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Toyota 2000GT

Japan's first supercar

by Julian Edgar

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Think Japanese seminal sports cars and you’re likely to remember cars like the Nissan Skyline GT-R, the Honda NSX and the Toyota Supra. But what if you had to cast your mind back a few more decades, to a time when the term ‘Japanese sportscar’ was an oxymoron? What were the earlier breakthroughs? It’s almost a certain bet that you’d then say ‘Datsun 240Z’ – the first in what has been a phenomenally successful series of sports cars from Nissan, culminating in today’s 350Z. 

But in fact Nissan wasn’t the first – Toyota with the 2000GT beat them by years...  And with a much more exciting machine at that.

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Developed jointly by Yamaha and Toyota, the 2000GT made its debut at the 1965 Tokyo Motor Show. However it took another 2 years before it went on sale.  It is suggested that the origin of the car was a design carried out by freelance US/German designer Albrecht Goertz, who had designed the BMW 507 and later had a hand in the Datsun 240Z.  Although built by Yamaha, Goertz had originally penned the car for Nissan, but they turned it down – probably because its sophistication and cost were too high for the production and marketing plans they were making. Yamaha then turned to Toyota, who decided to put the car into production.

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The development of the car by Toyota began in 1963, being directed by chief engineer Jiro Kiwano. Three prototypes were built, each having differences in lights and dash trim. The styling presence of the production version depended very much on the angle from which it was viewed. Front-on, large fixed driving lights dominated; these were fitted in addition to pop-up headlights. (When raised, the headlights met US height standards.) Chrome bumperettes flanked each leading corner of the car.

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In profile the car looked vastly better – modern and elegant, with its bulging front and rear wheel arches, a roofline that disappeared seamlessly into the lift-up hatch, and a curved trailing edge to the door. The hatches in front of the doors concealed openings in which the battery, washer bottle and airfilter were located.

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And from the rear? Again bumperettes were used, this time vertical; these protruded backwards with rubber facings. Immediately below were twin centrally-mounted exhausts and at either side of the car – mounted on the rear tumblehome – were bullet-shaped reflectors. The 15-inch magnesium wheels and 165/65 tyres looked far too narrow for the styling, a comment also made in road tests.

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In isolation the 2000GT looked a far bigger car than it really was – it’s only when you see people standing next to the car that you realise it’s actually a small car, just 114cm high. And mass? The 2000GT weighed only 1120kg!

But in addition to the styling, the 2000GT made a startling technological statement for contemporary Japan. The 2-litre, six-cylinder engine used the seven bearing crank, rods and M-series block from the Crown. However, the sump was an alloy casting and the head was all-new. It was equipped with twin cams and 12 valves and used hemispherical combustion chambers. The valve angle was 79 degrees, the bore and stroke both 75mm, and the sparkplugs were centrally located.

The engine had a maximum output of 150hp at 6600 rpm and a peak torque of 130 ft-lb at a high 5000 rpm. Three Mikuni-Solex carburettors were used. A competition version was also available – it had triple 45mm Weber carbies, different cams and a higher compression ratio to deliver 200hp at a sky-high 7200 rpm. Even the street level version had twin three-branch, long primary exhaust manifolds converging into twin downpipes.

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Backing the 2-litre six was an 8.8-inch clutch followed by an all-synchro, close-ratio 5-speed manual transmission. Fourth gear was a 1:1 ratio and fifth a 0.844 overdrive. A 4.375 limited slip diff was fitted with both shorter (4.625) and taller (4.111) ratios optionally available.

The chassis was also sophisticated, with rack and pinion steering, unequal length independent A-arm suspension front and rear, and vacuum-boosted four-wheel disc brakes, 11 inches in diameter on the front and 10.5 inches at the back. Indicative of the technological step being undertaken by Toyota, this was the first car the company had produced with rack and pinion steering... Of course coil springs were used all ‘round, and the rear A-arms were long, adjustable tubular designs. The rear discs were conventional outboard designs, rather than the inboard discs used on the rear of the Jaguar E-Type, a car to which the 2000GT was compared again and again.

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Inside the cabin, wood panelling dominated. It sounds bizarre but this was the time when all real sports/GT cars had wood highlights – and Yamaha was at that time the world’s biggest manufacturer of pianos... Instrumentation included the two main gauges in front of the driver – a 160 mph speedo and a 9000 rpm tacho redlined at 7000 rpm. A further five gauges were situated across an expanse of dashboard – ammeter, water temp, oil temp, oil pressure and fuel level. In addition, the 2000GT was fitted with a self-seeking AM radio, telescopic steering wheel, “rally” clock, heated rear window and reversing lights.

The bodywork was not a full monocoque; instead a deep (up to 250mm in places) backbone chassis was used, similar in concept to the Lotus Elan. The bodywork was hand-built in aluminium and it was said that no two cars were identical. The front/rear weight distribution was close to 50:50.

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In addition to being sold in Japan, the 2000GT was exported to the US, although apparently only in right-hand drive form. Road tests there found that it would accelerate to 60 mph (98 km/h) in 10.0 seconds and go on to a top speed of 128 mph (206 km/h). However, Toyota at the time claimed a top speed of “over 220 km/h”. The standing quarter mile took 16.6 seconds.

From our standpoint in the next century these times look slow, but it’s important to note that some contemporary road testers were also disappointed in the performance.

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“It goes damn well – but it looks as if it should go better,” said one. Together with a very high price, that spelled doom for commercial success. In retrospect it’s obvious that Nissan made the right decisions with the 240Z – a larger and simpler engine that produced about the same power, simpler suspension and brakes, and a simpler method of manufacture. All those simplifications added up to a cheaper car to build – and that meant sales. And sales and sales.

So the Datusn 240Z might have been the big breakthrough in Japanese sports car development, but it was the Toyota 2000GT which really showed what Japanese manufacturers were capable of. As Yamaha now say of it: “The Toyota 2000GT sent out the message that a high-performance car could be made solely by Japanese hands, and brought new confidence to the Japanese auto makers that would inspire their eventual leap into the world markets.”

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