World’s number-one carmaker achieved its position through a careful strategy of providing just what the common person wanted, regardless of where one was based. The story began in the 1930s, after Kiichiro Toyoda, son of the inventor of the automatic loom, Sakichi Toyoda, produced his first car, the A1 prototype of 1935, along with a G1 truck the same year.
During World War II, Toyota continued to develop and release new models, and by 1947, its 100,000th car was produced. The BJ model—a four-wheel-drive “jeep” later called the Land Cruiser—was launched in 1951, opening Toyota to another lucrative market. The Crown model was launched in 1955, starting a nameplate which continues to this day. Its US sales’ office was founded in 1957, selling the Crown, which initially was a flop—but Toyota learned from the feedback. The Corona was launched the same year and the Publica—designed to take advantage of the growing consumer power of Japanese buyers—came in 1961.
By 1962, Toyota had made its millionth vehicle, the same year its Thai subsidiary was established. In 1966, Toyota’s most famous and successful model, the Corolla, was launched—over 30 million have since been made under the nameplate. Other famous nameplates emerged in the 1970s: Carina and Celica. With the Arab–Israeli fuel crisis of 1973, Toyota was well poised to take advantage of higher fuel prices in the US, and during this decade the Corolla became the top-selling car in the world.
The Celica Camry was launched in 1980, starting another famous Toyota model line. NUMMI, a joint venture with General Motors—then the number-one producer of cars—began in 1984 with the joint manufacture in the US of the Corolla and the Toyota Sprinter-based Chevrolet Nova. Other milestones were reached in the 1980s: the 50 millionth Japanese-made Toyota vehicle rolled off the production lines, and annual domestic sales topped two million. Luxury brand Lexus appeared before the decade finished.
British production commenced in 1992, and by 1994 annual non-Japanese output reached one million units. The Prius electric–petrol hybrid was launched in 1997, mainstreaming the use of electric power in cars. Chinese operations in Tianjin started in 1998, with the Sichuan factory in 2000. French and Polish production began in 2001, while Toyota signed an agreement with First Automobile Works, makers of the Hongqi; and it established a company in Baja California. A Guangzhou operation began in 2004. In 2005, Czech production began. It was 2007 that saw Toyota overtake GM in annual sales, not that it came with any fanfare from the Japanese company.