For 54 years, Toy­ota qui­etly got on with the job of build­ing the cars that Aus­tralia – and the Mid­dle East – needed, if not al­ways wanted

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents - WORDS BY­RON MATHIOUDAKIS

The mile­stones and misses from Aus­tralia’s ‘other’ car maker, span­ning 54 years

WITH Holden’s man­u­fac­tur­ing clo­sure tak­ing the lion’s share of pub­lic­ity in 2017, it is easy to over­look the im­por­tance of that other, fi­nal, man­u­fac­turer also pulling up stumps in this coun­try – un­less you’re one of the many thou­sands af­fected by the demise of the Aus­tralian car-build­ing in­dus­try, of course.

Yet our history with Toy­ota is ut­terly pro­found, the fledg­ling firm from Aichi not only hav­ing cho­sen us first for ex­ports, but also as the site for its first non-ja­panese fac­tory. Aus­tralia’s ex­alted place in Toy­ota’s history can­not be over­stated.

The year was 1963 and pro­duc­tion of the Tiara – an age­ing 1.5-litre Toy­ota com­pact car priced be­neath the cheap­est Holden – com­menced along­side var­i­ous strug­gling Triumph, Ram­bler and Mercedes-benz mod­els at the Aus­tralian Mo­tor In­dus­tries (AMI) plant in Port Mel­bourne. De­spite Aus­tralia’s post-war mis­giv­ings and Ja­pan’s rep­u­ta­tion at the time for shoddy prod­ucts, the plucky Tiara struck a chord.

En­cour­aged by such suc­cess, Toy­ota fast-tracked the lo­cal as­sem­bly of the suc­ceed­ing Corona just weeks after its home­mar­ket de­but in late 1964. With Pin­in­fa­rina-en­hanced lines, sales of the ‘shovel-nosed’ RT40 soared.

“(Corona) adds real strength to the Ja­panese in­va­sion,” Wheels re­marked in Fe­bru­ary 1965. Also in that is­sue, a Corona fin­ished equal first in a four-way against the Mor­ris 1100 (our reign­ing Car of the Year), Ford Cortina and Isuzu Bel­let.

A lo­cally as­sem­bled Crown joined the Corona soon after, the first of sev­eral un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts by Toy­ota at break­ing the Holden/ Fal­con/valiant nexus. How­ever, it was the Corona’s fiery kid brother, the KE10 Corolla of 1967, that ce­mented the brand’s rep­u­ta­tion.

By 1970, Toy­ota had eclipsed the de­clin­ing Austin/mor­ris and Volkswagen brands, and was locked in a see­saw­ing bat­tle with com­pa­triot Dat­sun for the num­ber four sales spot, be­hind Holden, Ford and Chrysler.

But prod­uct-wise, the com­pany be­gan to lose its way as the ner­vous ’70s wore on. Toy­ota in­creased its stake in AMI, yet the

bread-and-but­ter Corol­las, Coronas and Crowns it pro­duced well into the 1980s gained weight but rarely any real ad­vance­ment, fall­ing be­hind go-get­ters like Chrysler’s Sigma and the Ford Laser. Such con­ser­vatism alien­ated en­thu­si­asts as surely as it sat­is­fied fleet com­pany bot­tom lines, and at times it was up to the im­ported com­mer­cials – namely Land­cruiser (which built its rep­u­ta­tion on the Snowy Moun­tains Scheme in the late-50s) and Hilux – to keep sales buoy­ant.

For­tu­nately, as the 1980s pro­gressed, Toy­ota set its sights on con­quer­ing Europe and Amer­ica. A be­lated switch to front-wheel drive brought long-over­due en­gi­neer­ing and pack­ag­ing ben­e­fits, start­ing with the orig­i­nal im­ported Camry (1983) and con­sol­i­dated by the knock­out ST160 Cel­ica (1985). They were a dif­fer­ent, ex­cit­ing breed, lead­ing to leg­endary lo­cal Toy­otas like the AE82 Corolla Twin Cam (1986) and the se­cond-gen SV20 Camry (1987).

Aus­tralia’s switch to un­leaded petrol in 1986 opened the flood­gates for im­age boost­ers like the mid-en­gined MR2, join­ing other Toy­ota im­port hits such as the Cres­sida luxury sedan and Tarago peo­ple mover. The brand’s mar­ket­ing nous played its part, too, fi­nally cre­at­ing best-sell­ers out of Corolla and Camry in their re­spec­tive classes. In 1991, Toy­ota Oz achieved over­all mar­ket lead­er­ship, end­ing Ford’s reign.

But it was Toy­ota’s suc­cess in iden­ti­fy­ing the emerg­ing global ap­petite for life­style 4WDS that promptly changed the world. Spear­headed by RAV4, by the turn of the cen­tury SUV sales had van­quished the mid-sized seg­ment (still held by Camry). A decade later, once-invincible large sedans were in free-fall, and this year SUV sales sur­passed those of reg­u­lar pas­sen­ger cars for the first time.

Which makes Toy­ota’s late-90s de­ci­sion to have yet an­other crack at the Com­modore with the Us-mar­ket Avalon an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic blun­der, par­tic­u­larly as it was a dowdy 1995 de­sign ex­humed for Oz. No sur­prise to learn that sales ran to only a frac­tion of Toy­ota’s fore­casts. In­ter­est­ingly, Avalon pro­duc­tion usurped Corolla (which ended in 1999) at Al­tona – an­other strate­gic fail in light of the com­ing surge in small-car de­mand.

What did keep the Aussie plant hum­ming were the huge ex­ports to the Mid­dle East, snar­ing more than two thirds of Camry pro­duc­tion. In 2013 the mil­lionth Camry left Mel­bourne’s docks, mak­ing it Aus­tralia’s most suc­cess­ful au­to­mo­tive ex­port of all time.

Toy­ota did give the large-sedan Holy Grail a fi­nal go with the Au­rion (in 2006), and nearly suc­ceeded, but buyer pref­er­ences were shift­ing in­ex­orably to­wards smaller cars and SUVS and 4x4s. Luck­ily for TMCA, that’s ex­actly what the im­ported Yaris, Corolla, Prius, RAV4, Kluger, Prado, Land­cruiser and Hilux col­lec­tively cov­ered. And still do.

For Al­tona, the prob­lem was that the staid lo­cal pro­duce was no match for tastier im­ported cui­sine. Fleets ac­counted for the vast pro­por­tion of Camry/au­rion sales vol­ume. And de­spite post­ing a profit of $335 mil­lion over the past two years, the de­ci­sion to pull the pro­duc­tion plug on Al­tona was only a mat­ter of time. And eco­nom­ics.

It came on 10 Fe­bru­ary, 2014. The global com­pany pres­i­dent and great grand­son of Toy­ota founder in at­ten­dance, Akio Toy­oda, re­minded the press of Toy­ota’s deep ties with us.

“It is most re­gret­ful for Toy­ota, and for me, per­son­ally, sim­ply heart­break­ing,” he said qui­etly. “Since 1963, Aus­tralia and Toy­ota built cars to­gether for 50 years. That rep­re­sents two thirds of Toy­ota’s 75 year history.”

The fi­nal Camry rolls off the Al­tona pro­duc­tion line on 3 Oc­to­ber, 2017. Oh what a sad­ness.


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