(first posted 1/14/2016) When Toyota first cast a covetous eye on the lucrative U.S. market, they envisioned that their best bet for success would come from the biggest car in their line. The Crown, Toyota’s home market flagship at the time, seemed to be sized right for American’s notions of a small car. However, the first Crowns, sold as Toyopets, were flops and were quietly dropped for the U.S. in the early 1960s. However, Toyota being Toyota, they studied, refined and tried again. The next generation Crown was imported to the U.S. starting in 1965, and on paper at least, it seemed to offer a more compelling package. Road Test Magazine extensively chronicled the Crown, and their coverage of the car through the entire run of that generation provides some interesting insights into what worked, and what didn’t, with Toyota’s flagship car.
Though the second generation Crown began arriving in the U.S. in 1965, Road Test Magazine did not conduct a comprehensive test until its December 1966 issue, when the editors took a look at the wagon body style.
Part of the challenge the Crown would face was exemplified by Road Test attempting to define the competitive set for the car. Should it be viewed as an alternative to smaller, more expensive imports like Mercedes-Benz or Volvo? Or was the Crown an Asian alternative to compact domestics like the Rambler American? Road Test couldn’t quite pinpoint it, and neither could potential buyers.
By December 1966 the Corona was already driving a surge in sales for Toyota. Even though this article was about the Crown, the image of Toyotas being unloaded from a cargo ship featured a Corona. Well, at least the shot was accurate about which cars actually would have been coming off the boat in significant volume…
Like many successful fast-follower businesses, Toyota’s goal wasn’t to be a trailblazer in innovation. Rather, cost-effective results came from selecting existing leading-edge benchmarks and improving aspects of their design (lowering cost, improving quality, etc.). Deriving an OHC I6 from Mercedes-Benz best practices was certainly a good place to start.
Too bad Road Test’s editorial quality control was not up to Toyota’s standards of perfection: you are not seeing double, the last two sentences in the first paragraph on page 4 of the article (starting with “Rambler’s quality…”), are an exact repeat from the 6th paragraph on page 1.
Road Test briefly used these quirky “gauge” graphics for its comparison data. The Crown did acceptably well in “turning the dials” relative to competitors, though it wasn’t a standout in any one area. Other than the high product quality as noted in the article, there weren’t a lot of other reasons to get excited about this car.
Road Test took another look at the Crown in June 1967, this time concentrating on the sedan.
Though this second test appeared only about 6 months after the first, Toyota’s devotion to continuous improvement was becoming evident as the engine’s displacement was increased (from 2.0L to 2.3L) and disc brakes were added in front.
As with their December 1966 commentary, Road Test continued to be very impressed with the Crown’s build quality and its excellent value, particularly in the number of comfort and convenience features as standard at no extra cost. That philosophy of baking in high quality and thoughtful features at every price point certainly formed the cornerstone of Toyota’s success in the U.S., even if the Crown itself wasn’t the primary driver of those sales.
For 1968 the Crown sedan and wagon received a major freshening, with upgraded features and all-new styling inside an out. Road Test once again took a look at both cars in July 1968.
While significantly revamped in every way, the basic Crown formula was unchanged. It offered a cleanly styled, highly practical car with a comfortable ride, decent handling, good braking and nice balance between performance and fuel efficiency. Toyota’s high quality construction, quiet interior and plentiful standard features again impressed Road Test. As before with the Crown, the wagon then added extra versatility, as RT would attest.
It is comical today to read about the perception that kids sitting on the side-facing seat in the rear cargo area, without belts, might be protected in an accident by the spare tire, a deep foot well and a high seat back. Thankfully safety consciousness has come a long way since the late 1960s!
Sedan or wagon, Road Test was smitten. But buyers still were not. Unlike the Corona (or the just introduced Corolla) that competed at lower price points where they were significantly better than competitors for the same or less money, the Crown joined a sea of available cars in a more expensive bracket where the import and domestic choices were much more extensive. Also, as buyers moved upmarket and considered cars in pricier segments, their expectations for some form of perceived status increased as well.
