One of the many joys of working at Autocar is that we get to meet the men and women behind the car companies and understand a little bit about what makes them tick. Often these interviews are inspiring, though sometimes they are not. Almost always, the personality of the person at the top reflects in the products at the end of the line.
The one person I’d love to meet, but have yet to, is Toyota boss Akio Toyoda. Far from conventional, Toyoda-san is famous outside of his day job of running one of the world’s largest car companies for variously steering his company through the ‘unintended acceleration’ frenzy that turned out to be a non-story, racing supercars in endurance events, showing a fierce determination in the wake of the tsunami disaster and forcing through the Toyota GT86, a Toyota that it’s acceptable to yearn to own.
Today he has gone up in my estimation once again, for breaking one of the greatest taboos among car company people; talking about cars built by rival companies that he loves. I can only imagine the spin this must have sent his PR people into, and can only applaud him for having the strength of leadership to speak his mind.
Speaking at his inauguration as Chairman of the Japan Automobile Manufacturer's Association, he named an eclectic list of rival cars as ones he most admired, revealing a deep-seated love of the industry and its products. I dare say many of his grey suited rivals at other global brands haven’t even heard of some of them, let alone considered them.
From Honda, he picked the NSX. No arguments there. From Mazda, he picked the Alfa-inspired Cosmo Sport Roadster, the first rotary engined car from Japan. Full kudos for that one. From Nissan, the Skyline. Presumably as it spawned the GT-R. From Isuzu he went for the 1963 Bellett, a small car that was a huge sales success. And from Mitsubishi, he picked the Pajero, for which we may have to forgive him and move on.
Toyota has come a long way in the three years since Toyoda took the top job. Today, Toyota is still a maker of bland, mass market, zero soul cars on the whole, but to me it feels like this super-tanker is turning, and that there is at last an understanding that building cars with little identity beyond vast sales figures is no longer enough on its own. I’m delighted that a man who loves cars as much as balance sheets is in charge, and I can’t help but root for his continued success.