From some perspectives, the Toyota Crown was the car that paved the way for the great leap upwards into the Lexus brand. In hindsight, its existence seems pre-ordained but even by 1967, Toyota still hadn’t really figured out what it stood for. In today’s CC, I look at the origins of the model and discuss the significance of the S40 Toyota Crown.
US occupation personnel were taking advantage of their tax-exempt status and in that year alone had sold 12,503 newly imported cars into the Japanese market as second-hand vehicles.
In contrast, over the same period all the Japanese manufacturers combined sold 8,789 new cars.
1953 saw the release of what would become Toyota’s biggest selling car to date – The RH.
It wore a similar body to their preceding 4 cylinder SF model but had a larger engine. By 1955, 5,845 RH models would be produced, with a great many of them entering taxi fleets around Tokyo and the rest of Japan.
Under the hood of the RH was something new – the R engine; another 4 cylinder but larger at 1,453 cc and capable of producing 48 hp. Seen here at left with the R engine is the father of the Crown – Kenya Nakamura.
Nakamura was a singular individual. Not one for formal pleasantries, he was known to be a prickly and outspoken. Though an engineer, he would not wear a tie under his overalls as was tradition. Intensely loyal to Toyota, he was once demoted for accusing a board member of having ‘no dreams’ for the future of the company. Despite this, he put his ambitions on hold as he diligently helped Toyota focus on commercial vehicles to bolster the nation’s rebuilding.
Mindful that 80% of the US vehicle production consisted of passenger cars, behind Nakamura’s piercing blue eyes lay a vision of the future.
Others high up harboured similar ambitions for the company, including engineering executive directors Shoichi Saito and Eiji Toyoda – cousin of recently departed President Kiichiro Toyoda and friendly with Nakamura. With Kiichiro’s blessing (despite his no longer being in charge, he was still the son of the founder), a new passenger car initiative commenced; the RS model. Nakamura was chosen to lead the project.
The RS would be powered by the R engine developed for the RH. Unlike Toyota’s previous cars, though, the RS would not be built over a truck chassis. And instead of being bodied by an associated Japanese firm, it was to be shaped and skinned within Toyota.
By April 1952, four full-scale styling prototypes had been prepared for the RS programme.
Prototype No. 1 was based on the US ‘Henry J’ model.
Prototype No. 2 was based on the Cadillac.
Prototype No. 3 was based on the Nash.
And Prototype No. 4 was based on the British Ford Zephyr.
What emerged seems to have been the averaged estimation of those four prototype body styles, with some individual quirks thrown in for good measure. The 1955 RS Crown was built in a newly constructed production line facility with high speed presses. Underneath was the most sophisticated passenger car yet conceived by Japan. It featured a low floor thanks to a custom-made chassis. And up front was a particular preoccuation of Nakamura’s; independent suspension.
And yet this new model had no real market to sell into when it was launched. Domestic incomes could not afford such a large and luxurious mode of transport. The mini kei-cars were still years away, and anyone in the market for this sort of car would probably be inclined to buy a more prestigious import.
To hedge their bets, Toyota had a parallel program developed alongside the RS. It was known as the RR and was aimed at a quantifiable market; taxi fleets. It had a more rudimentary body and, with concerns about the durability of the RS’s independent front suspension, the RR had a solid front end.
It would form the basis of the commercially-focused Masterline models released the same year as the Crown.
In 1957, the Crown was sent to the US. That export programme was a disaster. While it’s one thing to borrow from their styling and engineering, Toyota was to discover that it was another thing entirely to compete with the most advanced automotive industry in the world on their own turf. Among other bugbears, the Crown was woefully underpowered (and underilluminated – note the missing headlights on the above examples) and as a result exports to the US had ceased by 1960.
It wasn’t all bad news from overseas. At the urging of the Japanese Consulate in Australia, Toyota entered a Crown in the 19 day 1957 Round Australia Reliability Trial. It scored 47th out of 52 finishers, a bit more acceptable when you consider 86 cars started the trial. And that this was Toyota first ever official entry in competitive driving. In a car that was pretty much off the showroom floor.
