(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.