54 Years of Australian Toyotas
Never Australia's most exciting cars, but still worth remembering
Toyota Australia’s Altona production facility will close on Tuesday, bringing to an end 54 years of Toyota manufacturing in Australia. That represents roughly two-thirds of Toyota’s existence. Toyota has never been the biggest car manufacturer in Australia, but they have been very successful and outlived every other Australian carmaker bar Holden.
The first Toyota sold in Australia was the Land Cruiser, imported by Theiss Toyota, for use on the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme. Australia was Toyota’s first export market, chosen for proximity and, crucially, right hand drive. The Land Cruiser supplanted the Land Rover on the Snowy Hydro Scheme, proving to be much more reliable. Australian Motor Industries, the local manufacturer of AMC, Fiat and Mercedes-Benz took an interest in Toyota in the early 1960s, and Australia became host to the first Toyota factory outside Japan. Production of the Tiara, a third generation Corona, began in Port Melbourne in 1963 alongside models from Triumph, Rambler and Mercedes. Despite Japanese bombings of Darwin during the second world war still fresh on Australians’ memories, the Tiara quickly became AMI’s best-selling model. The Pininfarina-styled 1964 Corona followed just four weeks after Japanese production started, and was another sales success. Toyota’s first attempt at taking on the Falcon, Holden and Valiant came in the form of the 1963 Crown. The Crown’s antiquated ladder frame and styling clearly derived from the Falcon meant it was the first in a long line of failures in this segment for Toyota. In 1968 Toyota took a 10% stake in AMI.
More positive news came in the form of the 1970 Corolla. Australia was the first country after Japan to manufacture Corollas.The Corolla was much better fit for Toyota’s brand and much better executed than the Crown.The Corolla went on to become the biggest selling small car in Australia.
Toyota bought out British Leyland’s stake in AMI in 1972, but it was downhill from there. Toyota had climbed over Volkswagen, Leyland, and Datsun to become Australia’s fourth best-selling car maker, but struggled to maintain it. The Corolla, Corona, and Crown offered little in the way of innovation through the 1970s. Competition from cars like the Chrysler Sigma and Ford Laser ate away at Toyota’s market share. Only the imported Hilux and Land Cruiser kept Toyota sales afloat. Local content requirements also hamstrung the company at the end of the decade. In 1979, they were forced to fit the Corona with the unreliable Holden Starfire four-cylinder to comply. Toyota learned the hard way that boring and unreliable doesn’t sell.
Relief came in the 1980s with a much-needed new AE82 Corolla. The Corolla Twin Cam and imported Celica added some excitement to an otherwise forgettable model range. The decrepit Corona also made way for a locally made Camry in 1987.Influenced by 1985 Button Rationalisation Plan, Toyota entered into the United Australian Auto Industries joint venture with Holden. It wasn’t the only arrangement of its type in Australia, but it was the most prominent. Under UAAI, Toyota Corollas and Camrys were sold largely unchanged as Holden Novas and Apollos. In exchange, Toyota was able to use Holden’s surplus import credits to import the Land Cruiser, Hilux and Cressida without tariffs. But the most recognised UAAI product was the infamous Lexcen, a badge-engineered Holden Commodore. Of all of Toyota’s attempts at selling a large car in Australia, this was arguably the worst.
Lexcen aside, the 1990s was another good decade for Toyota Australia. Strong Camry and Corolla sales helped them hold on to the #1 sales position for the first half of the decade. Although they lost the sales lead to Ford in 1995, they regained it in 1998, possibly because of the poor reception to the AU Falcon. Toyota has remained at #1 ever since.
Toyota hit a low point in the early 2000s. They launched the large the Avalon in 2001 at the expense of local Corolla production. It was well-received by the media, beating the VX Commodore and AU Falcon in a Wheels magazine comparison. It was the only time a large Toyota beat both the Falcon and Commodore.
