De ja vu?
Cheap and cheerful. That's a polite way of describing the really inexpensive cars being imported from China today. The cheerful part comes when owners compare notes of what breaks down in a short span of time. Twenty years ago, they said the same thing about cars from Korea, but not anymore.
75 years ago, the Toyoda family decided to shift their considerable engineering resources and financial muscle from making quality spinning and weaving looms to motor vehicles. Mobility for the masses and commerce, they correctly predicted, was the way to the future for an industrializing and economic superpower that was to be Japan.
48 years ago, after having honed its skills successfully serving the Japanese Domestic market, Toyota started to export to the most demanding car market in the world at that time, the USA. Toyota recognized that the Philippines, was also the first and the most discerning car market in the Far East so Toyota took the plunge and dared to export to the Philippines, a market crowded with established American brands and lots of small cars from Europe.
Family name at stake
But unlike the Chinese car makers today and the Korean car makers 20 years ago, Toyota made sure the quality of their export cars and more importantly, the export after sales service was up to scratch. They had to. Even if the Toyoda family owned only a small portion of the company's shares, success of the Toyota name had to be known and associated with quality.
Value for money was also mantra. This met, spot on, with the aspirations of the new, global and motorized middle class. Whatever the American cars had, the little Toyopet Corona of 1964 had them too, though at half the scale and a third of the weight. In response to Japan's limited energy resources, Japanese cars were also thrifty but high tech for its age. Four cylinder engines with hydraulic valve lifters. Light weight construction. No overheat air conditioning. Newfangled transistor push button seeking radio, popularized by Japan. White side wall tires. Vinyl seats. Chrome covered and matched the percentage area covered on a typical American car.
It was perfect for smooth urban streets and limited parking spaces. It could carry the typical young family and the typical Asian's physical dimensions of the era. It's size made it perfect for post war apartments and housing projects [Sampaloc and the Quirino era housing projects] that did not provide space for car ownership, though they looked out of scale in the ranch style houses of the upmarket subdivisions [Forbes Park]. Parked on a public street, Corona's did not block anyone's path. The Corona gave new meaning to easy to drive as the clutch, the steering and the shifting was light.
The demise of Land Rover
For the really bad roads out of the civilized areas and for genuinely rough commercial-agricultural applications, Toyota offered the Land Cruiser. It was as tough as a Land Rover or a post-war Willy's Jeep. It had a superior 6 cylinder power plant, the equal in torque delivery of the big V-8 truck-based American brand offerings. Mining and forestry companies were quick converts.
Two years later, Toyota took a stab at the mid-size market. As big as the passe fin tailed Mercedes Benz 200c, the Crown came with Toyoglide automatic transmission, a second air conditioner in the back, pilot lamps galore and a power antenna. It was soft and cushy like the American cars that it challenged without being as wide, a consequence of early Japanese market homologation regulations that limited the track width of motor vehicles in order to fit the outdated road system in space limited Japan.
Crown by several other names
After bracketing the upper segment, Toyota, in less than a year, introduced the Corolla, as the sub 1600cc car. The Corolla soon became the city commuter's car for the new suburban middle class. It came with reasonable space and thrift, a riposte to all those big cars occupying huge parking spaces in the new cities of Makati and New Frontier, Cubao.
Along with Japan's rising economic profile as the first tiger economy came a new sense of the global. After the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when Tokyo became the world's first city crisscrossed by multi-level elevated expressways, came the Toyota 2000GT. It was Toyota's first foray into the jet set lifestyle as it was part sports car with its long hood and part GT, with wind in your hair convertible top down. It made an impressive cameo appearance in the 1967 James Bond 007 film, “You only live twice”, which was filmed largely in Japan.
The late 60's and the early 70's saw a Philippine car market crowded with imported brands. But it was in this market place that Toyota's quality, reliability and keen price shone through. The PCMP local car manufacturing program of the 70's drastically limited Toyota's field of rivals. Considering the tax regulations then which favored localization over export quality, it was a miracle that the quality of locally produced Toyota's didn't dent Toyota's established reputation for quality and reliability.
Still, having an oligopoly of the local market, didn't make Toyota complacent in making the public secure in its established brand values. Toyota actively participated in motorsports. It harnessed the celebrity fire power of the Pocholo Ramirez-Dante Silverio duo to enhance its sporting image. Toyota was heavily involved in mass market sports, sponsoring a big league basket ball team and even introducing the “Macho machine” as basketball star Robert Jaworski's mean wheels. Toyota was also into culture as it bankrolled the symphony orchestra and countless green initiatives like reforestation and environmentally friendly factories.
By the mid-Seventies, Toyota introduced the versatile Hi-Ace commuter with twin sliding doors and air-conditioning. The Hi-ace ended the 15 year hegemony of the VW Kombi over the family van market. Later in 1978, Toyota's AUV, the Tamaraw was to push aside the Ford Fiera and outsell all the other AUVs - Harabas, Cimaron, Sakbayan, Pinoy – combined.
By now the Crown had already grown in size and prestige, but Toyota was quick to introduce a stylish intermediate model, the Cressida. The Cressida was to become the darling of the new breed of young executives in the burgeoning service sector, creating what would be called the executive car segment.
A brief hiatus and the renaissance
When the economy was felled by debt default and foreign exchange dried up in the early eighties, Toyota took a hiatus but emerged in 1989 with a triumvirate of three new models; the Corolla 16-valve, the Corona 16-valve and the Toyota Lite-Ace. This ushered in a new era of enhanced performance without sacrificing thrift for the humble 4-cylinder. Though imported previously in smaller numbers, Toyota reestablished the workhorse credentials of its Hi-Lux pick up. By the late 90s, the Camry arrived to take the place of the Cressida and the Corona, while the Crown soldiered on.
Toyota's next big model splash happened with the introduction of the IMV trio in 2005. The Fortuner became the darling of the SUV hugging class, while the Hi-Lux took on sales lead of the expanding LCV market. The Innova brought the AUV to a new level of refinement from the days of the Tamaraw and the Revo.
From crowns to Latin
Today, the Corolla has morphed into the Altis and has taken over the slot vacated by the Corona of 20 years ago. The Vios has taken on the role that the Corolla used to fill. The Avanza slotted in to take the place of the Lite Ace and the Tamaraw. The Camry is now as big as a Crown, as the Crown has moved out to leave room for a whole new family of luxury vehicles from Toyota's very own Lexus brand. The Land Cruiser has morphed into two luxury SUVs; the Land Cruiser and the Prado. The Hi-ace is now known as the Grandia while luxury aspirations are served by the Previa minivan and the Alphard luxury van. Today, the constantly upgraded IMV models – Innova, Fortuner, Hi-Lux – being the everycar for everyman, are top of the sales charts. The elite are not to be left out as even the exclusive Lexus-LF-A makes loyal fans of heritage brands, reconsider – and jump ship. Even the thinking individual and the rabid greenies can find happiness in the Prius family of hybrids.
Predicting the wants and desires of the future
All through the years, Toyota has maintained sales leadership by continuously predicting the wants and desires of car lovers, without sacrificing the reliability that Toyota quality imbues. Yes, there have been hiccups in North America, but the lessons learned there have been applied even for markets that didn't have quality problems. All in the interest of raising the goal posts of quality anywhere Toyota's are sold and owned. That makes them sure that what the market wants will always be served and since its a Toyota, they can expect it to be reliable. Whether Seventy Five or Forty Eight years after and endless triple crowns, Toyota is in its element, thriving in a market environment populated by scores of worthy competitors. Half a million units made in Santa Rosa thereafter, no wonder, they're sure.