Shoichiro Toyoda, the man credited with building Toyota’s reputation for reliability, starting Lexus, and expanding its focus overseas, passed earlier this week at age 97 due to sudden heart failure.
He was the son of the Toyota Motor Corporation founder Kiichiro Toyoda, and is the father of outgoing CEO Akio Toyoda.
Born in February 1925, Shoichiro Toyoda studied engineering at Nagoya University, graduating in 1947. He later gained a doctorate with his thesis subject being fuel injection.
Thanks to its reputation for reliable cars, Toyota is now easily the world’s most popular car brand and the world’s highest-selling automaker for the past three years – but it wasn’t always this way.
In the years after World War II, the automaker struggled and the company’s lenders deposed its founder Kiichiro Toyoda as CEO, and split Toyota into two: a production company, and a sales firm.
It was in this tumult that Shoichiro Toyoda joined the automaker in 1952 after stints at some other family companies, including a fish-processing plant and a house construction firm.
In the late 1950s, Toyota tried to establish a presence in the USA, but the Toyopet Crown bombed due to its relatively high price, small size, low performance, and mechanical unreliability.
Stung by the million dollar loss on the venture, Toyota, reportedly at Toyoda’s urging, began to focus heavily on quality control.
In addition to this Toyoda led the charge to improve production efficiency at the firm, and oversaw the development and construction of the company’s Motomachi factory in Toyota City.
When it opened in 1959, Motomachi could produce up to 10,000 cars a month, or around five times more than the whole of Toyota produced at that point in time.
Toyoda began to progress through the company’s hierarchy before becoming head of Toyota’s sales company in 1981. A year later, the sales and production firms merged to become the Toyota Motor Corporation we know today, and Toyoda became the combined firm’s CEO.
As CEO he approved plans to expand Toyota’s production footprint into North America and Europe because on both sides of the Atlantic, Toyota and other Japanese manufacturers were bound by voluntary import caps.
Localised manufacturing began when Toyota and GM started a joint venture to take over an existing GM factory in Fremont, California. Starting in 1984, that plant began churning out Toyota Corollas, as well as the Sprinter-based Chevrolet Nova.
Two years later Toyota opened its first wholly-owned American factory in Kentucky to produce the Camry, and then a factory in Cambridge, Ontario. Later in the decade Toyoda also approved the company’s first European factory in Burnaston, UK.
These new plants led to the company designing an increasing number of vehicles primarily for markets outside Japan, including the first “wide-body” Camry in 1991. In recent years the USA has become Toyota’s largest single market, accounting for about 2 million sales per year.
Perhaps Shoichiro Toyoda’s boldest move was to approve project F1, which sought to build a luxury sedan to rival those from Europe. The project was overseen and led by his uncle Eiji Toyoda, at the time Toyota’s chairman, and culminated in the first-generation Lexus LS400.
Launched in 1989, the Lexus LS400 cost an estimated US$1 billion to develop – an unheard of sum at the time. With its impeccable refinement, high levels of reliability, exceptional customer service and, initially at least, surprisingly low price, the LS arguably spurred the German brands to up their game significantly.
Despite leading Toyota to invest more heavily in overseas markets, and enter the luxury segment, Toyoda was fiscally conservative, and insisted on the company maintaining a comfortable safety cushion of cash.
Toyoda stepped down as Toyota’s CEO in 1992 and, as is customary at the company, he became its chairman, a role he held until 1999.
Despite stepping down from day-to-day management, he remained active at the firm, turning up on the sidelines of car launches, and visiting dealerships worldwide unannounced. From 2009 until his death Toyoda was Toyota’s honorary chairman.
As a race fan, he often took his family, including son Akio Toyoda, to the track. This influence rubbed off on the younger Toyoda, who has a well known love for racing cars, and approved sports cars including the Toyota 86, Supra and GR Yaris.