Only a few hundred were built and most never left Japan, but the stunning 2000GT broke new ground for Toyota and earned the company world-wide respect as an innovative automaker.
How and why this two-seat hatchback became so influential is a story almost as fascinating as the car itself.
In the early 1960s, the Japanese automobile industry wasn't taken seriously outside its home market. Most of the cars and trucks being built there were odd-looking knock-offs of British vehicles and not considered worthy of export to Europe or North America. The few that did make it to our shores from the Far East failed to worry, let alone impress, the Detroit-based domestic builders, who feared only Volkswagen as a threat to their outright market supremacy.
In the meantime, some of the major Japanese producers planned nothing less than a rapid expansion throughout the globe. One such company was Nissan, which originally exported its products under the Datsun label. Feeling the need for some type of image-enhancing centerpiece, the company invited Yamaha in 1963 to create a high-performance grand touring coupe.
Yamaha, in turn, commissioned German-born stylist Count Albrecht Goertz, a man who had previously penned BMW's low-volume and expensive 503 coupes and 507 roadsters back in the mid-1950s. However, when Nissan executives rejected the initial mock-ups, including a Lotus Elan-inspired chassis wrapped in a seductive aluminum body, Yamaha offered it to Toyota.
The company jumped at the project, despite the fact that the car would not be nearly as cheap to make as the rest of its other economy-minded lineup. The new car would, however, make an ideal corporate flagship, showing that Toyota could compete on a much broader scale than anyone had previously imagined. Interestingly, Nissan would later hire Goertz to design the hugely successful 240Z sports machine that looked much like the car that originally wore a Toyota badge.
Goertz's ahead-of-the-time design borrowed elements from a number of existing sports cars, including Ferrari and Jaguar. It also featured small compartments behind the front wheels that held the battery and air filter. The interior was finished in genuine rosewood that covered the instrument panel and floor console (the steering wheel was also made of wood).
Perhaps the most unusual part of the car was its two sets of headlamps. One pair bordered the grille while another could be made to pop up from each fender. In this way, the car could meet minimum North American height restrictions for headlights.
The car's 2.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine was adapted from Toyota's Crown sedan, but was fitted with a Yamaha-designed double-overhead-cam valve train and three carburetors. In street form, the powerplant made 150 horsepower and produced zero-to-60-mph times of 8.5 seconds. Top speed was clocked at close to 140 mph. On the very few full-race versions, the motors were coaxed to 200 horses.
A close-ratio five-speed manual transmission was standard, but a limited number were fitted with three-speed automatics.
Christened the 2000GT (for its nearly-2,000-cubic-centimeter - 2.0-liter - engine displacement), the sporty Toyota caused a sensation when first viewed at the 1965 Tokyo Motor Show.
But production problems resulted in a two-year delay before the initial batch of cars rolled off Yamaha's assembly lines. By this time, most movie buffs had viewed a special one-off convertible version of the car that took center stage in the James Bond 007 flick, "You Only Live Twice".
If the 2000GT's looks produced slack jaws, then so did its exorbitant price tag. At more than $7,000, the low-to-the-ground (less than four feet tall) Toyota was far pricier than the Jaguar XKE and the Chevrolet Corvette and was much more than most Japanese buyers could afford. There were also few tire kickers on this side of the Pacific Ocean willing to risk that kind of money on a basically unknown and untried car company.
It didn't really seem to matter to the top dogs at Toyota, who were basking in the 2000GT's new-found status. In Japan, the car had become a successful competition racer in addition to setting a number of high-speed endurance records. In the United States, AC Cobra boss Carroll Shelby also fielded a team of two 2000GTs during the 1968 Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) season, finishing second behind Porsche.
In 1970, after a production run of a mere 337 vehicles (only 54 shipped to North America), Toyota ceased all 2000GT production.
By that time, the point had been well and truly driven home. The 2000GT allowed Toyota to solidify an image of high style and world-class quality that has helped it flourish the world over.
Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/media by clicking the contact link. Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.