On October 31, 1957, the Japanese car company Toyota establishes its U.S. headquarters in an old Rambler dealership in Hollywood, California. Toyota executives hoped to saturate the American second-car market with their small and relatively inexpensive Toyopet Crown sedans. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. sold its first Toyopet at the beginning of 1958; by the end of the year, it had sold 286 more, along with one behemoth Land Cruiser. Toyota cars were slow to catch on in the United States—it took until the mid-1960s for the company to gain a respectable chunk of the American market—but when they did, they did so with a bang. In 1972, thanks in large part to its success in the United States, Toyota sold its 1 millionth car, and three years later Toyota became the best-selling import brand in the United States.
In the mid-1950s, there were very few small cars on the road in America. People had plenty of disposable income for the first time in decades; gas was cheap; and American car companies were churning out enormous, elaborately be-finned models like the Ford Thunderbird and the Plymouth Fury. But those cars were not that easy to drive or park (especially, some people believed, for women, many of whom were learning to drive for the first time) and buying more than one tended to be too expensive for an ordinary middle-class family. As a result, foreign small-car manufacturers saw an opportunity. Volkswagen, for instance, exported more than 100,000 of its small, efficient Beetles to the United States in 1956 and the next year Toyota brought the Toyopet to Hollywood.
Though the car had been an overnight sensation in Japan, particularly among taxi drivers, it was a flop in the United States: It could barely meet California’s standards for roadworthiness, it guzzled extraordinary amounts of gas and oil and when it traveled on the freeway, it tended to shake violently, overheat and stall without much warning. Meanwhile, most Americans were simply too big to fit comfortably in its tiny cabin.
In 1961, Toyota dealers stopped selling the car in the United States. Four years later, the company introduced the Corona, a sedan designed especially for American drivers that was even more affordable than the Toyopet but featured luxuries like air-conditioning, automatic transmissions, carpeting, sun visors, arm rests, tinted windows and glove compartments. The Corona was a huge hit and it set the stage for another Toyota home run: the Corolla, introduced in 1968. The Corolla went on to become the best-selling passenger car in history.