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Motoring: Toyota 2000 GT - 1968

In 1967, the American motoring magazine Road & Track, reviewing a pre-production car, summed up the Toyota 2000GT as "one of the most exciting and enjoyable cars we've driven", and compared it favorably to the Porsche 911. Today, the car is seen as the first seriously collectible Japanese car, the first "Japanese Supercar", and examples change hands at around the US$300,000 mark.

Surprising as it may seem, the car has its origins at Nissan, and had circumstances been different while it was still on the drawing boards, it might well have ended up being a new sports car that Nissan eventually did produce - the 240Z. Much of the design work on what became the Toyota 2000GT was done by Yamaha, who in addition to their wide product range of the time, also did much work for other Japanese manufacturers. Many credit the German-American designer Dr Albrecht Goertz, a protege of Raymond Loewy, as its designer. He had gone to Yamaha in Japan in the early 1960s to help develop a Nissan sports car. Goertz and Mr Yutaka Katayama, who was charged with marketing in North America, had come up with the Nissan Silvia 1600 coupe. They used the Fairlady sports car platform for the new 2-door coupe, which was first shown at the Tokyo Motor show in 1964. Unfortunately, this vehicle did not receive much praise - it was seen as too cramped and having too small an engine. Below: Designer Satoru Nozaki with his creation

Following the disappointing public response to the Silvia 1600, Dr von Goertz and Katayama were teamed up to work on a new Nissan sports/GT vehicle to satisfy the American market that was to be built from the ground up. When Yamaha's efforts related to the design of a 2.0 Litre engine for this car did not meet Nissan's expectations, the project was shelved. Around that time, Toyota approached Yamaha with a view to building a car that would lift Toyota's profile as a motor vehicle manufacturer. Yamaha brought out the metal prototype for the design they had been working on for Nissan to show Toyota what they could do, Toyota liked it and hired Yamaha to produce a car based on it. The result was the Toyota 2000GT. Some believe Albrecht Goertz was responsible for penning its shape, but this is not so. He was a Nissan employee at the time, so his work on the car finished when Nissan had shelved the project. Toyota's own Japanese designer, Satoru Nozaki, in fact penned the 2000GT.

Only 351 examples of the production model 2000GT were built, figures as low as for specialist Italian sports car construction. The number of toy 2000GTs made actually far exceeds the number of real cars produced. The car was never committed to mass production; all examples were actually hand built built by Yamaha. Most 2000GTs were painted either red or white. In America, the asking price was about $6,800 when it went on sale in 1968, much more than contemporary Porsches and Jaguars. Toyota failed to see the vehicle's potential, viewing it solely as a concept car to demonstrate it ability to make a truly world class sports car. About 60 cars reached North America, the car's target market, and the others were similarly thinly spread worldwide. Dealers received little or no marketing support; customers were mainly motoring buffs or millionaires who bought them more for their curiosity value than anything. When a short spell with a larger, 2300 cc engine in 1970 did nothing to improve sales, Toyota decided to stop producing this model in October 1970 and let the new, simpler, smaller and more affordable Celica become its frontline sports car. It is believed that no profit was made on the cars despite their high price.

The release of the Toyota 2000GT must have been extremely frustrating for Nissan; but it sent them back to the drawing board when they saw its potential, a potential that Toyota had missed completely. They realised that, not only could they create a vehicle similar to the 2000GT, they could do it at a much lower price. It would be a mass production car to take on the American Pony cars (Ford Mustang; Chevrolet Camaro etc); Dr Albrecht Goertz and Mr Yutaka Katayama were recalled and thus was Nissan's 240 Z born.

