You would have thought that Toyota, probably the word’s biggest carmaker with sales of 9.9m units in 2012, would be pretty happy with the way things are panning out.
True, the company slumped into a £2.6bn loss after the 2008 financial crisis. And, like all the Japanese carmakers, it suffered badly with the double - and closely spaced - disasters of the Thai floods (where many suppliers are based) and then the massive earthquake and Tsunami in 2011.
And Toyota isn’t well placed in the global premium car market (Lexus is a relative minnow), but then again in the year 2012-13, it banked a profit of £6bn.
But Toyota’s not happy. Indeed, on the opening morning of the Tokyo motor show Mitsuhisa Kato, the company’s Executive Vice President for Research and Development, made an emotional presentation on the Toyota stage.
Kato related the story of Toyota chairman Aiko Toyoda who was one of the drivers when Toyota entered the Nurburgring 24-hour endurance race with a LFA supercar. One of teams with three professional racing drivers, the Lexus LFA came 37th overall out of 175 entrants.
Kato said that once Toyoda had returned to the pits he became ‘quite tearful’. This, he said, was because the Toyota pit crew covered everybody from ‘the newest recruits to the chairman’. Kato (who oversaw the development of four generations of the Corolla) made a plea to the audience that cars must never become ‘just transport or just a tool. We must never make cars that are neither love nor hate cars’.
Yes, yes, I know. This is guy who was in charge of a couple of decades’ worth of Corollas. First, they sell very well and second, they probably make good money.
But Kato was deep into repentance mode (with the rising swell of violins on the PA system), making a remarkable acknowledgment that Toyota had been guilty of building appliances. He also said that he was going back to his roots as an engineer and reminding himself that ‘engineers create the future’.
He left the gathered crowd by simply saying ‘Fun to drive, again’ and ‘We love cars’ – Toyota’s current catch lines.
As easy as it is for car enthusiasts to mock Toyota, it’s the world’s biggest carmaker and it makes a pile of money. But it is very interesting to see that even this mighty industrial force can see that unless today’s younger generations (who are flooding back into the world’s big cities) are engaged by personal mobility, they may never enter a car showroom, preferring public transport, bicycles and occasional car sharing.