Historiography: Crowning Glory
Perhaps a look back at how Toyota’s flagship impacted the market back in Japan and to understand why it never came back to our market until now.
In 1972, the last Toyota Crown was sold in North America. It was part of a legacy that began when the first Toyopet Crown arrived on our shores in 1958. It was at the point when Toyota did not need a large sedan to compete in this market, where the Corona and the Mark II fill those spaces quite nicely.
In fact, Toyota was on the rise with the Corolla, Celica, and Corona proving their worth in the face of an impending fuel crisis that would provide more opportunity for the Japanese automaker. Perhaps supplanting the Crown with the Mark II in North America might have been the right move.
In light of the unveiling of the new generation Crown and its return to the North American lineup, perhaps a look back at how Toyota’s flagship impacted the market back in Japan and to understand why it never came back to our market until now.
The first Toyopet Crown was introduced in 1955. It would be the launching point for Toyota to get Japan back in the automobile. It was small enough to be driven on most roads within the country. They also touted its space for families. The Master model was sold as a taxi – a role the Crown would play for decades. It was also sold as a police vehicle, as well.
The latter point was to be contended upon its entry into the USA market in 1958. It was about the same size as most European imports and had about the same space as a Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle. Yet, they were built with thicker steel than the average American car and were equipped with a set of features to exceed those of the average budget class vehicle.
The first thirty Crowns showed up at Hollywood Toyota in Los Angeles. They were first shipped without their originally equipped headlamps, as they were inadequate for use on American roads. After arriving at the Port of Long Beach, Toyota installed General Electric headlamp units that shone brighter and met industry standards.
The first years of the Crown were pretty tough on Toyota on this side of the Pacific Ocean. While developed for rougher roads in Japan, they were too slow for American roads. Its 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine was at par with the Renault Dauphine of the era. While the Crown was more upright compared to the French rear-engine car, it relied on a basic front-engine, rear-drive format and a manual gearbox to meet with other imports, while being outshined by its American contemporaries – including the new compacts of the 1960s.
Yet, there was some engineering tricks that Toyota employed on those first generation Crowns. The front suspension was a double-wishbone and coil spring affair. You can option out your Crown with whitewall tires and even an AM radio. Engine upgrades were made over time, including a 1.9-liter engine that was introduced in 1961. The next year saw the introduction of a two-speed Toyoglide automatic transmission for the Crown. The 1.5-liter engine was installed into a new smaller model, the 1961 Tiara – the forerunner of the Corolla.
There were some drawbacks on the original Toyopet Crowns. Because it used heavier steel, it was overall a heavier car compared to similar models by the Europeans. In fact, it weighed less than a 1,000 pounds more than a Volkswagen Beetle. While rigid in construction, the Crown was flawed by stability, noise, and vibration issues that were deemed unacceptable to American consumers.
However, sales did not materialize as Toyota hoped. By 1963, they sold 2,240 Crowns in this country. In turn, the company lost $1.42 million on this initial venture of bringing the Crown to this country.
All is not lost at Toyota. They knew that in order to sell more vehicles and turn a profit, they needed the right opportunity with the right vehicle. The first generation Crown might not be it, but one could see this as a try towards a first effort to do so.
What does Toyota need to compete with not only the Americans, but with the Europeans? Volkswagen was running the gamut among foreign manufacturers in North America. British Motor Corporation – MG, Austin, and Morris in particular – also ruled the import market with an eye on the West Germans and their air-cooled, rear-engine lineup. Everyone else had established dealer networks, but also had trouble selling their wares as easily as Volkswagen and BMC. Even Fiat and Renault were trying to make huge strides in a market locked up by General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and American Motors. Even Studebaker sold more than most of the import brands before they finally folded in 1966.
In the aftermath of the Crown, Toyota concentrated on selling the Land Cruiser in competition with the Jeep CJ, Nissan/Datsun Patrol, Land Rover Series IIA, and International Scout. However, the venerable SUV would be rejoined by a second-generation Crown in time for the 1965 model year. By then, you now had four Toyotas to choose from, including the new Stout pickup truck and the Tiara subcompact sedan.
The second-generation Crown was powered by a new 2.0-liter in-line six-cylinder engine, found on both a sedan and a station wagon. This generation of Crown was originally introduced for the 1964 model year in Japan. It featured a styling trend that helped modernize automotive design in the 1960s – it was more upright with squarish elements. In all, it gave the Crown a taste of elegance for not only Japanese customers, but for global audiences also.