Some cite the Jaguar E-Type as an influence on the 2000GT's lines, but the design is widely considered a classic in its own right. The smoothly flowing bodywork was executed in aluminium, and featured pop-up headlights as well as large driving lamps like that on the Toyota Sports 800 in fixed locations on either side of the grille, with covers over them. The design scarcely featured bumpers at all, and the plexiglas driving lamp covers in particular were rather easily damaged. The car was extremely low, just 116 cm to the highest point of the roof. In 1969, the front of the car was modified slightly, making the driving lamps smaller and changing the shape of the turn signals. The rear turn signals were enlarged at the same time, and some alterations were made inside to modernise the interior. The last few vehicles were fitted with air conditioning and had automatic transmission as an option. These cars had an additional scoop fitted underneath the grille to supply air to the A/C unit. Two convertibles were built for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, but a factory-produced convertible was never offered for sale to the public during the car's production run.

The car was powered by a 2.0 litre straight-6 engine based on the engine of the top-of-the-line Toyota Crown sedan. It was transformed by Yamaha with new double overhead camshaft heads into a 112 kW sports car engine. Carburation was through three two-barrel Solex 40 PHH units. Nine special MF-12 models were also built with the larger 2.3 L 2M engine, which were said to be capable of reaching 217 km/h. The engine was mounted longitudinally and drove the rear wheels through a five-speed manual transmission. A limited slip differential was fitted, and in a first for a Japanese car, all-round power-assisted disc brakes. The interior offered comfortable, if cramped, accommodation and luxury touches like a rosewood-veneer dashboard and an auto-seeking radio tuner.

The 2000GT made a famous screen appearance in the 1967 James Bond movie You Only Live Twice. Even though the car was never commercially available as a convertible, two were made specially for the film. However, they did not have roofs, just an upholstered hump at the rear of the cabin to simulate a folded top, and therefore were not really true convertibles. Prior to the decision to make fully roofless cars, building the car as a targa was tried, allegedly due to Sean Connery's height not allowing him to fit into the ultra-low coupe version. This retained the hatchback of the original car, but eliminated the rear side windows. However, when the Targa was completed, Connery's head stuck out of the top to such an extent that it was decided it looked too ridiculous and that roofless versions would have to be made if the car was to be featured in the film (its lead competition for the role was said to be the then-new Chevrolet Camaro, which would have looked strange in a film set in Japan.)

Originally, the Toyota was to be driven by 007 himself, but script changes meant that it ended up as the car of his Japanese contact Aki, although as actress Akiko Wakabayashi could not drive, all the actual driving was done by stuntmen in wigs, and all her close-up scenes were filmed while the car was stationary. Some of the close-ups were actually filmed using another white convertible as a stand-in. In the finished film some shots of Bond and Aki driving clearly show the car's dashboard, and it is not that of a 2000GT. Budget cuts also meant that of the three planned car chases, only one eventually ended up on screen. Nevertheless, the 2000GT did get some memorable screentime, being used to evade villains in a Toyota Crown. The car had none of the defence mechanisms enjoyed by Bond's own vehicles, although it did feature a TV/radio communications device in the rear cabin.

Two cars were built for the film. One of these was eventually located by Toyota in Hawaii and has since been restored and put on display at Toyota's headquarters in Japan. The other was resprayed blue, and is believed to have been used for racing-circuit testing in Ginza. Its current whereabouts is unknown, although it is believed to have been scrapped in the early 1970s. Several 2000GTs have been converted into true convertibles with actual roofs by private owners since, and one was even built into a replica of the unused Targa model by 2000GT collector and expert Craig Zinn, owner of a series of dealership network in Hollywood, Florida. Zinn owns over 12 Toyota 2000GTs. His cars are on display in Pembroke Pines Florida at "Amazinn Collectables", which is open to the public by appointment.

2000GT's also made appearances in the TV series The Ugliest Girl in Town and Hawaii Five-0. The car which appeared in The Ugliest Girl in Town was formerly owned by Twiggy. It was given to her by Toyota as a gift in return for her participating in the car's launch. At the time, she could not drive so placed the car in storage. Toyota subsequently bought it back from her and lent it to the makers of the short-lived comedy series. It is currently on display at the Toyota USA Automobile Museum in California.

The convertible used in the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice

Akiko Wakabayashi in You Only Live Twice

Designer Satoru Nozaki with his creation

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