Curbside Classic: The Japanese Retro Trial (3rd Witness) – 1996 Toyota Classic

(first posted 11/12/2017)            M’luds, I trust the Mitsuoka Viewt we heard yesterday gave the CCourt much food for thought. Today, your lordships may require a post-prandial Alka-Seltzer as we consider our third and final witness, the 1996 Toyota Classic. If it please the CCourt, I will provide a modicum of context prior to calling the witness to the stand, after which I will sum up and deliver my closing arguments as regards this case.

The Toyota Classic is was unique case in the Japanese retro craze of an extremely limited production vehicle (100 units made) that celebrated the Toyota company’s 60 years in the carmaking business by re-creating the company’s first model, the Toyoda AA.

The AA was the first Toyota car model (bottom left); the company went by “Toyoda” at the time. After an initial prototype made in 1935, series production was launched in 1937 with a four-door saloon. The car was clearly influenced by the groundbreaking Airflow, launched in 1934 by Chrysler. Toyoda imported a DeSoto-branded Airflow (top left) circa late 1934 and studied it closely. They were not alone in doing this: much as the Airflow got a lot of stick in the US for its controversial styling, it was admired in Europe and was awarded prizes. Peugeot (top right) and Volvo (bottom right) took a shine to the Chrysler shape and copied it, though their efforts managed to eschew some of the Airflow’s flaws: the Volvo Carioca’s shorter shape and better-designed front gave it a finer stance, while the Peugeot’s grille-mounted headlamps and lack of running boards made a lot of sense.

Toyoda’s Airflow somehow managed to look worse than the original by copying its faults and adding some unfortunate traits of its own, such as the free-standing headlamps, which really go against the aerodynamic philosophy behind the Chrysler design. The Toyoda also stood quite tall on its separate (and narrower) chassis. The AA was a decent enough car in its day, bought and used mostly by Japanese officials in their sphere of influence, which in those days included Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria. The Japanese Army used AB phaetons as staff cars, their ‘20s-style canvas tops looking rather out of kilter with the rest of the car’s AA-derived body. Both the AA and AB used Toyoda’s A-series engine, a 3.4 litre 6-cyl. design producing 65 hp that was a reverse-engineered Chevrolet engine.

Production probably reached about 1400 units in eight years (plus about 350 phaetons); by 1943, Toyoda had cars in their range, such as the prototype B luxury model (above) and smaller EA saloon. A revised version of the AA was launched as the Toyoda AC – all quite moot, as private automobile sales were banned from January 1939 and no cars were made in 1944-45. After the war, few looked back at the origins of Toyota’s car line – the AA was forgotten, and not a single one was preserved by its maker.

The reconstituted Toyoda AA made in 1986 — Source: wikicommons.


This proved a problem when Toyota wanted to celebrate their 50th year as an automaker in 1986. Unable to locate a single AA, they resorted to using photographs and whatever institutional memory was left to re-create the car as a centerpiece of their anniversary celebration. This was not a retro styling exercise though – it was as close to the original AA as Toyota could muster.

One Toyoda AA survivor was finally found in the Russian Far East in 2008. It remains unrestored.


Ten years on and Toyota were faced with an identical issue. But this was now the ‘90s, and retro was now a thing in Japan. So to celebrate their 60th year of automobile production, Toyota decided to do something nobody else had done: proposing a hand-built retro-style version of their first car for limited sale. We can now proceed, m’luds, to our final witness. I call to the stand our final witness.

– Please state your make, model and year of manufacture for the record.

– Toyota Classic, 1996.

– Toyota-san, what kind of chassis and engine are you employing?

– My chassis had to come from the Toyota range, for obvious cost reasons. It’s from the fifth generation HiAce, a solid RWD frame and I am powered by a trusted 2-litre 4-cyl. engine.

– Pretty far from the original 6-cyl. of the AA, then. A tad undignified, I daresay. But redesigning a ‘30s body over that chassis would have made the car impossible to homologate, let alone offer for purchase. In what ways do you differ from your illustrious ancestor?

– There are countless little differences, but only a few key main ones. For instance, windows needed to be larger, rear suicide doors became standard front-hinged affairs and traficators were now out of the question.

– You might also point out that some of the most egregious changes were made inside.

– Well, a lot has improved since the AA’s heyday, not least dashboard design and safety features. Toyota tried to squeeze as much wood veneer and red leather as possible into my cabin, a lot more than the AA ever got. I even received a lovely wood-rimmed sports steering wheel, when my esteemed ancestor had to make do with a truck-like bakelite affair.

