On this day in 1993, Toyota and General Motors sign an historic agreement: Beginning in 1996, GM will offer its bestselling Chevy Cavalier, refitted with right-hand drive, for sale in Japan. The Cavalier was one of the first American automobiles to hit the Japanese market.
The agreement that created the Toyota Cavalier was meant to help crack open the aggressively protectionist Japanese market for American imports. Many Japanese carmakers maintained that Tokyo’s laundry list of rules and regulations for foreign companies was not to blame for the massive ($37 billion) U.S. trade deficit; instead, they argued, the problem was American auto companies’ refusal to cater to the Japanese market by providing things like right-hand drive. But whatever the reason was, the fact remained that Americans imported about 2 million Japanese cars every year and exported practically zero. According to the plan, Toyota would sell 20,000 Ohio-built Cavaliers at its Japanese dealerships every year.
The Toyota Cavalier was not the same car as its American cousin. Besides the right-hand drive, the Japanese Cavalier had longer accelerator pedals for shorter drivers, different exterior lights that complied with Japanese regulations, a flat fuel door, folding side mirrors and flared front fenders that covered the tires. It did not have cruise control. It did, however, have the same innards as its Chevy counterpart—a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine—and the same American-made GM-Delco radio.
Ironically enough, Chevy had built its small, zippy Cavalier to compete with the imported compact cars that had become so popular in the U.S. during the oil crisis of the 1970s. The Cavalier replaced the Monza, a sporty coupe that had very poor fuel economy. The car went on sale in 1981 and was a hit almost right away: In 1984, it was the best-selling car in the country. To Japanese buyers, however, the car was not so appealing. In 1996, the Toyota Cavalier’s best year, Japanese customers only bought 11,467 of the cars; between October 1995 and March 2000, when GM cancelled the deal, only 36,216 sold in all.