
However, the public found the 2000GT was no match for the competition. Even though both the Toyota and Datsun 240Z featured the same front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout, and the 2000GT was more luxurious, the Datsun was more oriented toward performance with 151 hp and 146 lb/ft of torque. The 240Z was also lighter than the 2000GT, at around 1,040kg, which meant it could reach 100km/h faster in about eight seconds although the Datsun’s top speed was lower, only managing to barely reach over 200km/h.
Toyota’s other arch-rival was also its inspiration, the Jaguar E-Type. The Jag had set the benchmark for the 1960s and was regarded as one of the most beautiful vehicles of all time. And Jaguar’s Series 1 featured a 4.2 liter 265 HP that could propel the car to reach 100km/h in seven seconds and attain a top speed of 240km/h.
Toyota’s 2000GT was also priced higher than the competition. The initial asking price of the 2000GT was $6,800, about $1,000 more than a Porsche 911 or Jaguar E-Type at the time, but actually more than likely less than what the car cost to produce.
Toyota had hoped to sell 1,000 of the 2000GT per month. Unfortunately, actual production was only 351 vehicles made over the entire four years of 1967-1970. “Badge snobbery” has also been credited with holding sales back. Even today, the name “Toyota” does not have the same panache as “Porsche” or “Jaguar”.
Production of the car ended in October 1970. Of the 351 vehicles that were built over the four years, 233 were MF10, 109 were MF10L and 9 were MF12. 337 vehicles were built as regular production cars with the remaining 72 vehicles constructed for racing or other purposes.
A total of 150 cars were exported to the word, with 62 of them shipped to the U.S. as left-hand drive vehicles.
How much is a Toyota 2000GT worth today?
The Toyota 2000GT has appreciated strongly in the last two decades. In 2006 at Le Mans, France, a classic 2000GT example sold for $225,998, approximately double what the previous vehicles were selling for. Prices headed north from thereafter, with a 2000GT being sold by RM Auctions for $1.16 million in 2013, making it the most expensive Asian car ever sold.
Prestige car makers are delighted when a high-profile movie director offers to use their vehicle in a new production. Such was the case when the James Bond movie, “You Only Live Twice,” starring Sean Connery, was beginning production in 1967.
Although Agent Bond would not be doing much driving in the film, the Producer, Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, had visited the Tokyo Auto Show in October 1965 and had seen the Toyota 2000GT prototype. He thought it would be the ideal car for Connery to drive in the movie.
In early 1966, Broccoli contacted Toyota. Once the company agreed to provide a vehicle for the movie, Broccoli decided the only way the new 2000GT would work in the movie would be as a roadster version to solve visibility issues. In addition, it was evident the burly 6′ 2″ Connery was too tall to fit in the low-slung sports car.
At the time, Toyota had only produced two prototype coupe versions of the car while regular series production wasn’t scheduled to begin until the following May. When Broccoli needed convertibles, the company built two roofless versions for the film in less than two weeks at Toyota’s special Toyopet Service Centre in Tsunashima. Both of the vehicles were painted white and had black upholstery with wire wheels. The cars had no side windows and were fitted only with tonneau covers and never intended to have functioning convertible roofs. This allowed the vehicles to retain the original car’s fastback profile.
One of the roadsters was used for filming in the movie while the other acted as a back-up. When the shooting was completed, the back-up version of the car stayed with Toyota in Japan. The regular film vehicle had been fitted with a variety of gadgets created by John Stears and his special-effects team at Pinewood Studios in England.
The movie, You Only Live Twice was produced for $9.5 million and premiered in June 1967 in London at the Leicester Square Odeon. It went on to take in $111 million in worldwide box office sales. When the movie was completed, the gadget-equipped vehicle mysteriously disappeared and has never been found. Meanwhile, the control panel fitted in the car turned up later on a recreation of the old ‘Cars of the Stars’ museum in Keswick, England.
The back-up vehicle was used by the company for promotional purposes and displayed in March 1967 at the Geneva Salon. The car was then re-painted blue with 007 decals. A second repaint followed in grey and the vehicle briefly was used as the Fuji Speedway course car before it turned up in Hawaii in 1977. Toyota discovered the vehicle, purchased it, and restored it to its original white color and it now is one of the main attractions at the Toyota factory museum.
