Japanese Sports Cars, Part 2: The Toyota 2000GT

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The first true Toyota sports car was not only designed by a German American, but it was on a James Bond movie set and raced by Carroll Shelby.

One of the wonders of the automotive world in the 1960s and '70s was the rise of the Japanese car industry. Although there was Japanese auto manufacturing activity before World War II, the growth era for the industry started only after the war which left Japan devastated. Toyota, established in 1932, developed and built cars and trucks before and during the war. However, rapid development was made possible only after the war was over and towards the end of the 1950s.

At that time Japanese vehicles were utilitarian in nature; while in Europe utilitarian vehicles like the VW Beetle, Citroen CV2 and Fiat 500 became legends in the industry, Japanese cars were just tin boxes that were thrown to the scrap yard as soon as their useful lives were over (of course that was the fate that befell many old European cars as well). The Japanese cars at the time lacked what can be described as both charisma and sex appeal. So when Toyota launched the project that led to its first sports car, the 2000GT, one of the program's objects was to change that reality.

It is argued by some that the Japanese were good at copying others, though looking at some of their first cars makes that seem untrue. The 2000GT, however, has a different story to tell. It is hard to imagine an original Japanese designer in the early '60s coming up with sketches for such a car. Someone must have been reading the European motoring press since the beginning of that decade and took note of such cars like the Ferrari 250 GTO, the Porsche 911 and the Jaguar E-Type. That someone was Albrecht Goertz, an American car designer of German origin who designed BMW cars in the '50s.

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Goertz didn't create a gorgeous car, but a basic sports car that at the time was an achievement for Japan. The 2000GT was not as beautifully crafted as the handmade Ferrari and not as sharp in its character as the 911. Its long hood is reminiscent of the E-Type, under which is a 2.0-liter engine. The driver's seat is almost over the rear axle, the rear overhang is short, the front-end design helps to curve wind over the front wheels and pop-up head lamps complement another set of visible headlights. There's also a moderately sloping rear window and two centrally located exhaust pipes. In 1965, none of this looked like something from Japan.

It only stood 45.7 inches tall but it attracted the attention of the James Bond movie franchise producers. "You Only Live Twice" was filmed in Japan and the 2000GT was featured in it as well. The car's roof was chopped off specifically for the film, but a convertible version was never made available to the public. Despite the Toyota badge, the 2000GT was almost manufactured entirely by Yamaha. The inline six-cylinder engine gave a maximum output of 150hp at 6600 rpm and peak torque of 130lb-ft was reached at 5000 rpm. A close-ratio five-speed manual gearbox allowed good control over the car.

A rack and pinion steering system and an independent A-arm front and rear suspension were novelties in the Japanese industry as well as four-wheel disc brakes. Acceleration from standing to 60 mph lasted 10.0 seconds and had a top speed of 128 mph. The 2000GT was also exploited for racing, finishing third in the 1966 Japanese Grand Prix and winning the 24-hours race of Fuji a year later. In America three cars were prepared by Carroll Shelby and took part in a SCCA series in 1968. In the U.S. the 2000GT was sold at a price of $6,800. Today it is regarded as the first truly collectible Japanese car and can fetch up to $300,000 at auctions.

For Toyota, the 2000GT was a turning point. It proved the Japanese could produce desirable cars for the screen and track. Other Japanese automakers paid close attention and soon began their own sports car projects.

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