The Toyota Automobile Museum, Aichi

The Toyota Automobile Museum in Aichi encapsulates perfectly the Japan I’ve come to know. That doesn’t mean it’s all clean and shiny and high-tech, quite the opposite in fact. The museum has exactly the same vibe you get when you first step off the plane at Narita Airport, and every time you go into a public building in the country thereafter. I’m not talking about plasma screens or rapid elevators or talking drinks machines here. No, what I’m on about is grey carpet tiles, laminated A4 signs sellotaped to the walls and the smell of freshly brewing filter coffee – with just a hint of Dave Brubeck playing somewhere in the background.

It could be all too tempting to say that a dowdy building like this captures the spirit of Toyota perfectly, but doing so would do the rich and varied history of the world’s biggest car-maker a massive disservice. The Toyota Museum charts the rise and rise of the Nagoya manufacturer, from its beginnings less than a hundred years ago, to its emergence as one of the powerhouses behind the post-war Japanese economic miracle, and on to its role as one of the world’s major industrial forces at the dawn of the twenty-first Century. As well as showcasing the cars that made Toyota the brand it is today, the museum also shows great sensitivity to the wider automotive and social contexts within which the Toyoda family’s company grew.

Stepping off the fully-automated light rail – the last of three trains we’ve taken from central Nagoya to get here – it’s impossible to miss the giant red ‘T’ on the other side of the road. From further up the privet hedge-lined curved road that leads to the museum I can hear the rasping exhaust note of a historic car. Could it be a TA22 Celica? Even a 2000GT? To my great surprise a while Honda S800 driven by a middle-aged man rounds the bend and beetles off towards the road junction. Intruder.

From the road

From the road

The S800 wasn’t on a solo mission. The first metal that catches our eyes upon entering the building is the brushed stainless steel of a Delorean DMC-12. I don’t think I have ever seen one of these things displayed statically with the doors closed, and that pattern isn’t about to change. Folk queue up to have their photos taken next to the Ulster-built car, the open gullwing door acting as a perfect frame for the peace signs they make with their fingers. Nobody stops for a picture with the first ever Toyota from 1936 that is exhibited just three metres away at the bottom of the escalators.

The main part of the Toyota museum is divided into three floors. The building is in the shape of a giant oval, with the car galleries wrapped round the edge of a tall atrium in the middle. The ground floor is where you find the cafe, gift shop, toilets, lockers and all the other things you’d expect at the front end of a large museum. The first floor houses everything up to around the late 1950s or early 1960. And the top floor – which I make a beeline for because it’s the bit I’m most interested in and I don’t want to be punch-dunk by the time I get there – is where they keep anything made after electric guitars came into fashion. This is where the Crowns, Corollas, Celicas and Centuries from the seventies and eighties live, the Showa Era cars that I’m really keen on.

Celica and Galant

Celica and Galant

The first thing that strikes me on the top floor is a matt blue Crown Publica plonked right at the stairhead. The second is that there are an awful lot of cars on display that aren’t, well, they aren’t Toyotas. For every two classic Toyotas, there seems to be at least one equivalent from another Japanese manufacturer. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the row featuring the gorgeous ‘Coke bottle’ TA22 Celica, where the star exhibit is flanked on one side by an Isuzu 117 coupe and a Mitsubishi Galant GTO on the other. As we walk round the oval, the lengths Toyota have gone to in order to illustrate the Japanese car scene into which key models were launched become quite clear. There’s a Nissan Silvia to counter the 1968 Corolla Sprinter, a Mazda MX-5 as foil for the first-generation MR2, and an original Honda Civic balancing the ’76 Corona. Each of these rival cars is prepared to the same high standard, and give the same level of explanatory detail, as its Aichi counterpart. Context, as I’ll explain in more detail later, is an important part of the Toyota experience.

All the big top-floor exhibits, though, are given over to Toyotas. What is really nice is that the curators have tried to do something different with each key model. The Century limousine has an example of its gigantic V12 engine mounted next to it in a glass case (although if truth be told I would have preferred to be able to try sitting in one of the mahoosive leather seats for myself). The Supra and Celica displays don’t even have full-scale cars, instead using scale models to describe the processes through which two of the nineties’ most distinctive sports cars were developed and manufactured respectively. The LFA supercar is mounted in front of a big video screen cataloguing Toyota’s development efforts at the Nürburgring. And perhaps most effective of all, a pristine white 2000GT is simply parked in front of a white wall and left to explain itself.

Gold Soarer

Gold Soarer

Just for the record, my favourite ‘exhibit’ of all is the 1981 Toyota Soarer in the middle of the hall – grandfather of the Lexus SC400. It sports a two-tone paint job, bright gold with glossy brown trim, and a cream velour interior. The wire-effect alloy wheels and big chrome mirrors could only be more tacky if the silver Pegasus on the grille was replaced with a gold dollar (or should that be yen?) sign. It’s an ugly box of a car devoid of any semblance of taste or decency, and yet I absolutely love it. Why? Because it’s such a fantastic artifact of the economic boom that permeated through Japan in the 1980s and 90s, representing perfectly everything I’ve ever been told about the period of Japanese history known only as the ‘bubble’. I bet if you got in and turned the stereo on the Bubblegum Brothers would come blasting out.

The first floor has some lovely metal, both Japanese and foreign. At the time of our visit a fascinating exhibition is running on diplomatic cars in pre-war Tokyo, complete with vintage metal from around the world. To my delight the management sourced a Citroen Traction Avant, which I spend several minutes poring over before remembering I am in the Toyota museum and should really be looking at non-French cars. The other highlight of the special exhibit is a vast beige Hispano-Suiza, which was shipped to Japan as a bare chassis before entering diplomatic service with bespoke bodywork designed and fitted by a Tokyo coachbuilder.