– I put it to you that these off-colour diversions can be seen as one of the worst faux-pas committed by Toyota, which can be explained by your outlandish US$75,000 retail price.

– Anybody who would shell out this kind of money in 1996 would probably expect the interior to have wood and leather galore. I’m an exclusive automobile.

– What about your paint scheme? As far as this CCourt can make out, all Toyota Classics came with a black-over-purple two-tone paint job that may have looked good on the Citroën 2CV Charleston, as we can see on this file photo, but looked rather out of place on a wannabe pre-war saloon.

– Harsh but fair. I would venture to aver that the 2CV Charleston’s two-tone looks rather nifty, so there would be worse examples to emulate.  

– Hardly worthy of an “exclusive automobile”, though, is it not? And similarities between you and the 2CV are not limited to colour choice, either: you seem to share a similar bulging bonnet and snail-like headlamp combo – this works better on a cheap Citroën than it does on a super-exclusive Toyota, does it not?

– Please, I didn’t come here to be insulted!

– Are you so sure about that?

– Let us take a look at one of your least flattering angles. With your higher roofline, you seem like a hunchback version of the car you tried to emulate. The AA’s somewhat sleeker lines were lost in translation.

– I will readily admit that this photo is rather atrocious. Plus my cheap badge, at the centre of the faux spare cover, has faded so much over the past two decades that it is close to illegible.

– It seems Toyota were too cheap to shell out for chrome script – such a shame on so expensive a car. Would you describe you bulging beltline as “love handles” or “muffin top”?

– Neither. I’m tall and Rubenesque.

– What about your body’s proportions vis-à-vis the HiAce chassis you are sitting on?

– My wheels look a bit too small and lost within my fenders, not unlike certain ‘50s American cars…  

– Minus the charm. And while we are on the subject, what could one say about those wheels, other than “What were they smoking?” It’s difficult to picture a car where these would look good, but perhaps they would not have looked so out of place on some Buicks of the Roger Smith era. The thin whitewalls are also bone-stock, and equally plum-wrong.

– Yes, I’ll admit to being guilty of being somewhat shoddily shod. These little things would have been relatively easy to get right, but that was unfortunately not the case. Black tyres and dog-dish hubcaps might have suited me better.

– Do you have anything to say in your defence?

– Yes. Despite everything you have piled on me, I still have an air of exclusivity. The quality of my custom bodywork, even on such an unkempt example as myself (I mostly live outdoors) has held up. Some detailing, such as my bumpers, boot or grille, is an outstanding display of craftsmanship from Kanto Auto Works, Toyota’s specialist car division. I was hand-made by the same people who make the Century, and that should count for something.

– Be that as it may, it was a wise move of Toyota’s to limit your production to 100 units. That way, despite your obvious shortcomings, they were sure to sell the entire batch.

– Well, I doubt there was a profit motive behind the exercise. But I paved the way for the other exclusive “Retroyota” saloon of the ‘90s, the Crown RS-like Origin. It was more of a success, with over 1000 made, but this was at the behest of exclusivity and cachet, in my considered opinion.

– Saying you have more cachet than the Origin is not unlike comparing the size of one vertically challenged person relative to his or her kin.

– Sorry, you lost me.

– It’s like being the tallest dwarf.

– Oh. That smarts.

– Thank you, Toyota-san, you may step down.

M’luds, the CCourt has been presented with three examples of Japanese retro-style cars, from the humble and popular Daihatsu Mira Gino, to the wacky Mitsuoka Viewt and, finally, the exclusive yet pointless exercise that was the Toyota Classic. Two cars (Daihatsu and Mitsuoka) were self-confessed homages to classic ‘60s British designs. Two cars (Daihatsu and Toyota) were made by a major automaker and are out of production. Two cars (Mitsuoka and Toyota) are rarely sighted even in their country of origin and were made to be exclusive. All three are representative of the retro craze that swept through Japan in the ‘90s and has yet to abate completely.

From the New Beetle and the Jaguar S-Type to the present-day Dodge Challenger and the last Ford Thunderbird, retro has crept into many a European and American automaker’s range, though these were all self-referential, like the Toyota Classic. But nobody pushed things quite as far as the Japanese, as I’m sure the CCourt will agree. I trust the CCourt will recognize that all Japanese automakers, without exception, are to be found guilty of being excessively obsessed with chrome bumpers, round headlamps and fake grilles. Having downed two Valiums with a triple scotch, the prosecution rests.


Related post:

Automotive History (Japan Edition): 1996 Toyota Classic – Peak Retro (Part 1), by Gerardo Solis