Vintage Review: 1961 Toyopet Tiara — From Small Things, Big Things One Day Come

Tiara 1
Japanese cars were certainly “foreign” to Americans in the early 1960s.  Worlds different than domestic cars of the era, it was hard to know whether to take the few Japanese imports seriously, or not.  It was easy to overlook the tiny number of Japanese cars being imported to the US in those years, and the cars themselves were more likely to be considered competition for Volkswagens or Renaults rather than Fords and Chevys.  Road & Track tested a Toyopet Tiara in 1960 — only its 3rd Road Test of a Japanese vehicle, and found the car a significant improvement from the previous two it tested just a few years earlier.

With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to draw comparisons with Japanese cars offered a decade or two later.  The article mentioned “first rate” outside finish and a functional, orderly interior.  Also noted was that consumer perceptions of Japanese-made products may be improving due to world-class cameras and other equipment then coming from Japan.  Could world-class cars be far behind?

Tiara 2
Details matter, and R&T noted that the Toyopet had the “best automotive ash tray,” due to its location high on the dashboard.  Other details proved well conceived as well – both comfort and mechanical features – leading to a relatively pleasant driving experience.

Tiara 3
The road test – positive, but not overly enthusiastic – concluded with a prophetic statement:

“The Tiara is, by far, the best automotive design to come from Japan
and is an indication of a determined plan
to capture a share of the world automotive market.”

However, the Tiara itself was a sales flop, selling fewer than 1,000 US units.  It simply did not connect with the American car-buying public, even those inclined towards imported cars.  But the Tiara’s historical relevance is not that it failed, but rather how Toyota learned from that failure.  Toyota stopped Tiara imports, regrouped, and then re-entered the US market a few years later with the Corona (ditching the Toyopet name, too).  The Corona compensated for Tiara’s shortcomings; it was quicker, more American-looking, and available with both an automatic transmission and air conditioning.  From that point on, Toyota was on the path to success.

The Tiara can be considered an embryonic Toyota; it’s fascinating to study this review with the benefit of hindsight.  But even the most visionary auto enthusiast from 1961 would never have dreamed that 3 decades later, the Tiara’s parent company would virtually command many important market segments and would then introduce a revolutionary luxury car.  Even giants start out small.