How Toyota went from a cotton weaver’s dream to global car sales dominance

Toyota 2000GT profile

Now a titan of global car manufacturing, Toyota has come a long way from humble beginnings. The company bested several hurdles throughout its stratospheric rise, from post-war struggles in Japan to anti-import sentiment in the U.S. in the 1960s.

It all started with Sakichi Toyoda, regarded today in Japan as a legendary inventor. Born 150 years ago, he made his name perfecting automatic weaving loom machinery. His dream, though, shared with son Kiichiro, was to build automobiles. Using proceeds from the sale of patents, the two spent five years developing a prototype car called the A1. Inspired by the Chrysler Airflow, this first sedan arrived in 1935 and employed a 3.4-liter inline-six engine.

That set Toyota on the path to become the automotive juggernaut it is today. Now celebrating sixty years in the United States, here’s a look back at some major milestones in the company’s history.

1935 Toyota A1 prototype
1935 Toyota G1 truck

1937 - Sakichi and Kiichiro found the The Toyota Motor Company, and mass production begins a year later. Rival Nissan also comes into play around this time. The switch to “Toyota” was done in part because the Japanese symbol requires eight brush strokes, a sign of good luck.

1938 - Toyota’s Just-in-Time system for maximizing efficiency while minimizing the investment needed for materials is implemented.

World War II - Car production ceases so Toyota can focus on building Imperial Army trucks.

1947 - Times are tough throughout Japan after the war, but Toyota secures loans that allow it to resume car production. The company makes a notable shift toward building Japan’s first small, fuel-efficient cars.

1950 - A order from the U.S. Army for 5000 vehicles needed for the Korean War effort proves to be a godsend. Taizo Ishida replaces Kiichiro Toyoda as the company’s president. The new boss’s focus on equipment investment gives Toyota an edge over Nissan in the next decade.

1958 Toyota Toyopet Crown
Toyota
1958 Toyota Toyopet Crown

1957 - Following exports to various Asian and South American countries and Mexico, Toyota witnesses the rising popularity of VW Beetles in the U.S. and turns its attention to our market. The two Toyopet Crowns exported to Los Angeles in August 1957 are the first Japanese cars sold here. By the end of the year, 287 Crowns and one Land Cruiser are sold from a reconfigured Rambler dealership. It proves a less-than-successful start; the cars lack the cooling capability, mechanical durability, and aesthetics necessary to compete against European importers doing business in the U.S.

1960 - Exports to the U.S. temporarily cease in December to give Toyota an opportunity to regroup and reassess. When sales resume in ’61, Toyota’s volume is less than half of Nissan’s.

1965 - Thanks to vastly improved quality and new products better suited to market conditions, Toyota wins the coveted Deming Application Prize, an award that recognizes improvements in quality control.

1966 - The company introduces the Corolla and completes its first proving grounds. The consistent success of the Corolla eventually makes it the world’s best-selling passenger car with more than 30 million sold to date in over 140 countries.

1967 - In collaboration with Yamaha, the highly collectible Toyota 2000GT, in essence a Japanese Jaguar E-Type, hits the market. Favorable reviews change how the world viewed Japanese cars in general, and Toyotas in particular.

1969 Toyota Corolla
Toyota
1969 Toyota Corolla

1972 - To skirt the U.S.’s chicken tax on imported pickup trucks, Toyota begins manufacturing beds for its successful Hilux in Long Beach, California.

1973 - The first oil embargo spikes interest in and demand for improved gas mileage and small, fuel-efficient Japanese cars and trucks.

1975 - Toyota surpasses VW to become the top-selling import car company in the U.S.

1984 - A Toyota-GM joint venture, New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) opens its factory in Fremont, California and commences production. After the blue-chip facility is closed and the partnership dissolves in 2010, Tesla Motors takes possession to begin building Model S electric cars.

1986 - Toyota tops 1 million U.S. sales, a first for any import brand.

1989 - The Lexus luxury brand is established. Within two years, its sales surpass both BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

1990 Lexus LS 400
1994 Lexus SC300 (Toyota)

1993 - Denied admission to the U.S. government’s Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, Toyota resolves to invent what became the Toyota Prius in Japan. Introduced to the U.S. market in 2000 shortly after the Honda Insight, Prius becomes a global phenomenon and the best-selling hybrid car line.

1997 - The Toyota Camry rises to become the best-selling automobile in the U.S.

2003 - The Scion brand is launched as an attempt to appeal to younger buyers. More than 1 million are sold but a lack of new products and financial constraints following the Great Recession leads Toyota to pull the plug on Scion in 2016.

2004 - Toyota initiates Hybrid Synergy Drive terminology, which was coined by GM during its partnership with Toyota, for the second-generation Prius.

2007 - As part of its celebrating 50 years of selling vehicles in the US, Toyota introduces the Tundra full-size pickup truck.

2008 - Toyota surpasses GM to become the world’s largest automaker, and leapfrogs Chevrolet to become the top car brand in the U.S.

2004 Toyota Prius
Toyota
2004 Toyota Prius

2009 - Reports of unintended acceleration in several Toyota models results in numerous lawsuits, recalls, and monumental fines over the ensuing two years.

2011 - Toyota’s U.S manufacturing base expands to a total of 14 plants in nine states.

2014 - Toyota announces the move of its headquarters from Torrance, California, to new facilities in Plano, Texas. Suspected reasons for the move amount to cost savings and to prune dead wood from the organization.

2015 - The Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell-powered sedan is introduced for sale in various markets including the U.S.

October 2017 - While passenger car sales are down, Toyota experiences a 15.5-percent gain in truck sales, lifting total volume 1.1 percent from the previous October. The RAV4 compact crossover is now the best-selling Toyota, topping even the new Camry sedan.