Despite initial misgivings about the front suspension, Toyota had come to the realisation that it was more than adequate for the domestic market. In 1957, the RR Masterline series was discontinued and replaced with the same platform and body as the RS Crown.
The first Crown lasted seven years in production and was updated through S20 and S30 series. Over time it received minor styling upgrades, a very slow-selling diesel engine, overdrive for the 3 speed column shift manual, an optional semi-automatic transmission and, most importantly, an enlarged 1,900 cc engine. Note the lettering on the hood – Toyopet. This was the marque name for used for smaller Toyota vehicles (as opposed to trucks).
The Masterline range continued to flourish. In addition to the sedan, Toyota now produced two pickup bodies, a van slash wagon and this extended wheelbase rarity.
The Crown, best considered a qualified success at this stage, had inherited an identity problem. The prestige passenger car for Toyota looked the same as the workaday variants.
And in truth, neither were very attractive.
1957 saw Toyota’s first showcar – the Proto. It was another sign of Toyota’s efforts to be seen as a progressive automobile manufacturer. Clearly derived from the 1955 Lincoln Futura, it was also a very clunky interpretation.
Despite the many Japanese carmakers who would seek direct input from European and American stylists in the 1960s, it had been a specific policy within Toyota that they would go it alone. In 1940 they had started to gather employees capable in ‘design and colour’ and by 1954 a dedicated Design Department was formed within Engineering. But it was recognised that a deeper understanding of automobile styling and design was required, and in 1958 Toyota started sending employees to art schools in the US and Italy to observe and learn at the source.
Future Corolla stylist Kazuo Morohoshi was one who benefited from this initiative. “The cars Japan produced prior to opening up and studying the market lacked the right proportions. For us, the essential thing was to understand what shape a car should have.”
It wasn’t all grand theory; during his sojourn in the US Morohoshi was exposed more broadly to the outside cultures he was required to design for, and along the way to come across crucial details such as the fact that pedals needed to accommodate larger western feet.
The fruits of this endeavour were soon visible. Despite rigid dimensional parameters, the 1960 Tiara (top left) and 1961 Publica (top right) production cars demonstrated a greater maturity in body styling. Though not exemplars of their types, the cleaner surfacing and crisper volumes were a step in the right direction.
The 1961 Toyopet-X, on the other hand, was purely for show.
The Toyopet-X was based on the Crown. And inspired by Pinin Farina.
Ok, maybe the term inspired is being used a bit loosely, but the ‘interpretation’ was far more accomplished than the 57 Proto or RS ‘Cadillac’. Though lacking in some of its detailing, it had the grace of the Fiat 1500 and Peugeot 404 Coupe (*dodges fusilade from Paul*). Thanks to a consummate understanding of proportioning on the part of its unnamed Toyota stylist, it was closer than both to the grandest iteration for this specific language – the 1959 Cadillac Starlight.
The shape received further refinement and was shown at the 1961 Tokyo Motor Show as the 1962 Toyopet-X.
The revised roofline borrowed more from the Starlight, but the face was uniquely Toyota. In fact those cats-ear turning signals actually predated a similar use on the Touring-bodied Sunbeam Venezia (although that’s not really something to be too proud of).
During the Belle Epoque in Paris, art students would be sent to the Louvre, told to set up a canvas and copy a work on display. It was one very effective way to learn for one’s self how the masters came to their expressions. In that context, the Toyopet-X was a success. Highly derivative of a masterpiece, yet positively inflected by the renderer’s own hand.
Not perfect, and certainly not to be credited in the absence of its inspiration, the learnings from the Toyopet-X would be instrumental in placing the Crown ahead of its peers.
In late 1962, the S40 Toyota Crown was released. The influence of the Toyopet-X is immediately apparent, but this was a shape more of itself. Longer, wider and lower than its predecessor, it was also up-to-the-minute in its flatter and more rectilinear styling – in the case of our feature CC helped no doubt by its being dropped on its suspension.
Though I’m not enamoured with this shape, I do have a lot of respect for it.
It was the first in a series of cars to emanate from Japan that would take the supreme proportioning of the fullsize US car and downscale it to sub-compact (in US terms) size. Something even the US was not as capable at for a very long time.
