ORI­ENT EX­PRES­SION

Al­most overnight, the beau­ti­ful Toy­ota 2000GT shred­ded the dull, con­ser­va­tive rep­u­ta­tion of Ja­panese cars. We drive a rare sur­vivor fresh from a £150k restora­tion

Classic Cars (UK) - - Toyota 2000GT Driven - Words IVAN OSTROFF Pho­tog­ra­phy GUS GRE­GORY

I’m about to drive a Toy­ota 2000GT for the first time – so I’m hav­ing a slow walk around this pretty lit­tle ma­chine just to take it all in. Ini­tial im­pres­sions are that its di­men­sions are al­most toy­like, but in fact it’s only four inches shorter than a four-door Ford Cortina MKII of the same pe­riod. The 2000GT’S im­pres­sive at­ten­tion to de­tail and prac­ti­cal­ity of de­sign is in­stantly no­tice­able. Take, for ex­am­ple, how the battery is so clev­erly hid­den be­hind an ac­cess panel on the left front wing, while the air fil­ter lives be­hind a match­ing panel on the right. It was all pack­aged to keep the bon­net pro­file and cen­tre of grav­ity as low as pos­si­ble. It’s a job well done – the Toy­ota is only 5.7in taller than Ford’s all-con­quer­ing sports-racer of the same era, the GT40. As I walk around ad­mir­ing the sen­su­ous flow of those de­li­ciously cur­va­ceous wings I’m re­minded of the old adage, ‘ If it looks right, it is right.’ In pro­file, the Toy­ota 2000GT’S el­e­gant lines sug­gest a cross­breed be­tween a Jaguar E-type and a Coke bot­tle. Note those dainty re­tractable head­lamps that en­sure the sweep of the front wings goes unim­peded as the con­tours rise and fall over the whee­larches. Some­what typ­i­cal of Ja­panese cars of this era, cer­tain de­tails are charm­ingly over the top. Ob­serve, for ex­am­ple, the con­vo­luted front grille graphic, or walk around the rear end and be­hold the over­sized over­rid­ers and chromed light clus­ters. From this an­gle, its Six­ties Ja­panese roots be­come more ap­par­ent.

Grasp­ing the ele­gantly sculpted han­dle, I open the driver’s door and shoe­horn my­self into a cock­pit that is, in a word, snug. Pre­dom­i­nantly de­signed for the Ja­panese mar­ket, the 2000GT is not par­tic­u­larly re­cep­tive to lanky Western­ers – but at a mere five-foot-seven, I have plenty of room. In fact, the driv­ing po­si­tion suits me per­fectly (though six-foot­ers would cer­tainly strug­gle) and the seat feels com­fort­able and re­as­sur­ingly sup­port­ive. I’ll feel con­fi­dent when cor­ner­ing hard.

The in­te­rior is ex­cep­tion­ally well ap­pointed; there are even in­di­vid­ual cigar lighters and ash­trays in both doors. The po­si­tion of the three­spoke wood-rimmed steer­ing wheel is just per­fect, as is the stubby gear­lever’s pol­ished wooden knob. Clearly the re­sult of col­lab­o­ra­tor Yamaha’s ex­per­tise in pianos, the oh-so-six­ties rose­wood ve­neer dash­board gives an air of class and af­flu­ence, while at the same time ap­pear­ing highly busi­ness-like with its full range of clearly marked Jeco in­stru­ments mon­i­tor­ing all things me­chan­i­cal.

The 9000rpm tachome­ter and 160mph speedome­ter oc­cupy prime real es­tate in front of the driver, with five smaller gauges (for fuel level, oil pres­sure, oil tem­per­a­ture, wa­ter tem­per­a­ture and cur­rent) in the cen­tre of the dash. The match­ing clock and time-elapsed in­stru­ment sit side by side be­neath the orig­i­nal self-seek­ing ra­dio. The 2000GT wouldn’t meet to­day’s ba­sic er­gonomic ex­pec­ta­tions, but the gauges are eas­ily read­able and cover es­sen­tial me­chan­i­cal and elec­tri­cal hap­pen­ings, while the switches are per­fectly ac­ces­si­ble. The seats are trimmed in a high-qual­ity vinyl that con­vinc­ingly em­u­lates black hide.

