Eiji Toyoda, car family scion who developed Corolla and Lexus, dies

Roger B. Smith, Eiji Toyoda
FILE - In this April 13, 1985 file photo, Toyota Motor Corp. Chairman Eiji Toyoda, left, and General Motors Corp. Chairman Roger B. Smith shake hands in front of a Chevrolet Nova as the new United Motor Manufacturing Inc., a $400 million joint venture between GM and Toyota, was inaugurated with a dedication ceremony at the Fremont, Calif., plant. (AP photo/Paul Sakuma, File)
(Paul Sakuma / AP)

Eiji Toyoda, a family scion who spearheaded Toyota Motor Corp.'s aggressive push into the U.S. auto market, has died. He was 100.

Toyoda, a cousin of the Japanese automaker’s founder Kiichiro Toyoda, died of heart failure Tuesday at Toyota Memorial Hospital in Toyota city, central Japan, the company said in a statement.

Born Sept. 12, 1913, in Nagoya City, Toyoda graduated from the University of Tokyo with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1936 and joined Toyoda Automatic Loom Works Ltd. that same year. About a year later he moved to the company’s newly established automotive subsidiary.

He quickly became enamored with the process of manufacturing automobiles, diving into factory operations and supervising activities on the shop floor. 


Having grown up at the textile mill built by his father, Heichachi Toyoda, and uncle Sakichi Toyoda, Eiji Toyoda loved machines.

“So from my childhood, machines and business were always there right in front of me,” he said in a Time magazine interview in 1999. “I probably developed an understanding of both.”

He rose in the executive ranks, becoming a Toyota director by 1945. But that wasn’t much of a promotion because most of the company’s operations had been put on hold by World War II, picking back up again by 1950.

That was when Toyoda toured a Ford factory in Dearborn, Mich., an experience that was at the root of many of the ideas he employed at Toyota to create the company’s efficient, low-defect manufacturing processes.


“We were producing 40 cars a day,” he said in the Time interview. “Ford was making 8,000 units, a 200-times difference. The gap was enormous.”

Toyoda, with the advice of production specialist Taiichi Ohno, changed Toyota’s manufacturing approach.  They focused on making cars in small batches, receiving just enough parts at the factory to complete a production run efficiently. 

This reduced the need to stockpile supplies at the factory and was the start the “kanban” or “just in time” delivery concept, which has become the standard production method in the global auto industry.

Toyoda became vice president of Toyota in 1960 and president in 1967. He also was responsible for Toyota setting up a sales and marketing arm that was separate from the company’s manufacturing operations.

Among other accomplishments, Toyoda directed the development of the Corolla, which has become one of the world’s best-selling cars.

He bucked skeptics who believed that a Japanese automaker couldn’t create a luxury brand, by pushing Toyota into the bigger, more expensive vehicles that became the Lexus line in 1989. Toyoda wanted to sell a car that could rival the big German luxury sedans produced by Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

Toyoda also crafted Toyota’s partnership with General Motors Co. to open the joint New United Motor Manufacturing factory in Fremont, Calif., in 1984. It closed in 2010, a result of GM’s bankruptcy and the restructuring of the U.S. auto industry, and is now operated by Tesla Motors.

Toyota entered the American market after an executive, Shotaro Kamiya, visited the U.S. in the mid-1950s and noted sales of the Volkswagen Beetle, the most popular import car at the time.


Kamiya went back to Japan and with Toyoda developed the plan to crack the U.S. market, importing the first cars in August 1957.

They pinned their strategy on a sluggish, barren, four-door sedan called the Toyopet Crown, a car Toyoda had developed. But it wasn’t very good by American standards. The first Toyotas sold in the U.S. handled poorly when driven over 60 mph and tended to overheat in the mountains or desert. Toyota’s U.S. sales in its first year were meager with just 288 vehicles.
Toyoda quickly realized that his Toyopet was not good enough to attract American buyers.

He told his sales force to focus on the Jeep-like Land Cruiser until Toyota could launch its Corona sedan in 1965. Although still a small car, the Corona addressed the problems that were evident in the Toyopet and became the automaker’s first big seller in the U.S.

By 1972, Toyota passed Volkswagen to become the top import brand in America. The automaker has sold more that 1.5 million Toyota, Lexus and Scion here through the first eight months of this year and controls more than 14% of the market.

By the late 1960s another Toyoda project, the Corolla, had developed a U.S. reputation for reliability, low cost and fuel efficiency.

The 1973 OPEC oil crisis cemented demand for Toyota’s economy cars and left Detroit’s automakers scrambling to compete to make fuel-efficient models. It was a gap that lasted nearly three decades and is only closing now with Detroit’s latest generation of vehicles such as the Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze and Dodge Dart.

Toyoda retired in 1994. He is survived by three sons, Kanshiro, Tetsuro and Shuhei; all three work at Toyota affiliates. The automaker said a private family funeral is planned.

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