It was clearly a generation ahead of its domestic rivals.
The 30 series Nissan Cedric had been released in 1960, and this 1962 styling refresh from Pininfarina (in the front clip) was not enough to counteract the dated underlying language.
By the 1970s, the 230 and 330 series Cedrics would display the best application of this downscaled US proportioning, and were most certainly shown the way by the S40 Crown.
The 1962 Prince Gloria was ahead of the Cedric, but still looking backwards to the 1959 Buick Invicta.
The irony here is that the Michelotti-styled 1960 Prince Skyline Sports was the first Japanese car to work with the flat deck language. It was the car that would initiate the rush amongst the Japanese for European input, but Prince would not or could not (they were soon to be taken over by Nissan) transfer this language soon enough to the four door Gloria (and Skyline upon which the Gloria was based).
The 1961 Isuzu Bellel wore a very Austin-like body that was old the day it was born.
The other Japanese manufacturers had not yet been able to produce a car in the Crown category. Though the 1964 Mitsubishi Debonair was to occupy an emerging ‘super-prestige’ stratum, it still demonstrated that successfully styling a car upon outside influences was not a given – despite the fact that this was from the hand of Hans Bretzner, formerly of GM.
It was not a direct competitor with the Ford Cortina (probably closer to the Corsair), but this convenient juxtaposition demonstrates the success of the S40 Crown’s shaping. The body appears longer and shallower thanks to a new cruciform chassis sitting underneath.
The Cortina was released the same year as the S40, and although to some its a more pleasing shape, it too already appears dated against its contemporary. The same could be said for a host of other European cars of the time.
The notion of setting the headlights inside the grille was taken directly from the 1960 Ford Falcon, although the aperture shape was Toyota. This car would seem to have all four eyes focused on the US market.
The S40 was powered by the same R series 4 cylinder 88 hp engine as its predecessor. All models were coil sprung at the front, with premium models having a coil rear and lesser models on leaf springs. Brakes were drums all round. The 3sp with O/D was available with the 2sp Toyoglide optional – initially as a semi-automatic but by 1963 as a fully automatic.
Early versions of the S40 had these distinctive rear light clusters, known as ‘watery eyes’.
In late 1963, this cluster was changed along the lines shown above. Our CC is an Australian car, however, and I think those amber lenses might have been unique to our market. I’ve seen other images where the lenses are clear and referred to as reversing lamps, which makes me think the red lenses might have originally been used for braking as well as indicating turns – as was used occasionally in the US but outlawed here in Australia at that time.
This angle shows another curious aspect to the shaping. Despite the S40’s ‘flat deck’ language, the rear quarter panels seem to bear echoes of the 1961 Dodge reverse fin. Perhaps trying to give this shape some personality or simply trying to break up the expansive flatness or maybe both.
The wagon retained the clean flat deck look and was available with an extra row of seats folded under the rear floor.
The wagon was actually a part of the Masterline range, though it was marketed as a Crown in various territories. The commercially-orientated van was decontented and would sometimes feature bars across the side rear windows. Wikipedia lists the wagon as an inch narrower than the sedan, but I’m not sure if that’s because those measurements were taken from a model bereft of exterior side trim, or if the body was indeed narrower.
The sedan would appear on Tokyo streets as a taxi badged as a Crown, further blurring the distinction between prestige and utilitarian.
The pickup was an attractive member of the Masterline fleet, and a generously sized ute to boot. Note the lack of chrome ornamentation along its flanks.
The double cab pickup was the unicorn of the fleet, although it had appeared in the previous generation’s range, and would appear in the subsequent S50 lineup as well. Despite two rows of seats, it only provided ingress for the front row, which I can only assume folded forward in some way. Exactly who was buying these is hard to pin down. Dealers or purloiners of antiquities by the looks of this publicity image.
Though there were not yet any Crown coupes, a handsome convertible was presented at the 1963 Tokyo Show. It never entered production. This image from a Japanese film may well be the same car repainted.
In 1964, the Crown Eight was released. This was a JDM-only car made for the emerging though minuscule super-prestige category. Aimed at the top end of the corporate sector, it was to compete with fullsize US cars by leveraging national pride in Japan’s technological prowess. It was a super-sized Crown in all but height – six inches wider and five inches longer.
