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Steering for the classics

A red 1750 Alfa Romeo 6C Gran Sport in the exhibition hall of Toyota Automobile Museum.

Publication Date : 12-09-2012


The Toyoda Model AA in the Toyota Automobile Museum in Nagoya pays silent testimony to the Toyota story. Rolled out from the assembly line at Koromo in 1936, this baby was Toyoda's first ever passenger car. Giving the sedan a serious once over, I try to figure out if my girlfriend's mother could ever love this car as much as the 1998 Toyota Corolla AE110 in which her daughter has chauffered her everywhere over the last 10 years.

Probably not, I decide, giving it a final look.

Like many cars invented before the Second World War, the Model AA is big and bulky. In solid black, the 4-door sedan looks serious with a metal body and metal ladder chassis. The rear doors open backwards. The front glass spans the entire width of the body in a single pane. I cannot imagine the lady in question travelling in this "tank" between her permanent place on Sukhumvit and her second home in Min Buri.

But the AE110 and the rest of Toyota's stable of vehicles started here.

"Sakichi Toyoda and Kiichiro Toyoda," our guide at the Nagoya museum says with reverence in her voice. "They're father and son. The father, Mister Sakichi, ran Toyoda Loom Works, which manufactured automatic looms, before Kiichiro, veered off into the car-making business that eventually became the Toyota Motor Corporation."

In 76 years on the road, Toyota has produced more than 200 million cars in various models, from family sedan like the Camry to the Supra and much more in between. It's so big that the town of Koromo in Aichi Prefecture, east of Nagoya is called Toyota-shi, and the Toyota Automobile Museum itself draws car buffs from around the world.

Opened in 1989, the museum is well set out and contains more than 120 cars tracing the history of the automobile.

The three-storey museum exhibit cars from Japan, America, Italy, France, and Germany. The curators show them to the visitors through different ages of car-making, going back to the days when Leonardo da Vinci’s made sketches of automobiles, to the mass production period.

All the cars on display have been painstakingly restored and are in showroom condition, quite a challenge for some of the Japanese models that have long been sent to the crusher. Unlike many car museums in Europe, Toyota Automobile Museum in Nagoya features cars from all around the world with an emphasis on cars of importance to the motoring world or Japan.

From Toyoda Model AA, we are herded to the second floor, and stop by a three-wheeled vehicle that's the great grandmother of Mercedes-Benz.

"A replica of Benz Paten Motorwagon," says the guide, while I horse around like a used-car dealer looking for Karl Benz' fourth wheel. Not a fun car to drive, I guess, compared with Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes-powered McLaren. Forget the fourth wheel. The car doesn't even have a steering wheel.

"This three-wheeled Benz was built in 1868, and it is the first gasoline-powered car. The steering stick controlled the front wheel and the vehicle can travel at a top speed of 15 kilometres per hour," adds the guide.

If, like me, you're a vintage car enthusiast with poor discipline, you won't follow the guide very long.

After the three-wheel Benz, I decide to follow my passion and make a bee-line for the 1958 Austin Healey Sprite and 1965 Jaguar E-Type. Painted white, both are convertible and beautiful. It's like Gisele Bündchen and Alessandra Ambrosio winking at you simultaneously. I'm nervous and not sure how to approach.

Then I spot a 1750 Alfa Romeo 6C Gran Sport, 1938 Volkswagen 38 Prototype, 1955 Ford Thunderbird and 1934 Mercedes-Benz 500K.

Fans of Japanese manga "Dr Slump & Arale", a will love "cartoon cars" like the 1955 Fujicabin, 1960 Mazda R360-Coupe and 1955 Toyopet Master. During the post-war period, says a sign at the museum, an automobile wasn't affordable to a family and general public. Japan responded to this situation by producing large numbers of small, lightweight compact cars that quickly replaced cycles, giving birth to the city car and the traffic jam.

Finally, I find my favourite - the 2000GT - in a sports car zone. Billed as Japan's first "supercar", Toyota made 2000GT between 1967 and 1970 when the Dodge Charger, Ford Mustang and Camaro were roaring along North America's highways. Painted white, the 2000GT looks furious with a long hood, balanced styling, backbone frame structure and 3M engine. You may remember the convertible model, which agent 007 (Sean Connery back then) jumps into in "You Only Live Twice". With only a few hundred ever produced, the Toyota 2000GT is a rare find today.

There is one more car, the Toyota Sprinter Trueno GT-APEX (AE86), that I want to see. Unlike the sleek and muscled, 2000GT, the AE86 Trueno is a sleeper in a hatchback style. But it sure kicks ass. The AE86 Trueno appears in the street racing movie "Initial D", where the main character Takumi Fujiwara drives his father's AE86 Trueno and outclasses a whole lot of sports car.

Unfortunately, the curators at Toyota Automobile Museum don't have it on their car list. Obviously, it's not celebrity cars that make Toyota Mobile Museum so special - but the prototype models.


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