Part of the problem for Toyota was that the Crown still looked an awful lot like the Rambler American. The boxy styling was pragmatic but boring, and had no cache. The Rambler was the quintessential square economy car for penny pinchers, and just not a great way to appeal to buyers looking for something “extra.” The Crown also cost $500 ($3,410 adjusted) more than the cheap car it resembled: with an automatic, 6-cylinder, power steering and power brakes, a Rambler 440 could be had for around $2,550 ($17,391).
Alternately, for buyers wanting a reverse status symbol with their box, 1968 offered the chance to get an all-new very square European import. Though the Volvo 144 was only a 4-cylinder but at $3,090 ($21,073 adjusted), it cost about the same money as the Crown. But in elite college towns and leafy East- and West-coast suburbs, these cars had more snob appeal than anything from Japan.
Of course in 1968, for many consumers in the many parts of the U.S., square little foreign cars simply did not equate with impressing the neighbors. Many of these buyers would rather have gone home with a swoopy new ’68 Special Deluxe sedan with automatic, 350 2V V8, power steering, power brakes and an AM radio, wheel covers and whitewalls for around $3,200 ($22,000), which was once again basically the same price as a Crown. The entry-level Special Deluxe was far larger and less economical, and conceivably not as well built or as well trimmed as the Toyota, but it was a new Buick, which at the time was still a potent symbol in the suburban status wars.
Road Test gave this generation of the Crown one last extensive drive in 1970.
By this time, Road Test begrudgingly had to admit that the Crown was a car without a market. RT’s editors noted that the Crown had sold in the “thousands” since its introduction to the U.S. However, that number paled in comparison to the number of like-sized but more expensive sedans sold by Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, and of course was a minuscule fraction of U.S. domestic compact and mid size sales over the same time period.
Also not helping the Crown for 1970 was the very dull facelift. The lack of styling confidence is an issue that plagues the company to this day. Toyota’s derivative styling can range from generically attractive to painfully boring, and until recently, no one would accuse the designers of deploying much in the way of uniqueness when crafting Toyota’s looks.
Now as Toyota tries to be more “unique, expressive and dramatic,” they’ve veered into tortured shapes and jarring angularity, as evidenced by the new Prius for example. More “original” without question, but “good” is debatable. The company desperately needs a great styling chief: witness the beautifully executed designs Hyundai/Kia has been able to produce since hiring Peter Schreyer from Audi.
While RT’s editors had to resort to praising yet again the Crown’s quality and overall high levels of finish and refinement, the market just yawned since the car was about as compelling as day-old oatmeal. Toyota would try to make the Crown “hipper” with a very American-looking restyle in 1971, but the changes seemingly impressed no one and the car was withdrawn from the U.S. market soon afterwards.
Toyota really wasn’t left with much of a gap in their U.S. lineup though, since by this time, the company had found an alternative to the Crown that worked far better: the Corona Mark II. Initially the old-time version of an Avalon (stretched Corona versus stretched Camry), it then morphed into the Cressida, which did decent volume in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Nor was the Crown the end of Toyota’s quest to sell a more premium car in the U.S. Naturally, with Toyota being Toyota, they plotted long-term strategy and studied markets to carefully determine when and how to go upmarket. Naturally that premium Toyota would have to offer outstanding quality and value, while finding a void in the marketplace that it was perfect suited to fill.
So just like the Corona and Corolla shook up the market for economy cars and changed the automotive landscape for good, Toyota’s Lexus Division disrupted and reshaped the luxury market. Perhaps you could argue that Toyota took the Crown after all.
In the midwest back in the day, I never saw a Japanese car of any make.
Only when I arrived at the Greyhound bus station in Marysville, California on a rainy night in November 1969 on my way to Beale AFB did I see my first Japanese car – a dark green Datsun pickup racing up and down 5th street!
I got an education in Japanese cars pretty quick after that, as there were lots of them even up in that area.