It was powered by Japan’s first production eight cylinder, a 113 hp 2.6 litre V8 and came with climate control, automatic headlamps, electrically powered windows, electric cruise control, a three-speed version of the Toyoglide automatic transmission and electromagnetic door latches.
The Crown Eight was proposed for the official car of the Japanese Imperial Family, however it lost out to Nissan and was eventually replaced in the Toyota range by the 1967 Century.
In all, a bewildering amount of Crown variants. And it was only to get more confusing; by the mid-1970s, there would be 63 different Crown models of varying body styles, trim levels and powertrain combinations.
July 1965 saw the only real update to the body style. Up front, the turning signals sitting in pods atop the bumpers were now integrated into the bumpers. At the rear, the light clusters were reshaped and the rear panel was recontoured.
November 1965 brought the introduction of a new 6 cylinder engine. Though marginally larger than the 1,900 cc four, the new M-series SOHC 1,995 cc straight six came in two levels of tune – a 105 hp and a 125 hp twin carburettor version. Sportier Crown models matched this new engine to a 4sp gearbox with floor-mounted lever, upgraded suspension, reclining bucket seats and a tachometer. These new M-engined Crowns were distinguished by a red badge set in the grille.
Though this was the same engine as would appear in the 2000GT, the sportscar’s DOHC version of the M-series put out 150 hp in road tune.
The Crown and 2000GT were to compete head to head in the 1967 James Bond film, ‘You Only Live Twice’. Soon after 007 fools no-one by pretending to be interested in purchasing a consignment of smoked salmon, he finds himself the focus of a particularly menacing black Crown. A white 2000GT appears, and it’s on.
The 2000GT simply cannot shake the M-engined four-passengered Crown and reinforcements are called in. An apt way to mark the end of the S40’s lifecycle.
At home, the S40 Crown was a success for Toyota, sustaining category market leadership against the Nissan Cedric – a mantle that was not to slip until 1970.
Overseas, things were not so positive.
As GN showed us yesterday, the re-introduction of the Crown to the US market met with a… chilly consumer reception.
In 1963, the Crown finally entered Europe. Erla Auto of Denmark brought in an initial batch of 190 cars, but it can’t have been an easy sell. While the Americans were enjoying the novelty of radically downsized cars, this was the norm in Europe and the Crown was up against some highly sophisticated competition.
In 1965 Australian Motor Industries established a Toyota franchise building CKD imports with a healthy modicum of local content. As with the US, the Corona would prove to be the arbiter of acceptance within this territory. The Crown was assembled here as well from February 1967, although our CC’s front bumper suggests it preceded this. Though the utility and wagon were also sold here, the S40 never really made its mark in Australia.
The assumption that prestige could be bought by low sticker price coupled with high accessorisation was inadequate. International consumers had initially flocked to the smaller Toyotas not as a preference, but as an incomparable value proposition. There was no way they would aspire to a higher Toyota in the way a Chevrolet owner looked to a Cadillac. In these westernised markets, the Crown serviced an almost non-existent sector.
The S40 may be have been a generation ahead of its compatriots at its inception, but by 1967 it was old news. Hampered primarily by its body-on-frame construction, it was to be completely overwhelmed by a host of comparably sized unitary-body European and Japanese models that were more focused on driving dynamics. And the concept of vehicular prestige would distance itself further and further from mere trinketry.
The S40 Crown was never intended as a performance saloon. Its one successful foray was in the 1963 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka where a four-cylinder piloted by Soukichi Shikiba came third overall and first in class.
Its place in the Toyota pecking order would eventually be supplanted by the slightly smaller but more capable Corona MkII/Cressida – perhaps the truer progenitor of the Lexus brand. In time, the Crown would be reduced to a range built only for taxi fleets.
After its failed attempt at emulating US cars, the 1968 S50 Crown would look to Europe, and more particularly Triumph, for its next identity crisis.
However obliquely, the S40 Crown can still be said to have played its part in the maturation of Toyota and its national competitors.
In 1967, the Japanese motor industry built 1,375,800 cars.