Let's face it: when Akio Toyoda became CEO at Toyota, nobody really knew what to make of it. Was he just representing the family's interests? Would he be a puppet for management? Or was he a Hail Mary pass to pull Toyota out of its slump?
Now, we know the answer. He's a car guy, and because his last name is Toyoda, he gets to build his dream car — in this case, a BMW.
Toyota and BMW are teaming up on what they're calling an environmentally friendly sports car. They aren't saying very much about it, in fact they buried the news in their announcement of an expanded technology partnership with BMW. Not a single reporter in Japan asked a question about the sports car (Boo!).
But you can figure Toyota's car-guy-in-chief will have his fingerprints all over it, with BMW and Toyota engineers taking notes. And it won't be put through the dull-a-tron. With Toyoda in charge, the company has already started turning out cars like the Scion FR-S — a car you couldn't imagine Toyota building five years ago — and the Lexus LFA.
Forget any claims that car companies make about finance-trained CEOs who claim to be car guys. Here is an authentic one — and one who is into racing, too.
The first time I met him, our interview started off with him showing me a video clip of the hours he got to spend behind the wheel of an IS 300 in the 24-hour race at Nurburgring in 2007. I wasn't sure whether this was just spin — Toyota setting up the heir apparent to look hip — or if there was something behind it.
Of course, the question I wanted answered was whether the rumors were true: was he going to get to run Toyota? He didn't duck it, although the answer wasn't what I expected. "If I am going to be at the top of the car company, I want to be the owner-chef" meaning a restaurant owner who not only greets customers, but picks out all the ingredients and cooks what's on the menu. "I taste my car, and if it tastes good, I provide it to the customer."
Since we talked that first time, it's been pretty clear that Toyoda's car lust is real. He goes to Toyota's Hagashi-Fuji test track once a month to drive the latest things his engineers have to show him. He's talked over and over about wanting to make Toyotas more exciting. He was like a school kid in Tupelo, Miss., last fall, visiting the small car museum near Toyota's new plant. Toyoda walked up and down the rows of cars, especially excited to see its fully restored Toyopet, the first car Toyota sold in the U.S.
Although he's had to clean up the wreckage of Toyota's over-aggressive push to become the world's biggest car company, Toyoda's also been able to push his family's company into the direction he wants. Of course, we're still talking about Toyota, which made its billions on mass market, vanilla flavored vehicles, and there's a long way to go, but when your name is Toyoda, you get to do things even Bill Ford says he didn't get to do.
Toyoda's partnerships with Subaru and Tesla now look like they were the warm ups for this one. The BMW deal is the one that may mean most to his legacy.
That's how Toyoda sounded in his speech this morning. "We are not coming together to become bigger. We are not coming together to form capital ties. We are joining hands because we want to make ever-better cars," Toyoda said. And he apparently knows what they should drive like.
"The Nürburgring is the toughest course there is. At the Nürburgring, the road tosses the car around. Curves seem to try to throw out the car and driver. Roads make cars. The Nürburgring has taught me so. That is why many carmakers test new cars at the Nürburgring.They develop cars there, while competing against other manufacturers. But at the Nürburgring, there is always a car that passes me. It is a BMW."
Pretty soon, he'll be in it, maybe with his own badge on the front. It's easy to have low expectations for what might be coming. The risk-free solution is to take a BMW engine and pop it in an existing Toyota body and call it done. But after years of watching Toyota, I don't think that's what's afoot here. I'm betting we're going to get a legitimate sports car.
The biggest clue was the way Toyota played this — no mention of it at their Japanese press conference, just a line in the official press release. That's how they handle a lot of things, by playing cards very close to the vest. Or maybe, nobody really knows what to expect, because Toyoda hasn't turned out to be what anyone at Toyota expected, either.
It makes me think of his grandfather, Kiichiro Toyoda, who had to beg use a corner of a loom works factory to build his first car. Now, there's a statue of Kiichiro outside Toyota headquarters. You don't get a statue by hedging your bets.
Photo Credit: AP