Toyopet Corona

Toyopet Corona

Elsewhere on the historic floor, we have a quick look round a bizarre (if comprehensive) collection of crystal bonnet mascots, and briefly enjoy the Mercedes 500K, SL 300 Gullwing, Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, prototype VW Beetle, and Porsche 356A Speedster that are assembled along the lower curve of the gallery. It seems almost sacrilegious to grant more than a few million pounds’ worth of metal such short shrift, but time is pressing on and there’s a whole other world of mystery I want to explore – the museum’s Annex.

The word ‘annex’ conjures up images of something secondary, of lower quality and little interest to anyone but the most devoted fanatics. It is not the kind of place you would expect to find a staggering collection of material, of which approximately only twenty percent is car-related. Yet once we cross the covered (and grey carpet-tiled) footbridge, take a minute to admire the collection of metre-long styling models used by Toyota’s R&D department to fine-tune their creations, and open the double doors, we are met with the strangest of sights. For it seems we have left a car museum and entered an archive of cultural history.

No cars are visible when you first enter the Annex Building. Instead there are lots of panels explaining traditional Japanese calligraphy, a few glass cases of primitive ironmongery and a big flat map of Japan. Through the gap I can see a reconstructed bamboo shack and two wrought iron bicycles. After a good two minutes of looking, reading and walking I start to wonder if there are actually any cars in here at all. Is this just a collection of Kiichiro Toyoda’s personal possessions? Eventually I stumble across a big green lorry backed up against a partition, which according to the notice nailed to the wall is an experimental wood-powered vehicle. Right on the other side of the divide is a Toyota fire truck, which was probably invented out of necessity not long after the log-burning truck went on sale.

Period garage

Period garage

The Annex’s second room is an elongated hallway, one that doubles back on the first room. I can see eight or nine cars scattered around the exhibition space, and from what I can make out they are arranged in roughly chronological order from the early 1950s to late 70s. The cars are not markedly different from those in the main museum space, being just more production-standard examples of the vehicles churned out during one of Toyota’s biggest periods of growth, but it’s in capturing the essence of the time that the curators have really gone to town. For not only are there more non-Toyotas, but also a staggering array of objects pertaining to Japan’s post-war economic recovery.

For example, next to an early Toyoace van is a booth charting the development of Japan’s camera manufacturing, with more than fifty Canons and Konicas arranged in glass-and-wood cases. Fashion changes in the sixties and seventies are represented with dozens of pairs of jeans hung from wooden boards, and racks of t-shirts that wouldn’t look out of place in a vintage clothing store. The music section – set up next to a Suzuki Carry-Van – has covers of 1960s records mounted on the wall, Japanese and ‘western’ artists displayed side-by-side. I am delighted to see a copy of The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Jazz Impressions of Japan hanging up there. But my favourite exhibit of all is the one that taps into children’s toys around the time motorised vehicles took over Japanese society. My eye is drawn in particular to the foot-long tin toy bullet train, a fantastic white and blue creation with windows, doors and even roof vents. The boys’ comics from the era give a rather more thought-provoking view of how social values have shifted since, their covers not only carrying wonderful drawings of racing cars but also offering the reader a free toy gun.

Tin toy shinkansen

Tin toy shinkansen

Upon leaving the history exhibition, you are thrown out into one of the ubiquitous grey corridors. You have two choices here. You can either go downstairs and back to the main museum, or upstairs and along another off-white passageway to the library. This is a library in the classic sense of the word, with a person at a low desk, shelves of books arranged in strict order, tables and comfy chairs, and utter silence. People of all ages, exclusively male, sit at the tables with books. About half of them seem to be plotting their next purchase, poring over buyer’s guides and maintenance manuals for reasonably-priced sports cars whilst checking prices on their phones, and the other half are indulging in unreachable things like Formula One, 2000GTs and LFA super cars. There are even desks by the window for more serious students, like the elderly gentleman making copious notes from some original 1950s wiring diagrams. So quiet is the library that I can hear the blood flowing through my head as I browse the assembled literature – which, in keeping with the theme that seems to be running through the museum, is by no means all Toyota-related. In fact, I struggle to find something quintessentially Toyota to read on the shelves, stumbling in turn across the new-season car brochures, the Nissan Skyline archives, the American car section and – inexplicably – a full set of Tintin novels translated into Japanese. When I finally do find something pertaining to the owners of the museum, an old Century brochure held tightly in a cardboard box, I’m too scared to take it out in case it falls to bits.

There are a lot of books...

There are a lot of books…

With time ticking on, our final stop is the café and adjacent souvenir shop for late afternoon brew and a spot of shopping. I sit at the window and sip my coffee, watching a group of car enthusiasts in the car park compare their vehicles under the setting autumn sun. In the group, there are two Citroën 2CVs, one Lotus Elan, and one original Mini, with the Lotus getting the most attention. Eventually the various bonnets close, the group disperses, the cars drive off and I head to the shop, where I have considerable trouble sourcing a model Toyota. There are tiny versions of virtually every Japanese brand, but an alarmingly skimpy selection of Toyotas. When I look up and see a giant Tomica box with a picture of a Mazda on it, the penny finally drops. This isn’t a Toyota museum at all. It’s a museum telling the story of the car and the whole system of automobility in the development of Japan and the wider world. And if some of the cars that represent pivotal moments in that story just happen to be Toyotas, then so be it.

Coffee and cars

Coffee and cars

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