I twist the key and lis­ten to the 2.0-litre straight-six mo­tor crank­ing con­fi­dently into life. It starts in­stantly and ticks over smoothly. Al­though these cars were born with three twin-barrel Solex car­bu­ret­tors, this ex­am­ple is one of many fit­ted with triple We­ber 40DCOES (as used by the com­pe­ti­tion vari­ants in pe­riod), and I can hear all three tak­ing in great gulps of the crisp morn­ing air.

The bot­tom end of the 2000GT’S en­gine was taken from the Toy­ota Crown sa­loon, but its so­phis­ti­cated dou­ble over­head camshaft cylin­der head was a spe­cially devel­oped piece of Yamaha craft­work. While the mo­tor set­tles it­self down and warms through, I no­tice the um­brel­latype hand­brake that pro­trudes from the dash; ex­tended out next to my left knee it looks a tad strange, but once I squeeze the grip and al­low the shaft to with­draw hor­i­zon­tally into the or­nate rose­wood panel as it re­leases its di­rect grip on the rear discs, it ren­ders it­self un­no­ticed.

With the en­gine now warmed and idling smoothly, I slide the gear­lever for­ward into first, re­lease the clutch and feel it en­gage seam­lessly as we pull away. As I shift up through the gears gen­tly, it quickly be­comes ap­par­ent this en­gine em­braces revs – there’s not much ac­tiv­ity be­low 4000rpm.

As the road opens out I be­gin to ex­per­i­ment. Hav­ing ac­cepted that this en­gine hardly abounds in torque, I’m lov­ing the way it sings and comes alive as the revs climb past 4500rpm and on to­wards 6000rpm – es­sen­tially the ex­act op­po­site of the 1.8-litre four-pot in an MGB GT, or the pushrod-six in a 2.0-litre Tri­umph GT6 of the same vin­tage. Sim­i­lar dis­place­ments they may be, but such cars were oth­er­wise worlds apart. With its beau­ti­fully en­gi­neered be­spoke cylin­der head and a tight, pre­cise five-speed syn­chro­mesh gear­box, the Toy­ota was cer­tainly more so­phis­ti­cated me­chan­i­cally, and the high level of in­te­rior trim con­firmed it as a rather more up­mar­ket propo­si­tion. But it’s only fair to point out that an MGB was about a third of the price of the Toy­ota.

‘It beck­ons revs, the triple We­bers tak­ing in great gulps of crisp morn­ing air’

Un­der ac­cel­er­a­tion up a long hill in third gear, the ex­haust note is a deep, bark­ing rasp. The Toy­ota beck­ons revs, and the box-sec­tion back­bone chas­sis (sim­i­lar to a Lo­tus Elan) is well up to the per­for­mance on tap. Now set­tled in fifth and cruis­ing at around 70mph there’s hardly any me­chan­i­cal noise, so I no­tice how lit­tle wind noise there is ei­ther. The coilover tele­scopic-damper sus­pen­sion is set up to de­liver a firm but comfy ride all the way up to the le­gal limit and beyond.

How­ever, coun­try B-roads are where the 2000GT shines bright­est. As fast as you would want to be mo­tor­ing legally the front end will hold grip through any given cor­ner, and the all-round disc brakes knock down the speed con­fi­dently. As I push hard on the cen­tre pedal ap­proach­ing a bend while si­mul­ta­ne­ously slip­ping the wooden-topped gear­lever into sec­ond, I note how agree­ably the ped­als are placed for blip­ping the throt­tle through down­changes while brak­ing.

Be­cause of the lack of torque you need to keep the straight-six buzzing, but once you’re through the 4000rpm bar­rier, it gets up on cam and you en­ter a new zone. As the tachome­ter spins around to­wards 5000rpm, I hear the three big sid­e­draught We­bers suck­ing for all they’re worth. Brake, drop down through the silky-smooth box into third, then ac­cel­er­ate out of a bend… the ex­haust note be­comes a deep, ad­dic­tive growl and I sense the back hun­ker down as the rear coil springs take up their load. The braver I get, the more fun the 2000GT seems to be­come. With ini­tial un­der­steer mor­ph­ing into very pre­dictable over­steer as I get on the power all four wheels will slide while the car stays per­fectly bal­anced at all times.

