photos courtesy of Toyota and RM Auctions
Known primarily as a manufacturer of robust cars designed for the masses, Toyota raised eyebrows in 1963 when it captured first place in all three categories of the first-ever Japanese Grand Prix. The company started thinking about developing a sports car after it watched sales skyrocket in the aftermath of its heavily-publicized victories.
Sports cars were relatively new to the Japanese market in the 1960s and local demand was low so Toyota knew from the very beginning of the project that its upcoming coupe would be primarily aimed at export markets like the United States. Development started in 1964 with just the vague guideline that the coupe had to offer an acceptable level of comfort, ruling out the possibility of building a Spartan back-to-the-basics machine like the MG B. The rest was simple: project leader Shoichi Saito reportedly ordered engineers to do whatever it took to build a world-class sports car.
At about the same time, Nissan and Yamaha were busily developing a similar sports car dubbed A550X internally. The coupe was nearing production and several prototypes were built but Nissan abruptly pulled the plug on the project in late 1964. Yamaha remained interested in building a low-volume sports car so it reached out to other Japanese automakers in order to find a new partner, and it wound up inking a deal with Toyota. Yamaha likely knew Toyota was developing a sports car but, contrary to popular belief, the 2000GT did not start life as a Nissan and it shared no components with the A550X.
The first 2000GT prototype was built jointly by Yamaha and Toyota in August of 1965 and presented at the Tokyo Motor Show that opened its doors the following October. The show-going public immediately heralded the 2000GT as one of the most beautiful cars ever to come out of Japan.
Testing continued both on and off the track, and Yamaha started production of the 2000GT in May of 1967. Similar to the prototype that bowed two years earlier, the production car boasted a sleek, curvaceous body with a long hood, a fastback-style rear end and short overhangs. Although the overall design is often wrongly attributed to Albrecht Goertz, the man who penned the BMW 507, Toyota records indicate the 2000GT was the work of a young designer named Satoru Nozaki.
The 2000GT boasted a sporty cockpit with a three-spoke wood-rimmed steering wheel, a pair of bucket seats and seven analog gauges that provided vital information about what was going on under the hood. Yamaha drew on its piano-building experience to craft exquisite rosewood trim pieces that adorned the 2000GT’s dashboard and center console.
The 2000GT was powered by a heavily-modified version of the 2.0-liter straight-six engine found in Toyota’s range-topping Crown sedan. Using technology gleaned from the world of motorcycles, Yamaha modified the mill with aluminum pistons and fitted it with an aluminum head equipped with hemispherical combustion chambers and two chain-driven overhead cams. The straight-six made 150 horsepower at 6,600 rpms and 130 lb-ft. of torque at 5,000 rpms thanks in part to three Solex carburetors.
Linked to a five-speed manual transmission that spun the rear wheels, the straight-six propelled the 2,469-pound 2000GT from zero to 62 mph in 8.6 seconds and on to a top speed of approximately 135 mph. These figures made the 2000GT one of the quickest regular-production Japanese cars of the era, and a backbone chassis inspired by the Lotus Elan helped provide excellent handling.
The 2000GT was largely hand-built so it cost over six times as much as a Corolla and considerably more than the opulent Crown. In the United States, the 2000GT retailed for $7,230 while the Porsche 911 started at $6,190 and the Jaguar E-Type commanded $5,559.
Toyota entered the 2000GT in several motorsport events in the late-1960s, and it even built a handful of experimental aluminum-bodied racers that competed in races Japan. The 2000GT’s most notable successes were taking third place in the 1966 Japanese Grand Prix and winning the 1967 edition of the 24 Hours of Fuji. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Carroll Shelby entered the 2000GT in SCCA events in 1968.
Toyota made several minor updates to the 2000GT over the course of its production run including fitting different door handles, adding headrests and redesigning the instrument panel. The coupe also gained an optional three-speed automatic transmission designed largely for the U.S. market, a stopwatch mounted in the center console and A/C.
2000GT production ended in August of 1970 after 337 examples (including 62 U.S.-spec models) were assembled. Two examples were turned into convertibles to star in the 1967 James Bond film "You Only Die Twice." The producer initially wanted to use a stock 2000GT but had to settle for a custom-built convertible because actor Sean Connery was allegedly too tall to fit in the coupe.
The 2000GT remained in near obscurity for decades but it has built up a well-deserved following over the past couple of years and it has been steadily going up in value. A remarkably clean U.S.-spec 1967 example became the most expensive regular-production Japanese car ever sold when it traded hands for the lofty sum of $1,155,000 at an auction last year.