Toyota Before World War II

The birth of the automative industry in Japan

With more than 40 million cars produce, the Toyota Corolla is the bestselling car in history. Yet until the mid- 1960s, this car had a bad reputation and wasn’t selling well, even in Japan. The Toyota story symbolizes the Japanese perseverance and the technological progress of that country during the twentieth century.

The Japanese car industry took shape in the early 1920s; its beginnings were modest, only a handful of craft firms were trying to manufacture and sell vehicles adapted to the needs of the Japanese.

Sakichi Toyoda was born in 1867 while Japan was preparing its opening to the world. At the outset, this carpenter made his own looms and used them in the spinning mill that he had launched. Toyoda is above all an inventor and a perfectionist. The company is soon recognized for the quality of its products and orders pour in. In 1898, Toyoda creates his own steam driven looms that turn out much cheaper than the looms imported from Europe.

In 1910, the Japanese businessman decides to visit the United States; this event will change his life and have a deep impact on is company. For two years the Ford Model T is produced in series and Sakichi Toyoda is fascinated by the US methods. He soon develops a passion for cars, a passion he will transmit to his son. But Toyoda must focus on the textile industry for now. The Japanese road network is non-existent and the few thousands of cars traveling across the country are of foreign origin. Toyoda dies in 1930, but his son succeeds him at the head of the company. The opportunity to turn the old dream of his father into reality will soon be there.

The Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 destroys the national railroad system. The Japanese government is forced to order trucks and buses from the United States, so much that Ford and General Motors set up some assembly plants in Japan. The few handmade cars produced locally cannot compete with foreign vehicles produced in series. But in 1931 the Japanese government implements protectionist measures to promote the emerging local industry, including Nissan and Mitsubishi. Kichiro Toyoda sees an opportunity and decides to implement an automotive department within his company. But the Japanese have no experience in this field. After two years of effort, the first car, the type A, is clearly inspired by the Chrysler Airflow. The engine, a 6-cylinder inline engine of 3.4 liters seems to trace its architecture from the block Chevrolet.

Upper Left: toyota AE 1939

Upper Right: An assembly line prior to wwII

bottom: A reconstitution of the first model AA, Toyota museum
<i>Left:</i>A reconstitution of the first model AA plus an assembly line prior to wwII

This early car of 65 p has a top speed of 100 km/h or 62 mph. But the road network is so poor in Japan that faster cars are useless. But in parallel with the sedan, Toyoda develops a light truck (G1) which looks like de model A with a reinforced chassis. This truck makes a strong impression during the Tokyo exposition in August.

The G1 truck, 1935
The G1 truck, 1935

Kichiro Toyoda gets from the Ministry of Trade the permission to produce vehicles - Japan being a very interventionist state -. A new plant is commissioned in Koromo and becomes operational in 1938. Twenty copies of the G1 truck are assembled in 1935, but the poor quality of Japanese steel often causes breakage of the rear bridges. Moreover, there is no network of dealers for the new vehicle. It is the Chevrolet local dealers who will offer first model 'Sedan' AA . In 1936 the name of the company is changed from Toyoda to Toyota. Indeed, the ideogram used to write this modified name is more aesthetic and sounds better. It takes eight pen strokes to write it, a number appreciated greatly by the Japanese as it represents prosperity. In 1936, several variants of the G1 truck and the A car are offered, among them the GA which is sold slightly cheaper than its American competitors. The quality of vehicles is improved gradually as the Japanese develop their own expertise. The number of produced vehicles jumps from 20 in 1935 to 1,142 the following year. With the new Koromo plant, Kishiro Toyoda hopes to produce up to 2,000 vehicles per day in less than two years. But the war waged by Japan in Manchuria sees his dreams crumble. The government asks Toyota to focus on commercial vehicles. 12,000 units are assembled in 1939, among them only 100 cars.

The Toyota model AC, 1943
The Toyota model AC, 1943

But while the threat of a world war is looming, the Koromo site has to be expanded quickly to honor the military orders. But the plant does not produce at full capacity due to the shortage of raw materials, including steel and coal. After December 1941, the company virtually stops making cars and all other vehicles are delivered to the army or the Japanese administration. After the defeat of Midway in July 1942, oil is increasingly rare. The workshops, which were already running at a slow pace, are bombed by the allies. In 1944 however, a modernized prototype of the AC is built; it looks very much like the 1942 Chevrolet .

Year Production
1936 1,142
1937 4,013
1938 4,615
1939 11,981
1940 14,787
1941 14,611
1942 16,302
1943 9,827
1944 12,720

Table: Total production of all types of Toyota vehicles
by year, 1936-1944