This was the first generation of the Toyota Crown that was exported to Europe. It is a significant move for Toyota to present a modern executive sedan to compete with a mix of equally modern models and some dowagers among its British and European rivals. After all, the Crown became the car preferred by government and business back in its home market of Japan. It definitely looked the part, even with the introduction of the more luxurious and exclusive Century sedan in Japan.
By 1967, Toyota’s North American lineup has been firmed up. The new Corolla replaced the Tiara, and the Corona would slot in-between it and the Crown. In fact, it would be the Corona that would take the lead in North American sales, even with a cult following for the Land Cruiser keeping Toyota dealers in business in the mid-to-late 1960s.
For 1968, the third generation Crown arrived. In Japan, it was given a larger car designation due to its larger 2.3-liter in-line six-cylinder engine and overall dimensions. A sedan and wagon were offered in North America. In Japan, this generation. Is known as the “White Crown” because it was offered in lighter colors to attract more customers.
Toyota dealerships were concentrating on the Corolla and Corona as their “volume sellers.” Both were priced competitively to contemporary Volkswagens, yet they gained ground on Austin, Fiat and Renault in the “value import segment.” So did Nissan…er, Datsun.
The Crown was there to attract upwardly mobile traffic. Price-wise, there were competitive and undercut the mid-priced imports, such as Peugeot, Volvo, Saab, Rover, to name a few. Yet, they could never gain traction against the likes of Buick, Oldsmobile, Mercury, Dodge…even AMC.
With the stage set for the end of the horsepower wars and the impending fuel crisis, the Toyota Crown sat on top of a growing lineup that concentrated on efficiency that delivered on an affordable price. Affordable in terms of the imports, that is.
For a brief time, North American consumers were offered the fourth generation Crown. It looked contemporary to a lot design trends of the early 1970s – wrap around bumpers, contemporary taillight arrangements, and so forth.
These Crowns were the rarest of them all. This was due to two reasons. One, the bumper regulations came into play and Toyota was not ready to adapt the Crown to them, as they did with the rest of their North American lineup. Secondly, the Corona Mark II arrived at Toyota showrooms in the USA and Canada to slot between the Corona and the Crown. Eventually, consumers selected the Mark II over the Crown, ending sales of the larger more luxurious flagship at the end of the 1972 model year.
In 1973, the idea of a flagship Toyota for North America was set aside for more affordable models yielding better fuel economy. This plan worked as the OPEC Oil Crisis took hold in this country. The Corona Mark II’s second generation marked the return of Toyota’s in-line six-cylinder engine, even though it is wrapped in a smaller, more stylish package than the previous generation of Crown models. By the end of its run in 1976, that engine had a displacement of 2.6 liters.
No one really took the Mark II seriously after the Crown left the North American market. Even as the third generation Mark II was renamed the Cressida and sported a larger 2.8-liter engine for 1977, the stigma that Japanese could never create a large sedan worthy of its American and European rivals still overshadowed what Toyota actually brought to the table.
The became evident with subsequent Cressidas. Even as Toyota switched their large sedan to a front-drive platform, its place was seen on the same level as the Crown. It was as luxurious as one could get a Toyota dealership. That was the role the Crown would have had if it was still sold in the USA and Canada.
In the meantime, the Toyota Crown has lived in the Japanese Domestic Market since the last one was sold in the USA. Over the past twelve generations, the sedan has fulfilled its mission as a status symbol for government and business consumers. Over the years, the Crown took on more of a conservative design language, looking more understated over every generation. These sedans truly do not need to stand out like their American or European counterparts. Or, even Lexus.
However, Japanese car enthusiasts envisioned the Crown as an aspirational vehicle. They still do. They remained rear-wheel drive until this new iteration coming for 2023. In all, the Crown rarely shared its platform – except for a few generations, as it shared the basic DNA with the Lexus GS.
One thing to point out was how Toyota’s model naming convention turned into a successful model for the company. Crown and Tiara were names applied to headwear worn by monarchs. Subsequent models, such as the Corona, Corolla, Carina, Cressida, and the Camry were all from the same nomenclature entomology as the Crown. One even pointed out that the Celica’s name was part of the same “family” of regal headwear.
The Toyota Crown is now set for a global return by the end of this year. While it is a departure from past generations of the Crown, it now fits in a global strategy to not only return this model name back into many markets worldwide. While North America gets a fastback-looking sedan, there will be four body types available at least in Japan. That includes two crossover/SUVs.
The Toyota Crown is set to re-write its own history.
All photos by Randy Stern, unless otherwise stated