Photo: Toyota

One of Robert Zinn’s earliest memories is of riding around in the back with his two older brothers in a boxy economy car his father was trying to sell. The big sign mounted on the roof read “30 MPG,” but it was 1965 and gas was cheap, so nobody gave a damn. It was a perilous start to their father’s new business: selling cars in America from this relatively obscure Japanese company called Toyota.

It’s almost impossible to have a day where you go outside and you don’t see some kind of Toyota. They’re everywhere. A Toyota has been America’s best-selling car for over 10 years. The company has six manufacturing plants in the U.S. alone, and thousands of dealerships across the nation selling its cars. It, General Motors and Volkswagen are always vying to be the world’s largest automaker.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Toyota opened its very first dealership in the U.S. in Hollywood, California, on Oc. 31, 1957, with the charge into the American market headed up by Shotaro Kamiya, Toyota’s president of motor sales, as noted by Hemmings. In the mid-1950s, the company sent a few cars over to test on our roads in order to work out a plan to sell them here.

From the story:

According to Toyota USA archivist Jason Bell, Toyota initially wanted to sell the cars itself through a handful of centralized locations, but Shoji Hattori, the company’s executive vice president, advised the company to instead adopt the dealership model already prevalent in the United States.

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But what was it like on the ground, to be one of those early import dealerships? I was lucky enough to get to talk with Robert Zinn over the phone recently, who remembered growing up while his dad, Dave Zinn, established Triangle Toyota.

In 1965, it was Florida’s first.

Being the new kid on the block didn’t come without its problems, though. Post-war America was saturated with patriotism; white picket fences in suburbia with a big, American car in the driveway was the dream for many. What the hell was “down-sizing?”

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At the time in America, the domestic market dominated everything. People owned imports, sure, but that pretty much meant the Volkswagen Beetle or British sports cars. A few oddballs and weirdos might own Renaults or Saabs or Volvos, but those brands were far from mainstream. Japanese brands were even further out, especially outside of California.

Dave Zinn didn’t start out looking to be the first Toyota salesman in the state. He began his career selling new and used Chevys at another dealer. After failing to secure a management position, he left to seek his own fortune. He was desperate for any new car franchise, because only then could you also get good insurance and financing from a bank. Vendors simply offered better overall services to a new car dealer.

His son relayed the story of how his father went to the 1965 Miami Auto Show and spotted a little display in the back corner, where sat a 1966 Toyota Corona.

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Its trunk was open and some brochures had been carelessly thrown inside, “written in horrible, nearly indecipherable English,” laughed Robert. Somebody there asked Dave Zinn if he wanted to be a dealer for those cars—those Toyotas.

Toyota’s first dealership in Hollywood, California. Image credit: Toyota

Dave Zinn was curious, but also wary. World War II was fresh in many minds. Japanese cars had an unfavorable stigma in those days of being cheaply built and terrible to drive. Nobody wanted them. “Jap Crap,” they were called.

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Robert said his own father also leaned in the direction of that view at first, but he really didn’t have many options left. It was the last day of the show, so he asked the man working the stand if he could test drive the car and have one of his mechanics take a look at it. The man said sure.

Dave Zinn brought out his mechanic, who worked on General Motors cars, to inspect the Corona. After poking and prodding about, the mechanic came back and concluded that GM had never made a car that good. The connections were incredibly well put-together. Not even the Cadillacs came close. So Dave Zinn decided to take a chance on this Toyota and convinced the bank that it was a legitimate new car franchise.

A Toyota Corona in 1968. Photo credit AP

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It was a rough start. For the first 36 months of Dave Zinn’s fresh and shiny car business, he only sold 18 new Toyotas. Most of them were to family members or friends of the family because nobody else was interested in them. It was difficult to convince American buyers that Japanese cars weren’t trash.

He even stuck the “30 MPG” sign to the top of a Corona and drove around with it to generate interest. It didn’t help: the allure of large-displacement American V8 muscle cars was at its peak, and the gas crises were a decade away.

Americans were just not conditioned to pay attention to small cars in the ’50s and ’60s—and if they did, they usually went for a Beetle, dated design. There was interest for compact cars, sure, but it just wasn’t driving the market.

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Photo: Toyota

Wanda James theorized in Driving from Japan: Japanese Cars in America that the American Big Three (Ford, GM and Chrysler), fat and comfortable in their post-war boom, failed to spot this emerging trend: the desire for smaller and cheaper cars. To them, Volkswagen was the only real threat and they were satisfied that the Chevrolet Corvair, the Ford Falcon and the Chrysler Valiant would keep the German automaker at bay:

“... the Big Three turned their attention back to plans for the new big cars of the future. The economy market was now considered filled. No one noticed that the back door to that market had swung wide open, and through it came a little something from Japan.”

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But Toyota, and Datsun and eventually Honda and others, offered something small, cheap economical and more modern than the Beetle. By 1967, Toyota had become the third-best-selling import brand in the country. The Corona offered more power than the Beetle, came with an automatic transmission, had four doors and even air conditioning—all for about $50 more than the little German car. It was a real option to the Volkswagen, especially during the shifting political and global climate that followed.