Best to avoid lairy tail-slides on a pub­lic road… but go­ing into the next cor­ner I try not to turn the wheel so much and get a bit braver with the throt­tle. The lit­tle Toy­ota loves it and re­ally comes alive; the turn-in is sharp and pre­cise with bags of front-end grip, while the light, di­rect steer­ing de­liv­ers just the right amount of feel. There is rel­a­tively lit­tle roll and when the in­de­pen­dently sprung rear end does even­tu­ally let go, a quick flick of the wheel brings ev­ery­thing safely back in line. I can feel those grippy 165x15 Pirellis cop­ing well via the feed­back through the wheel, and I know that the chas­sis is do­ing its job via the seat of my pants. A rare beauty it may be, but this is also a proper driver’s car.

The more I drive this car the more I’m en­joy­ing it, per­haps be­cause I’m not re­stricted by the com­pact­ness of the 2000GT’S in­te­rior as oth­ers would be. But its road to pro­duc­tion was not quite so di­rect.

When Toy­ota first re­vealed the 2000GT at the 1967 Tokyo Mo­tor Show, adorned with fash­ion model Twiggy, it sin­gle-hand­edly trans­formed the world view of the Ja­panese mo­tor in­dus­try. Be­fore then, Ja­pan had been known for prac­ti­cal but dull sa­loons. This cur­va­ceous, el­e­gant fast­back showed that Toy­ota, and in­deed the Ja­panese car in­dus­try, could pro­duce an ex­cit­ing sports coupé – one ca­pa­ble of tak­ing on the best Europe could of­fer. At the time, Road &

Track mag­a­zine de­clared it prefer­able to the Porsche 911 in many ar­eas. The orig­i­nal con­cept for a new GT was styled by Al­brecht von Go­ertz (of BMW 507 fame) when he was work­ing for Yamaha in the early Six­ties. Cu­ri­ously, it was ini­tially en­vi­sioned as a re­place­ment for the Nis­san Fair­lady. How­ever, af­ter see­ing the pro­to­type, Nis­san opted not to pro­ceed – so Yamaha of­fered it to Toy­ota. The Toy­ota man­age­ment had al­ready seen a sport­ing GT as an op­por­tu­nity to re­ju­ve­nate the com­pany’s staid im­age, and had its own team of de­sign­ers and en­gi­neers cre­ate the 2000GT us­ing Yamaha’s fa­cil­i­ties. The styling was honed by Toy­ota’s Sa­toru Nozaki – the de­gree to which is a point of con­tention – and Yamaha’s col­lab­o­ra­tion in­cluded build­ing the cars.

‘All four wheels will slide while the car stays per­fectly bal­anced

Due to high-tech fea­tures such as the in­de­pen­dent all-round sus­pen­sion and mag­ne­sium al­loys wheels, the Toy­ota 2000GT was an ex­pen­sive propo­si­tion at a cost of $6800 (ap­prox­i­mately £2700) – par­tic­u­larly when com­pared to the cheaper Jaguar E-type or Porsche 911 it sought to tempt Western buy­ers away from. Fur­ther­more, low pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity at Yamaha’s fac­tory – and Ja­pan’s lack of post-war ex­port ex­pe­ri­ence – meant the 2000GT was only prop­erly ex­posed to the do­mes­tic mar­ket, which at that time was sim­ply un­aware of the plea­sures to be de­rived from driv­ing a sports car of this cal­i­bre.

Ul­ti­mately only 337 road cars were built be­tween 1967 and 1970. Con­sid­er­ing the Dat­sun 240Z that that ar­rived in 1969 was a tremen­dous world­wide suc­cess (al­beit at half the price), per­haps the Toy­ota 2000GT was just that lit­tle bit ahead of its time. Sad, as such a de­light­ful lit­tle coupé re­ally should have been a greater suc­cess.

Most peo­ple re­mem­ber the 2000GT for its ap­pear­ance in the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice, which fea­tured a pur­pose-built road­ster vari­ant. The orig­i­nal plan was to use a stan­dard coupé in the film but its diminu­tive pro­por­tions meant that the 6ft 2in Mr Con­nery was sized out of the car. Un­will­ing to give up this heaven-sent mar­ket­ing op­por­tu­nity, Toy­ota agreed to be­head a pair of coupés, fit­ting faux ton­neau cov­ers so that they ap­peared as fully devel­oped con­vert­ibles. Sadly, an open ver­sion was never pro­duced for the gen­eral mar­ket.