Breaking Land speed and Endurance Records
After the Toyota 2000GT was shown at the 1965 Tokyo Motor Show and before the vehicle went into full production in 1966, a few (probably four) 2000GT’s were made. One of these was the Tokyo Show car while another was prepared for several world speed record attempts at the Yatabe test track.
Four of Toyota’s top drivers were selected to make the attempt. The company prepared making typical Japanese attention to detail and, during the following 72 hours, the 2000GT set sixteen land speed and endurance records. This was especially impressive considering that they had to contend with monsoon rain conditions that made driving and creating records much more difficult.
Unfortunately, the record-setting vehicle that set the records was destroyed in a pace car accident and scrapped. However, the achievements of the new vehicle prompted Porsche to build a 911R designed specifically to beat the records.
The company fielded two factory-prepared racers in the inaugural race at Fuji of the 1966 Japanese Grand Prix. In those days, the race attracted numerous sports cars including Porsches and purpose-built racing cars such as the Prince R380, which took first place. One of the 2000GTs retired early due to a technical problem but the other finished a very respectable third place in the race.
A month later, The 2000 GT took first and second places at the Suzuka 1000km race. This gave Toyota the encouragement to press on with its motorsport program. Three other victories were claimed during the 1967 season.
Toyota also entered a 2000GT in the 1967 Fuji 24 Hours endurance race and won first place in Japan’s equivalent to the 24 Hours Le Mans.
Success was crucial for the 2000GT in the U.S. so Toyota decided the vehicle should be entered in the SCCA racing competitions to demonstrate its ability to perform against potential rivals like the Porsche 911, Triumph 250, and Lotus Elan.
Shelby Prepares the 2000GT for the 1968 SCCA Season
Toyota desired to build an international racing pedigree and in particular the production class of the SCCA series, which was an ideal series for imported vehicles like Lexus, Alfa Romeo, and Porsche to display their cars.
Toyota approached Peter Brock, the original designer of the Daytona Cobra to prepare the cars, but at the last minute, the deal with Brock fell through and American legend Carroll Shelby, Brock’s former boss, was chosen instead.
Shelby entered a pair of 2000GTs in the 1968 SCCA production class category. Shelby was given two cars to turn into racing winners with drivers Scooter Patrick and Dave Jordan.
Shelby decided to prepare the vehicles by focusing on tires, suspension, and a new cylinder head. The bodies required very little work to bring the weight down, mostly by stripping soundproofing and insulation. Goodyear was asked to develop new low-profile tires for the car that brought the ride height down about 6cm and gave the vehicle a lower center of gravity to provide better handling characteristics.
In addition to wider tires, handling was also improved by the addition of Koni coil springs and shocks and new steel anti-roll bars.
The drivers praised the cars’ handling but blew up several of the Yamaha engines. Finally, with the reliability issues sorted out, the cars rolled onto the starting grid with a final output of around 200 bhp.
The Shelby Toyotas raced well against the class-leading Porsches run by Vasek Polak’s Racing Team. The 2000GTs, driven by Scooter Patrick and Dave Jordan, competed in the SCCA Production Class series in 1968. Although the Toyotas delivered less power than its main rival, the Porsche 911, the vehicles still were able to record several race victories. A Porsche took the overall title, but Patrick finished the season in second place while Jordan finished third.
Unfortunately, Toyota only sold 62 of the model 2000GTs during the year in the U.S. and the marketing benefits of the racing program were in doubt. Toyota decided to focus on the economy car market instead and the company pulled out of the championship series.
With the 2000GT failing to achieve the sales breakthrough Toyota sought for in the U.S. market, the company’s single-season of SCCA racing was over. Toyota focused instead on CanAm competition and developing the formidable Toyota 7 sports car instead.
One of the 2000GTs was returned to Toyota for display purposes in Japan. The other two were acquired by collectors Bob Tkacik and Peter Starr from Maine.
The Toyota 2000GT established the Toyota name as a capable and prestigious automobile manufacturer. The 2000GT’s importance influenced the design of some of Toyota’s most recent sports cars like the Supra and GT86.
The Toyota 2000GT will go down as one of the most legendary cars ever produced. It changed the world’s view about the Japanese motor industry, and it showed the Americans and the Europeans that they were serious about making the best vehicles possible. Toyota proved it meant business when it created the legendary 2000GT and deserves its rightful place as an iconic supercar.