My experience with Japanese cars during those years was limited to a friend’s Toyota Corolla 2 door wagon and his family’s Toyotas. They seemed to run very well and put together OK, but many things about them, especially the interiors left much to be desired compared to American cars. I did like how economical they were compared to my average 16 mpg in my 1964 Chevy Impala SS convertible.
That side-facing rear seat in the Crown Wagon is a surprise since I grew up with Dual-Facing Rear Seats™.
The 2016 Prius looks like someone’s trying too hard to be distinctive. I’ll take bland instead.
They make an interesting point how there was no market in USA for this type of car. I can see why it was a hard sell. No power steering, no power brakes, no styling to speak of. An engine that better be as well made and quiet running as they say, because to will be over 4000 rpm at even modest highway speeds with a 4.88 drive ratio.that comes with the fake powerglide. They claim it is roomier than a Valiant, but with Japanese width and 35 inches of headroom even in front, I find that argument specious. The trunk looks far smaller than a Valiant as well.
The car I am sure had it’s charms, and there were starting to be buyers that only considered imports. It was perhaps too soon for such a mature persons car.
The width is one of the keys in the interior room, and it isn’t always reflected on paper. Certain mid-size vehicles under EPA category aren’t roomier than a compact vehicle, even though they may have a mid-size volume inside.
By compare, the legroom of Ford Crown Vic isn’t impressive but it still has a large roomy interior because it’s far wider than most current vehicles.
“no power brakes”
Page 28 of the final test for the 1970 model also mentions that power assistance for the brakes “isn’t needed or offered.”
And yet if you look at the underbonnet photo on page 28, plain as day on the left-side of this picture, bolted to a frame above the passenger-side wheelhouse, isn’t that a vacuum servo?
It’s a damn shame that the Toyota Crown never sold well here in the USA. I know the Corona sold here in the USA, the Land Cruiser sold well here in the USA. For some reason the Crown was never sold well in the USA. Perhaps Toyota should’ve offered the car with a 3.0 litre straight six engine, rather than a 2.6 litre six. That would’ve at least helped the car keep up with freeway traffic.
In the first report they claim the freedom from rattles and squeaks is due in part to unitary construction – but the Crown has a full chassis. Makes you wonder about their reports….
I caught this too. Combined with the editorial issues it does indeed make you wonder.
While the article brings up the cars attributes as a very space efficient compact (sub compact, really, the Chevy II had a 111 inch wheel base in 1968), and points out some comparison to deluxe trimmed mid-size cars, it really missed the big issue, this car sold at well equipped full size Chevy Impala and almost Caprice prices!
While your neighbors might admire your new air conditioned Caprice, the Crown, which looks like a cross between the mentioned Rambler and the final Studebaker, would have branded you as crazy in the suburbs where I lived.
There’s no question the full size Chevrolet was enormously popular in 1968–over 1.2 million were sold. For the people interested in a full size car, there’s absolutely no way they would have considered a Crown. Compared to the Impala, the Crown was over 2 feet shorter, on a wheelbase over a foot shorter, and the car was over a foot narrower. The only chance the Crown would have had to attract a domestic buyer would have been for someone wanting a less-than-full-size car. At the time the U.S. compacts were seen as inexpensive and basic, and the Crown was pricier than all of them. So that’s why I went U.S. mid size and picked the Special Deluxe.
As for pricing, I use J. Kelly Flory’s American Cars, 1960 – 1972 which lists base prices, standard equipment and prices for popular options. Using that as a guide, a lightly equipped Impala sedan (base V8 w/Powerglide, power brakes, power steering, AM radio, wheel covers and whitewalls) would have been $3,354. The Crown with automatic and AM would have been $2,945 (no power steering or brakes available, wheel covers and whitewalls standard)–the $409 delta would equal $2,789 in today’s dollars, so a pretty big jump. The gap with a Caprice is even bigger: (base V8 w/Turbo hydramatic, power brakes, power steering, AM radio, whitewalls) would have been $3,806. Plus most Caprices came optioned with things like vinyl roofs ($100) and AC ($384), so would have been over $4,000 and well out of the Crown’s price range.
