I… just… cannot. No, this one is just too out there for me. Hard to believe this came out 20 years ago, though. It seems like it either crawled out of the late 1950s, or is a concept for a Chinese EV set to be launched in the mid-2020s. But no, Toyota made those from January 2000 to December 2001. Must be that Millennium Bug they were talking about back then.
The story behind Toyota’s “WiLL” range has been told already, so I won’t bother re-hashing what Paul, David Saunders and Jim Brophy have already told us about the WiLL Vi. The context of this car’s birth might partially explain why, oh why Toyota made this oddity. But I’d rather look at some other examples of this car’s most salient feature – the reverse-canted rear window, which some Japanese websites refer to as a “cliff cut” design (love that expression!).
There aren’t too many production cars with this quirk. Ford were a major proponent of the idea and used it on several occasions, most notably with the 1958-60 Continental (including the convertibles (!), though the standard Lincolns were exempted), some 1961-66 Mercurys, the 1959-66 Ford Anglia and the 1961-63 Consul Classic.
Another infamous cliff cut is the 1961-69 Citroën Ami 6 saloon. Perhaps less known then in the West, Mazda also used this feature on their rear-engined 1962-70 Carol. And let’s throw in the South African GSM Dart (1958-62) in there as well, just to be on the safe side. If we count the three-wheelers as cars (unlike the British taxman), then we might add the 1962-73 Reliant Regal 3/25, the 1961-65 Bond Minicar G and the AC Invacar.
But if we dig a little deeper into one-offs and other oddities, there are a few more. It seems the whole fad started with Dick Teague’s design of the 1953 Packard Balboa-X, though the gunslit-like rear window kind of buried the feature somewhat. From there, Ford designers Elwood Engel and John Najjar took it to the next level on the 1956 Lincoln Diplomat show car (top right), foreshadowing the 1958 Continental Mark III. Packard weren’t to be outdone and responded the same year with the Predictor (bottom right). Ford re-emphasized the reverse rake on their La Galaxie, presented at the Chicago Auto Show in January 1958 – by that point, thankfully, there was no-one to answer back.
Which is not to say that others weren’t experimenting with the cliff cut concept: Standard-Triumph were very busy working on their new large car in the late ’50s (code-name “Zebu,” top left), which included a reverse backlight for a while, until they learned that Ford UK were about to ace them out with the Anglia. It made no sense to run as a copycat, so they ditched the idea. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, it seems FSO were keen to try this out on their ageing Warsawa saloon, too. I have no idea when this happened exactly, but it could be an early prototype of the 223 notchback, which came out in 1964. Citroën’s first attempt at a mid-range saloon, the C60, also had a cliff cut, which designer Flaminio Bertoni liked so much he recycled it on the Ami 6. And it seems Subaru were also toying with the idea, as seen with this 1963 FWD prototype. The epidemic was widespread.
The contagion had spread to Europe by way of Italian one-off specials. Just after Packard had set the stage, Vignale made a particularly odd Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn for a New Jersey client that had a more clear-cut Z shape to its greenhouse (the car, not the client… although…). Ghia’s Sergio Sartorelli penned a peculiar Fiat 1200 coupé with an upturned backlight that was exhibited at the 1957 Turin Motor Show; Savio used a Fiat 1500 base for his effort in 1960. Michelotti, who had had a hand in the Triumph prototype mentioned above, gave it another go on an Alfa Romeo Dauphine (as in a Renault, but made in Milan) that had a specially modified DOHC 1-litre engine by Conrero. Tom Tjaarda, working at PininFarina, designed at least two versions of the Chevrolet Corvette “Rondine” – one with a panoramic rear window, and one without. Finally, PininFarina made one last attempt at the cliff cut with the 1975 Alfa Romeo Eagle.
And so things remained, for the good of humanity, for decades. The reverse-raked backlight had come and gone in about 20 years, peaking circa 1960. There were plenty of sports cars with “tunnelback” designs, which may or may not be slanted in reverse, but those are somewhat different. Then, out of the blue, Toyota decided to revisit the idea and out popped the WiLL Vi. The world was aghast. People ran amok. It was utterly afoul. But at least, the car was only supposed to be sold on the JDM.
It seems a few have escaped their country of birth, as happens with most cars after a few years. However, the sight of these WiLLs must have given foreigners the willies, as no other carmaker has taken to re-introducing the cliff cut since. The car’s other notable design features, such as the three-groove motif and the semi-circular body shape (possibly inspired by the Voisin Aérodyne or the Citroën 2CV) have also failed to catch on.
I didn’t manage to take a photo of the interior, so here’s a brochure excerpt instead. The weirdness continues with a column shifter (these were only sold with automatic transmission) that looks like it came straight out of the ‘50s and a central instrument binnacle that looks a bit too small and very crowded. Overall, this is another one of those toy-like interiors that plagued many small cars of that era, like the Renault Twingo or the VW New Beetle. I don’t know why a car should cater to the pre-pubescent market, but apparently some have a fetish for this kind of cutesy stuff. To each their own.
I don’t know how many of these were made, but it seems the WiLL Vi’s market performance didn’t meet Toyota’s expectations. They’re certainly not common nowadays, but it seems some folks have taken to them – it takes a certain amount of determination to keep a 20-year-old car on the road here. At ¥1,300,000 a pop back then, they weren’t cheap: the mechanically identical and easier to resell Toyota Vitz cost ¥875,000. No points for guessing as to why sales fell off a cliff in this case. Production ceased in December 2001; the WiLL Cypha, which replaced the WiLL Vi as Toyota’s weirdo compact, only arrived in late 2002. But that’s a whole nother post. As for this one, well, let’s just cut to the cliff.
Junkyard: 2000 (Toyota) WiLL Vi – Less Known Retro Oddity, by David Saunders