“Things started to change with the first Arab oil embargo,” Robert Zinn recalled, “[but] then really changed with the second oil embargo.”

The price of gas skyrocketed and people couldn’t afford to keep burning it like they were. On top of that, the requirement for pollution control devices like catalytic converters crippled the big V8s so much that they were hardly what they used to be.

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All at once, U.S. carmakers were scrambling to market their own small and efficient cars like the Chevy Vega, Chevette and Ford Pinto. The Big Three had brand loyalty, an established dealer network and national pride working in their favor, despite their cars being bad and problem-laden. Toyota still had to work against them and Volkswagen to convince people that its cars were more advanced, better on gas and reliable.

But quality product tends to stand on its own and soon, the family saw a spike in business. Dave Zinn was able to expand: he moved his dealership from its tiny and ill-suited located off of Miami Beach, which had very little land and bad traffic congestion, and settled for a larger showroom on the mainland in North Miami. The new location was large enough to carry ample inventory. Robert said that it was quite professional in appearance.

But Dave Zinn wasn’t finished. He acquired two more locations: one in the downtown Miami area (which he later sold in the early ‘80's) and one in Hollywood, Florida, which is where his middle son, Craig, first got into the car business.

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After selling the main dealership in 1986, Dave Zinn, semi-retired and currently helps out his two elder sons with their dealership businesses. Craig Zinn is the president of Craig Zinn Automotive Group, and Warren Zinn, the oldest, runs Warren Henry Automotive Group.

Later on, Dave Zinn would deny that he was a “genius” or a “visionary” to have invested in Toyota so early on. The truth was that Toyota was the only franchise he was able to acquire, but grew into a lifelong family business.

There’s no doubt that the Zinns have had their fair share in dealing with cool cars over the years. Yet, there was one very special one that managed to capture their attention since the beginning.

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The Toyota 2000GT

Though Toyota’s rise in popularity proved to be exciting times for Zinn Senior, square and boxy Toyota Stouts, Coronas and Land Cruisers weren’t much fun for his three young sons at home.

The boys, used to their father bringing home cool Chevrolets, thought the shift to Toyota was a step down. A Toyota Publica—a small subcompact below the Corolla—was no sports car. Their mood persisted until later in 1965, when their father brought his first 2000GT into the show room. Curvy and beautiful, it was hard not to get excited about it. Dave Zinn’s son’s love for the car began there.

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Later on, the car was featured in the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. Robert Zinn recalled the special feeling they all had, knowing what the car was before anybody else did.

You Only Live Twice was shot largely in Japan, and Toyota was willing to do whatever it could to get its car into the movie. The company was afraid that if it didn’t follow through, the production company would use a new, American sports car called the Chevrolet Camaro as the Bond car instead. That would be unacceptable. It’s why Bond drives a 2000GT Roadster in the movie: actor Sean Connery was too tall to fit comfortably in the coupe.

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Love for the 2000GT never quite left the family. A few years down the line, Dave Zinn was able secure 2000GTs for his two elder sons. Finding one more for Robert proved tricky, however. Finally, he met someone who ran a Toyota dealer in El Salvador who was looking to get one of the first 1982 Supras.

Zinn traded the man a Supra, some cash and received a previously street-raced 2000GT in return. The car had 33,000 km (about 20,000) miles on the clock. Finally, it was Robert’s. He’s been taking care of it ever since.

The front page of a San Salvador newspaper from 1979. The red 2000GT in the second row is now Robert Zinn’s. Image credit: Robert Zinn

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Toyota only made 351 of these cars worldwide, but 2000GTs are as elegant as they are rare, Jaguar E-Typish Japanese sports cars. They used 2.0-liter six-cylinder engines and were all handmade out of aluminum and had Yamaha piano wood dashboards.

Robert says the most difficult thing about driving his 2000GT is its size: while in it, he’s often sitting too low for modern-day cars to see him easily on the road. He has to exercise especial caution when he takes it out, though the bright red probably helps, too.

Image credit: Robert Zinn

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I suppose the modern-day equivalent of the 2000GT would be the Lexus LFA, since that was also hyper-exclusive and expensive. But in some ways this is even more impressive, since it’s a unique and gorgeous sports car from the days when Toyota was still struggling to be taken seriously outside of Japan—yet it was still decent enough to be considered a Porsche 911 competitor in its time.

While Toyota is a giant now, and its dealerships are as lucrative as any (there are 27 dealerships alone listed under Toyota’s “most popular” statewide search function; there must be scores more in the smaller towns), in some ways Zinn’s story shows buying habits have not changed in the slightest over the decades. If gas is cheap, people will buy gas guzzlers.

The only difference here is that instead of big V8 sedans, people scarf down trucks and SUVs. Inevitably, when gas prices rise again, people will scramble for the efficient cars like they did years ago.

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Something like the 2000GT could only have happened to Toyota once and once alone. It debuted during a time when Toyota was a true underdog; anything manufactured after that just wouldn’t have the same brashness because by then, Toyota was well on its way to being a giant. And that wouldn’t have happened if people like the Zinn family weren’t willing to give it a shot—even if it was their own last chance.

Image credit: Robert Zinn