The Mark II probably was also helped by its’ timing; it offered something distinctly more “American” than a Volvo in a size Detroit wasn’t interested in offering it in since the Nova and four-door Valiant/Dart were standing pat while the Maverick showed heavy cost-cutting over the Falcon; the midsizes adopted the new look but got really huge in the process. History repeated itself with the Lexus LS400 – Lincoln and Cadillac were distinctly sheepish about moving on from the Brougham Look while the Germans, having lobbied the gray market out of existence were holding on to their stagflation-era relative pricing.
I can see where they were trying to go with the new Prius and they came close, but I wonder why the front lights can’t be a single mass so that the fender’s leading edge can “float”. This would also get rid of a couple of jagged edges in the light clusters.
The MK2 is only marginally bigger than the regular Corona, they even could be had with the 4 banger 18R motor in the US according to my owners manual, mine had the 4M OHC 6 with auto and went really well with quite good handling though it would wheelspin on downshifts in the wet if you got carried away, left in drive on a light throttle it would start in 3rd gear I dont know if it should have as there was a home made link in the downshift control linkage, I learned from a neighbour and former owner he made the part after buying the car very cheap because that linkage had broken and a replacement couldnt be found, he was thrilled that 20 years later the cars was still going strong all I ever did was replace the rocker shaft and had the head serviced when the head gasket failed, it was a 27 year old car something going wrong wasnt a surprise and I got a good rocker shaft from the 73 MK2 Coupe I was given I had to piece an exhaust back together after it got snagged on some rocks out in the bush and I sportified the exhaust at the same time putting resonators in place of mufflers that didnt hurt it at all.
Interesting…the comparison to the Buick Special Deluxe.
My grandpa bought one new in 1969…and promptly sold to my parents as paint began to peel off the passenger side rear door due to a factory defect.
He replaced the Buick with a new….Corona. Which he loved.
This segment of the market was a difficult one to crack for importers … The British tried with the Triumph 2000 sedan (withdrawn in defeat after 1966) and the Rover 2000, 2000TC and 3500 – but those also disappeared after 1971.
Never seen this model with the American bumper nudge bar. Never saw a Crown back in the day just 120Y Sunny Datsuns from 72 on in the UK. Not much of a price differential but had a radio as standard and would start 1st crank from cold.
Steel was crap but so it was in the British makes ..Hillman/Chrysler. No family car lasted more than 5 years and 60000 miles. A 1000k put it in a Museum !
Interesting read. Give me a 1968 Crown de luxe Station Wagon.
A shame this car didn’t sell better, as it’s one of the more attractive Toyota designs from the era. This generation Crown looks very similar to the late-model Studebakers done by Brooks Stevens, even down to the hubcaps. Which I suppose is no coincidence, as it appears that the car was chasing the same luxury compact segment the Studebaker Cruiser targeted, with predictably similar results.
I didn’t read all of the comments. Do any or all of the Crown sedans remind anyone of the Audi 100LS?
Toyota, obviously, thought that this Crown’s styling was a big handicap as it’s successor went a bit wild in the (exterior) styling department.
This is one of those cars that I found to be fascinating but not compelling, I imagine most potential customers felt the same way. Price, for what you got really wasn’t all that bad.
BTW, that remark about RT’s editorial quality control could fit many of today’s car magazines.
Here’s another early Toyota from my childhood. My Dad’s cousin had a 68 Crown, and one of my Uncles drove one for a while, but that was probably the same car passed around.
I quite liked the styling on the Crown, maybe because our family had a blue Rambler American quite like the photo (actually we had twin Ramblers named Bluee and Brownee) so it was familiar.
My Uncle didn’t keep the Crown long, after having a flat tire all five wheel studs snapped off at the side of the road. I didn’t see another Crown for at least twenty years, in 1992 I was on a road trip on Vancouver Island and spotted one at a trail head parking lot.