The 2000GT’S rar­ity means it’s in­her­ently dif­fi­cult to find one for sale, and the cult re­gard with which they’re held in Ja­pan makes it even more dif­fi­cult to ex­tract them from their home­land. Owner Jane Weitz­mann and her late hus­band Henry bought this 2000GT in 2007 from Ja­pan. ‘We had agreed to buy one through an in­ter­me­di­ary,’ she ex­plains, ‘but even though we had sent the money for the car, the guy changed his mind be­cause he didn’t want to see it leave the coun­try.

‘We had to start all over again and find an­other. We’ve not been able to trace the his­tory of this car in any great de­tail, but we know that it was in Aus­tralia for some time be­fore re­turn­ing to Ja­pan. Lit­tle else has tran­spired since, but we were de­lighted to get hold of it nev­er­the­less.’

When the car ar­rived in UK the new own­ers were re­lieved to find it was just as they’d ex­pected – rea­son­ably sound, and need­ing only light restora­tion. The shell was in good or­der but the sills needed re­plac­ing. How­ever, the sense of re­lief soon turned to de­spair. The com­pany Jane en­listed to re­store the car left it ex­posed to the el­e­ments for a pro­longed pe­riod, caus­ing sig­nif­i­cant ( and frus­trat­ingly pre­ventable) dam­age. When she dis­cov­ered this it was trans­ferred to Cheshire Clas­sic Cars, where it un­der­went a bare-metal re­spray. Only the mo­tor was left un­touched, other than be­ing re­moved for the en­gine bay to be re­painted.

CCC re­built all sus­pen­sion com­po­nents and got the car run­ning. It also re-made var­i­ous chrome parts and body fit­tings, such as the es­cutcheons that shield the bon­net hinges, the E-shaped mould­ing that makes up the front grille and the C-shaped parts on each side of the grille. All these were made from scratch in brass, and then chrome­plated. Many of the orig­i­nal de­cals that adorn var­i­ous spa­ces within the en­gine com­part­ment were copied from a sec­ond 2000GT that the com­pany was work­ing on si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

Al­though the car had cov­ered 69,000 miles, the in­te­rior needed lit­tle at­ten­tion. The rose­wood ve­neer dash­board was re­fur­bished, the seats were re­trimmed and the de­crepit front mats were re­placed. For­tu­nately, CCC man­aged to lo­cate some orig­i­nal car­pet ma­te­rial and was then able to have per­fect sub­sti­tutes made up. About £150,000 was spent be­fore it was re­turned to the road but then the cylin­der head gas­ket failed, so it was re­turned for the head to be skimmed and the valve guides re­newed.

In pe­riod, the 2000GT was claimed to be the first Ja­panese car with all-round power-as­sisted disc brakes. It set sev­eral FIA world records for speed and en­durance over 72 hours and en­joyed some rac­ing suc­cess. It placed third in the 1966 Ja­panese Grand Prix at Fuji, claimed a one-two at the 1966 Suzuka 1000km (in­ci­den­tally Ja­pan’s first true en­durance race), and won the Fuji 24-hour race in 1967. Car­roll Shelby even ran two Toy­ota 2000GTS in the 1968 SCCA pro­duc­tion car races.

In 2013 it be­came the first Ja­panese road car to sur­pass $1m at auc­tion and, al­though val­ues have cooled off a lit­tle more re­cently, you’ll still have to pay up­wards of £400,000 – and that’s if you can find one.

Some re­ferred to Sa­toru Nozaki’s de­sign as a poor man’s E-type – ironic con­sid­er­ing the Toy­ota was more ex­pen­sive. But the Toy­ota 2000GT was not only a fine-look­ing ma­chine, but also a pleas­ant-han­dling driver’s car in its own right.

I’m de­lighted to have found that out for my­self at last.

We­ber car­bu­ret­tors were stan­dard-fit items on the com­pe­ti­tion 2000GTS

E-type in­spi­ra­tion is clear, but from this an­gle there’s a whiff of Corvette C3 too

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