This Day In History: Toyota Founder Dies

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On March 27, 1952, Kiichiro Toyoda died. He was the man responsible for transforming his father’s textile machinery business into what grew to become the world’s largest automaker: Toyota.

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(Welcome to Today in History, the series where we dive into important historical events that have had a significant impact on the automotive or racing world. If you have something you’d like to see that falls on an upcoming weekend, let me know at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)

You read that right. Toyota wasn’t initially created as a car company. Sakichi Toyoda, called “Japan’s Thomas Edison,” invented the automatic loom, and he hired his son at the company when Kiichiro was old enough to work there.

But Kiichiro Toyoda had other plans. By the late 1920s, he was dreaming up different cars, and in 1933, he established an automobile division of his father’s company. Two years later, he had released two cars.

So, where did the name “Toyota” come from? According to History, it was easier to spell in Japanese characters and was considered luckier because it could be written with eight strokes of the pen.

Whatever luck was imbued in the name paid off, because Toyota grew to accomplish great things despite a rocky start. Ford and GM had built factories in Japan in the 1920s, so Toyoda drew his inspiration for some of his first cars from his American competitors by literally buying local Ford or GM products and reverse engineering them. As a result, the company’s first real car, the AA, looked like a knockoff Chevy sedan. But people were into it—they liked the fact that they could buy a Japanese-built car, and Toyoda is said to have paved the way for Japanese automakers in a critical time before American motor companies could completely dominate production.

That said, things quickly went south. The company was forced to take a break during World War II and didn’t resume production again until 1947, at which point materials were hard to source and people just didn’t have the money to buy them.

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Despite his death coming two years later, Toyoda resigned from the company in 1950. The company was going out of business, and the auto union went on a strike that lasted two months due to layoffs and wage reductions. He was succeeded by Tazio Ishida, who had been the chief executive of the Toyoda Automatic Loom company. In 1957, Toyoda’s cousin Eiji Toyoda took over.

Because of his early death at age 57, Kiichiro Toyoda never saw his company make its rebound. The Korean War saw the American military putting in orders for Japanese-made vehicles, which kick-started the auto industry. In 1957, the Crown became the first Japanese vehicle imported to the United States. In the 1960s, Toyota began to expand its manufacturing efforts into other countries. By the 1980s, Toyota was building cars in the US and pursuing a global motorsport effort. In 2008, it became the world’s largest automaker.

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It all happened after Toyoda’s death, but his legacy still lives on in the name and roots he endowed to the company. It turned out to be quite lucky indeed.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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