Automotive History (Japan Edition): 1996 Toyota Classic – Peak Retro (Part 1)

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This past couple of months I’ve been really getting into Japanese cars. Not the usual fare, mind you, but the really odd ones that are not commonly seen unless you’re either in Japan or on another country with lax import restrictions or particularly shade importers (I’m in the latter category). So I thought about sharing some of the ones I’ve found particularly interesting. First up on the list are two retro-styled Toyotas that took the concept of “retro” and took it to its logical extreme. Let’s start with the ugliest of the two, shall we?

Those of you who read my contributions to CC (Thank you all very much, I appreciate your readership) will know that I am very much a fan of the retro craze that took the automotive world by storm in the ‘90s. It brought all manner of strange reinterpretations of concepts that had been confined to the pages of history, justified or otherwise. Most of these concepts seemed to go to cars you’d see in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but the Classic was looking back to the Genesis. The Genesis of Toyota at least.

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In 1936, after a year of refining and development, Toyota released their first ever production vehicle, the AA. Its design was very much a product of evolving automotive design and streamlining (Paul wrote a very comprehensive history of automotive aerodynamics that you can read here). You may also noticed it borrows heavily from the Chrysler Airflow. Toyota has made no qualms about that last bit either. The Toyota Automobile Museum has a 1934 DeSoto Airflow on permanent display with a plaque that says that “…The chassis and body design of the De Soto Airflow greatly influenced the development of the Toyoda Model AA.” It’s probably not the same Airflow purchased and disassembled by Kiichiro Toyoda for research while developing his concept.

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1,404 AA’s were sold from 1936 to 1943, all of them with a 3.9-liter straight six engine developing 62 horsepower and mated to a three-on-the-tree manual gearbox. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was from this small number of cars that the corporate giant we know today evolved. And 50 years later, in 1986, Toyota was gearing up to celebrate the anniversary of that historic vehicle. But they ran into a couple of problems.

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For starters, in 1986 there wasn’t a single surviving AA to be found. There weren’t even any complete plans of the thing. So the plan of using one for the ceremony ended up being an impossible task. From incomplete plans that were made at various stages of development, Toyota managed to build a replica that they believed was as close to the AA as you could get.

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So after all that trouble, of course, an original AA was found. In 2008 a single survivor was found in, of all places, Russia. To say that it has seen better days would be putting it mildly. Can you imagine the stories that this car could tell if it could speak? Currently it resides unrestored in a museum in the Netherlands.

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Our subject car was built a decade later than the AA replica to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Toyota. The classic was based out of the Hilux platform and was powered by a 2.0-liter four producing 84 horsepower and sending them to the rear wheels via a 4-speed automatic.

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Unfortunately, even as a fan of retro styling I find this car deeply unpleasant. It may be the fact that the grille is too small for its intended purpose or that the body is too ‘blobby’ for the design it’s trying to convey. I think mostly it’s the fact that the body is too wide for the chassis its built on and the wheel arches do nothing but emphasize that, to the point where the end result ends up looking like those weird Canada-only Narrow-track Pontiacs. It’s a compromised design, is what I’m trying to say. Really the best angle is watching it straight from the back, where it actually pulls of the retro design quite well

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The interior benefited from a wooden steering wheel, lashings of wood wherever they could nail it and leather seats. But it wouldn’t have made a lot of sense to produce an entire bespoke dashboard so those of us that have spent a lot of time inside a base-model Toyota Truck/SUV/Bus from the ‘90s will be instantly familiar with that dashboard.

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The Classic was never intended to be a big seller, only 100 models were sold for the equivalent of $75,000 in the middle of Japan’s lost decade. Somehow they all found buyers. Even so, I was able to find three of them for sale in a Japanese auction site with price ranging from twenty-three to thirty-seven thousand dollars. Rare doesn’t equal desirable, it seems. Even with all its problems though, I find the fact that Toyota went to all the trouble of designing and building a homage to their first vehicle extremely remarkable. And Toyota wouldn’t stop at the Classic for their retro kicks. Fortunately their second attempt at it was much prettier, better thought out and (to me at least) infinitely more desirable.