Buyers didn’t agree. It was a commercial flop even against Toyota’s own relatively modest targets. It got even worse when new Falcon and Commodore models were released in late 2002. Avalon lost favour with the media and sales fell further. The 2003 Camry was another let down. To save money, Australia didn’t get the same all new Camry the Americans got. We got the new body, based on a combination of the old model and the Avalon. Not that Camrys target audience of retirees and fleets actually cared. Few Australians buy Camrys with their own money. Despite not being very good and no longer offering a wagon, the Camry was still the dominant player in the medium car market.
2006 brought the first all-new Camry since 1998. A car that was competent but not brilliant, it wasn’t as appealing as its rivals but still sold in massive numbers to fleets.The new Camry was joined by the Aurion, Toyota’s last, and best, large car effort. It smooth 1GR-FE V6 and six-speed auto gave it class-leading acceleration and fuel economy equal to the four cylinder Camry. It was the runner-up for the 2006 Wheels Car of the Year, beaten only by the VE Holden Commodore. In another year it might have won. Buyers still weren’t interested. Large sedans were already beginning to lose sales to SUVs, so the Aurion was already up against it. It was comfortably outsold by the Commodore and Falcon in a declining market segment.
Toyota introduced TRD to Australia in 2007, selling supercharged versions of the Aurion and Hilux V6. It was the first production application for the Eaton TVS supercharger. The 245kW TRD Aurion was also the world’s most powerful front wheel drive production car. It was an experiment that didn’t last long.
When Ford announced their closure it became harder for Holden and Toyota to continue in Australia. They shared a lot of suppliers who need the production volume of three manufacturers to keep prices down. After Holden elected to close in late 2017, Toyota quickly followed. It would have been impossible to continue as the only car manufacturer in Australia. Toyota Australia was profitable, but they needed Ford and Holden’s volumes as much as Ford and Holden needed them.
For a long time now, exports have been a major part of Toyota Australia’s business. The first country to receive Australian Toyotas was, naturally, New Zealand. The Cressida was exported there in 1984. More recently Camrys and Aurions have been exported to the Middle East. Toyota actually exported more Camrys than they sold in Australia. In 2013, Toyota Australia exported its one millionth Camry, making it Australia’s most successful automotive export. It was perhaps the only thing that kept Toyota Australia afloat, with domestic sales of Australian-built models usually well below Ford, Holden and even Mitsubishi.
Toyota’s presence in Australian motorsport has been consistent, if not as prominent as Holden’s or even Ford’s. Celicas, Sprinters and Corollas contested the Australian Touring Car Championship through Group C, Group A and Super Touring, right up until the Super Tourers split from the ATCC. When the ATCC became V8 Supercars, they made multiple attempts to get in with a V8 Avalon and later Camry and were instantly rejected every time. When they gave up in the late 2000s they claimed it wasn’t relevant. Even when the rules changed to allow them in they remained disinterested. Instead they supported a factory team in the Australian Rally Championship. Their Group N and Super 2000 Corollas took Neil Bates and Simon Evans to two driver’s championships each and claimed two manufacturers championships.
Toyota Australia won’t be remembered as fondly and Ford or Holden. Many people wouldn’t even realise Toyota made cars in Australia. They simply haven’t had the same cultural impact. The Corolla may be iconic, but it’s no Falcon or Commodore. It hasn’t even been made in Australia for 19 years now. Replacing the Corolla with the embarrassing Avalon is a decision Toyota Australia must regret, particularly considering the shift in preference from large cars to small. Toyota often lacked the bravery and innovation of Ford, Holden and Mitsubishi that produced the Territory, Monaro and Magna.
That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve any recognition. Toyota’s Australian products have rarely been popular with enthusiasts. Only the Corolla Twin Cam and TRD Aurion ever had any driver appeal. But Toyota did provide sales volumes that made more exciting Fords and Holdens viable. Toyota played a vital role in the Australian car industry. It will be sad to see them go.