Toyota 2000 GT

Toyota's erotic coupé was good enough for 007, but too much of an outsider for die-hard auto snobs, says Lance Cole
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Toyota has been around for years, yet few would ascribe its cars classic status - yet. For only in the 1970s did Toyota became a global brand. As with so many now-great marques, it was a garage chain that started importing Toyota into the UK. A firm that had been Britain's first Skoda outlet in the 1950s, named Pride and Clark, set up Toyota GB in the 1960s.

In 1970-something, in the front driveway of the home of Toyota's talented managing director, John Pride, I first saw the car that made me want to be a car designer when I grew up. The car was the original Toyota 2000GT and in its exotic shape there lay the seeds of global car-making domination that became Toyota as we know it today. The fact that John Pride was a relative and gave a young boy free rein to inspect the car, was just icing on the cake.

Since those early 1970s days, Toyota has created its own design motif - despite one or two copyist cars along the way. But way back in 1966, Toyota built a car so accomplished in design terms, that it marked the moment when Japan Auto Inc began.

At the height of the Jaguar E-type boom, in days when only Europe made great sports cars - according to certain commentators - and when the Americans could afford cubic inches, the Japanese were known for small, soft-skinned little saloons; Japanese cars had gargoyle styling that meant that they looked like an amalgam of Western design trends along with something oriental thrown in.

So when in 1965, at the Tokyo show, Toyota released its rakish two-seater coupé that looked like a modernised vision of classic curves and coupé proportions, the snotty Europeans claimed that one of their own must have penned it; not least because Yamaha, those makers of bikes and pianos, had built the prototype for Toyota.

In theory, we cite the name of Count Albrecht von Goertz for the design (also stylist of the BMW 507 and later the Datsun Z car - the 240Z). Legend has it that he designed the 2000GT. And the "European" curved windscreen and window graphics suggest he may well have done so during his time in Japan. But, and it's a huge but, a young Japanese designer working for Toyota named Satoru Nozaki has also been cited as the car's stylist.

We may never know the full story, but what is clear is that the 2000GT was a signal of intent - and you might well argue that Lexus is the outcome. But no Lexus has ever had a blend of compound curves, faired-in and pop-up headlamps, a pert rear end, and such an elegant stance. The raised, Ferrari-esque front wing curves, and the stylish yet lean flare of the car's hips, mark it out as both exotic and erotic.

Beneath the car's bonnet was an overhead cam, six-cylinder in-line engine that had been fine-tuned by Yamaha. With a 2-litre capacity and over 150bhp, it was no boat engine, but a creamy, square block six that even BMW might have been jealous of. There were also all-round hydraulic disc brakes and a limited slip differential - which were proper supercar attributes.

Rear-driven with a light body, and independent suspension all round, the 2000GT took off like James Bond after a blonde. Which was apt because Bond producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli fell in love with the 2000GT on sight and cast it as a Bond car in his Japanese location epic, You Only Live Twice. The car in the 1967 film was a convertible version made especially for Broccoli - the coupé's roof limited the camera angles and Sean Connery was a tight fit in the cabin. But it was not driven by a blonde but by a petite but fully formed dark haired actress named Akiko Wakabayashi; as such she was just like the 2000GT - perfect.

The car raised the Toyota name through its "Bond" profile and so was born a legend.

Except that only 350 were built between 1968 and 1971. Despite a modern cockpit trimmed in rosewood and chrome, despite being utterly gorgeous, the supercar world ignored the 2000GT: it was almost as if the rest of the world could not come to accept Toyota's amazing achievement. The fact that it cost more than a Porsche 911 was irrelevant, and auto-snobs decried the 2000GT's lack of heritage - despite the fact that, unlike certain heritage brands, it was utterly reliable.

In 1968, American car magazine Road and Track's then editor James Crowe reckoned that the 2000GT was "highly refined" in the handling and driving department and was "one of the most exciting cars we have driven". Racing versions complete with a 2.3-litre engine won endurance races in Japan and a Shelby version was runner-up in the 1968 US national sports car championships.

Toyota pulled the plug on the 2000GT in late 1970, and soon after, the Datsun Z car legend was launched. Thirty years on, the 2000GT is a rare jewel and really is Japan's first supercar and first classic car. A few exist in Europe, and a good one will cost you up to $90,000 dollars in America. That's how good the design milestone of the 2000GT was.

Main picture by Michel Zumbrunn, from his book Auto Legends (Merrell Publishing)

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