I also like how R&T made mention of the double acting shock absorbers on the Crown. When was the last time a road car had single acting shocks??
I’ve never seen a Toyota Crown before. But I have read road test articles about all model years and was more than impressed with everything about the cars. It’s therefore unforgivable that the Crown was never a big seller. I’ve never understood why that was the case. I find it more attractive than anything produced today.
I’m sure this was discussed in other Toyota posts this week, but what extent did the tendency for middle-aged Americans to avoid buying anything made by workers they may have been shooting at only 25 years earlier have on slow sales?
MY ex-FIL flew on RUFF KNIGHTS, a B-24 in the Pacific and refused to buy anything other than a Dodge, and few of the ones he had which I saw flew worse than his old bomber. But he wasn’t into exporting his dollars to the Land of the Rising Sun.
My dad fought in Korea and maybe it’s just as well that Korean mfrs had crappy cars when he was buying Yodas. He was funny when renting a Hyundai Pony years ago, saying that he wouldn’t have bothered shooting at the thing back in-country, since it fell apart at a whim. Now he’s too content in his XTS for an Equus etc.
That’d be interesting to know. My own great uncle was the navigator of an Independence class aircraft carrier in WW2, and he drove British cars until the early 70s when his mechanic told him to please stop buying them.
He then took a chance on his former enemies and bought a Honda CVCC, and was a Honda guy for the rest of his long life.
Did not seem to bother my father too much as he sold a lot of BC lumber to Japan in the late 60s till he retired. And bought what we were told was the first Honda Accord sold in Victoria with the Hondamatic transmission for my mum. But the Canadian army did not have much of a roll in the Pacific theatre and he was deployed to Europe (Juno Beach, Netherlands, etc) so he never fought the Japanese.
My grandfather served with the Australian forces during WW2. After a diverse range of vehicles culminating with a Morris Marina, it was Japanese all the way with Datsun/Nissan products and Subarus as more of a hobby. A bit like his personality: very conservative but also a bit idiosyncratic.
My grandparents, on both sides, drove American cars, My mother’s parents drive Chevys and Buicks, while my father’s parents mostly drove Chevys and Fords. During and after WWII, neither of them would’ve chosen a Toyota or a Datsun as their cars of choice. That’d be like supporting the enemy. How we went from that to buying Toyotas, Nissan, Mazdas, Kias, and Hyundai, is beyond me. They may be good vehicles to drive, but so soon after WWII and Korea, that’d be like “What?! Why?!”
Toyota’s weakest link is most definitely the styling. I heard Pininfarina is for sale….
I really like these. But for some reason, America was just not ready to embrace an inexpensive foreign car as a “real car.” They were fine as “cute little sports cars” or “cheap cars” or “economy cars” but that was it.
I wonder if things would have turned out differently for the Crown if it had stayed in this market into 1974-75, which was about when fuel mileage started to matter and Toyota and Datsun started to get more traction in middle America. But that 1971 restyle did the Crown no favors.
Growing up here in NW Oregon in the ’70s, saw very few Crowns here. Mostly Corolla’s, Stout pickups, and FJ40 Land Cruisers. Four door Corona Mark II’s were popular too. Glad I had my 2 door Hardtop ’70 Mark II
Greetings from Spokane..I’m probably the only one here who owned one of these. Me and my mom bought a used 65 Crown wagon from a used car lot in 1979 for around $300.I remember it had a large displacement 4 banger, instead the six cylinder that came in the 66’s. It was roomy and not quite as deluxe as the later Crowns. The big problem was the availability of parts. The main reason we got rid of it was that 3 speed column shift linkage plastic bushing had worn out. We had the local Toyota specialist shop search the country to find them (no luck) and even had a local plastic fab house make them and they didn’t work. If I had enough sense at the time i should have put a J.C.Whitney 3 speed floor linkage.The shop gave us $50 for the thing and we ended up with 65 Valiant wagon.Yes, I have thing for compact wagons. This Crown was the only Japanese car we ever owned, yet I would love to have a 71 Crown. I really love that crazy front end.
The official import of Toyotas started in 1964 in my country. Importer Louwman & Parqui had to convince the Dutch of the brand’s qualities, so Amsterdam taxi drivers were asked to test-drive a new Toyota Crown. And if taxi drivers are content, then the product just has to be good !
Here’s that first Crown in 2014, celebrating the 50th anniversary of official Toyota import.
Interesting. But that Crown in the picture is from the 1970s. Maybe the one from 1964 didn’t actually survive?
Heck yes, it’s a 1971. Must be the oldest “original Dutch” example they could find that was in a superb condition…
It would have looked positively startling in 1964.
No ute in the US Crown line up, there was one for Aussie during the 60s Toyota tried to cover all the bases with sedans wagons and utes in Crown and Corona flavours. they seemed quite good cars though in NZ rust took most of them out very early in life people complained long and loud, Toyota apologized profusely and later admitted to using JDM panels for NZ assembly with no protection against rust, it didnt stop people buying them though and the brand was embraced here many local repair shop went to the wall because unlike the British Australian European and American cars Kiwis had been buying Toyotas didnt break down very often and for that alone people could tolerate rust, much later kiwi assembled Toyotas were fully galvanised and will probably be on the roads forever or close to it.
One of the sort of benefits of taking a high school auto mechanics class was that you occasionally could curry favor with a teacher now and then by working on their cars in class. One such teacher had one of the second gen Crowns, a 68 or 69, and I got to drive it from the teacher’s lot to the auto shop. I really liked the interior, but thought the car was way underpowered (don’t ask!). I would have been relatively happy driving one as it would have been way better than my POS car.
I’m surprised that they didn’t sell better.
Well, I’m still learning new things every day at age [redacted]. I didn’t know that anyone had ever done a wagon with a single sideways-oriented third seat (as opposed to the dual sideways seats in many Fords, which were contoured and belt-equipped for only one person per side, even though cramming four small kids back there was commonplace).
The wagon feature the Crown shared with the upscale Rambler Cross Country wagons of the mid-60’s was the rear gate that opened only door-style, rather than both ways as in Fords. Which leads to a question. I know that on Ford wagons in Australia, the “Magic Doorgate” opens door-style from the left instead of on the right as in the US. So, were JDM Crown wagons likewise mirror-image in back? In addition to having the gate swing open the other way, was the third seat on the other side of the car?
I like the latter two Toyota Crown models. I consider it a crying shame that it never sold well here in the USA. Would it have pleased everyone? Maybe, maybe not. But I think had the car been given But I’m more interested in quality and reliability than anything else. So it doesn’t look like a Chevy Nova, or a Buick Skylark, so what? I would’ve bought a Crown station wagon if I was old enough in 1970-71 to buy a car. The Crown looks somewhere between a Mercedes-Benz in the style dept. while also being like that of a Volvo 140 in that it’s practical, well-built, and safe. I’d buy one with an AM/FM radio, front disc brakes, and automatic gearbox. Most American cars in the early 1970s didn’t have disc brakes. I think a Toyota Crown would’ve been a great American family car, or possibly a great business car.
> “It is fairly safe to say that “Toyota” isn’t exactly a household word in the United States.”
That sure changed in a flash, as Road Test predicted.
If only we could go back and edit what we said and then hit “Post Comment”.
One of those S50 wagons lives in my neighbourhood – beautiful cars. Too bad they never sold well in the US (or in much of Europe, come to that), but they did well in Asia-Pacific markets for many years while Detroit’s increasingly unappealing and oversized offerings vacated those markets. You can’t please everyone…
Interesting to see they exported them with a floor shifter. JDM cars, both manual and auto, were overwhelmingly on the tree.
I actually like having the gear lever on the “tree”, rather than on the floor.
Road & Track tested a Crown around this time and gave it a fairly favorable review.