Initial B - 1970 Toyota 7 Turbo

WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY

Following the encouraging results of the improved 5-liter New 7, Japanese auto giant Toyota was confident it could take the fight to the big boys. The company longed to compete beyond the confined spaces of the Japanese motorsport scene, and set its sights on breaking new ground as the first Japanese firm to compete in the prestigious Canadian American Cup Challenge.

At the second running of the International Fuji 200 Can Am event, the then 610 horsepower strong New 7 had displayed dominant performance against the much bigger displacement full-blooded Can Am monsters. A new aero package and the track knowledge of the experienced, blisteringly quick Minoru Kawai helped Toyota’s David beat the Goliaths of the sport.

The wild wedge-shaped McLaren M8D was the car to beat for 1970.

The wild wedge-shaped McLaren M8D was the car to beat for 1970.

However, Toyota designer Jiro Kawano and his team realized the competition overseas would still be fierce. Companies like McLaren, Ford, Shadow and Porsche would not be sitting on their hands waiting for the Toyota’s to take over. Additionally, Nissan would without a doubt be working hard to further improve their mighty V12 to challenge their arch rivals back home.

With power figures swiftly approaching the 700 horsepower mark, the little 5-liter New 7 was in dire need of a hefty steroid injection. Although the 7’s 8000 rpm, dual overhead camshaft flatplane V8 was a wonderful gem of mechanical engineering, by the end of 1969 it had reached the limits of its potential.

The intricate ducting and piping made the new turbo engine appear like something straight out of an Alien movie.

The intricate ducting and piping made the new turbo engine appear like something straight out of an Alien movie.

Since stretching it out to an even larger displacement was not an option, Toyota decided to invest in a still alien technology in the world of motorsport. Inspired by the aerospace industry, Toyota’s engineers proposed using turbines driven by the exhaust gases of the V8, directly connected to compressors on the intake side.

These would then compress incoming air on the intake side, forcing more air into the engine, allowing more fuel to be injected and massive power gains to be made. In short: Toyota was on the brink of creating the first ever turbocharged racing car. As a safety net, the team resorted to further developing the naturally aspirated car with revised bodywork, while Project 578A continued.

The second evolution of the New 7 featured clean, unbroken lines.

The second evolution of the New 7 featured clean, unbroken lines.

In a clear evolution from the winged variant seen at the Fuji 200, the latest iteration of the 7 featured smoothed bodywork to reduce drag. The radiators were relocated as well, and now found a home in the flanks of the car, fed by large NACA-ducts.

One such chassis was constructed, complete with a refreshed naturally aspirated engine. The exhaust system was once again raised upwards, with two large pipes terminating above the taillights. In preparation for the turbo engine, the Hewland LG-600 five-speed manual transmission was replaced by a severely reinforced Aisin Seiko CO SR-55 unit, complete with a heavy duty clutch.

The large exhausts made the naturally aspirated car easy to identify.

The large exhausts made the naturally aspirated car easy to identify.

The stronger ‘box was needed as the new engine turned out to be quite the performer. With a monumental 800 horsepower at 8000 rpm, and a colossal 725 Nm (534 lbs ft) of torque at 7600 rpm, the V8 produced a never-before-seen level of unbridled fury. In fact, the immense figures made the 7 Turbo the most powerful circuit racing car in the world.

The business end of the 7 Turbo.

The business end of the 7 Turbo.

The sheer amount of power was compounded by the nature in which it was developed. As the twin Garrett AiResearch turbines were so enormous, the 7 experienced an enormous amount of turbo-lag.

Whenever the driver stomped on the throttle, it would take several seconds for the exhaust gases to reach the appropriate speed to power the turbines. But as soon as they did, a ferocious storm of power immediately overwhelmed the massive rear tires.

Because the tiny, 3.75 meter (12’) long and 2.04 meter (6’7”) wide machine only weighed 620 kg (1366 lbs), whenever that power hit it would become very lively. This wildly unpredictable behavior came as a shock to Toyota’s driving contingent, including star driver Minoru Kawai.

The 7 Turbo showing its small fuel tanks mounted at the front to improve weight distribution.

The 7 Turbo showing its small fuel tanks mounted at the front to improve weight distribution.

Despite their reservations, the turbo car seemed to be to obvious way towards success. Even so, the insane power level, coupled to the fact Kawai and his colleagues were basically flying around in an angry, paper-thin aluminium box full of fuel that didn’t seem to like them very much had all the elements of a potential disaster.

Minoru Kawai testing the 7 Turbo, 1970.

Minoru Kawai testing the 7 Turbo, 1970.

Unfortunately, the inherently dangerous situation once again expressed itself in the worst way possible. While testing at Suzuka, Minoru Kawai approached Degner corner at over 200 kph (125 mph), when the Turbo suddenly bit back. Kawai fought the unruly car, but he was out of time.

His car plowed straight ahead off track, and he was launched out of the cockpit of his completely destroyed machine. The resulting impact broke both his legs, and fractured his skull at the base. He was immediately transported to a local hospital by ambulance, but it was already too late. Just 30 minutes later, Minoru Kawai succumbed his injuries. He was only 28 years old.

Minoru Kawai, 1942-1970.

Minoru Kawai, 1942-1970.

The tragic death of Kawai thrust Toyota into another publicity nightmare. Like Sachio Fukuzawa, who perished in the experimental coupe version the year before, Kawai was a major celebrity in Japan. Although not a model and fashion icon like his colleague had been, Minor Kawai was a prominent TV-personality, appearing in numerous talk shows and commercials for Toyota. On top of that, he was married to famous model, singer and actress Rosa Ogawa.

Toyota had happily taken advantage of the couple's star power in advertising.

Toyota had happily taken advantage of the couple's star power in advertising.

Aside from his fame, Kawai had a lot of potential left as a driver, impressing even 1969 teammate Vic Elford with his impeccable skill. It was therefore a small wonder the project was starting to fall apart without him. As another one of their talented star drivers slain by an experimental and highly secret racing weapon, Toyota’s motivation to press on nearly evaporated.

Two 7 Turbo's on a demo run at Fuji Speedway.

Two 7 Turbo's on a demo run at Fuji Speedway.

The company didn’t have to ponder for long though, as the Japanese Automobile Federation had already partly made the decision for them. Starting with the 1970 season, the Japan Grand Prix would no longer be contested under FIA Group 7 regulations. Instead, the JAF gambled on turning the famous event into a single-seater race in hopes of eventually securing a genuine Formula One Grand Prix.

And with that simple announcement, the JAF had made the 7 Turbo largely obsolete before the testing program had even begun. As Nissan only ever contested the Japan Grand Prix and ignored the endurance races, Toyota would be left without an adversary. With no other competitors in the class, Group 7 simply vanished from the Japanese racing scene.

The dissolution of Group 7 in Japan helped Toyota to rationalize the eventual cancellation of the 7 program. The car maker’s wish to conquer the lucrative North American market under the strength of the 7 Turbo’s potential Can Am domination was also abandoned for fear of further public backlash back in Japan.

The official explanation given was Toyota’s supposed need to refocus their energy onto developing more fuel efficient and cleaner engines. As a result, the 7 Turbo would never reach the great promised land on the other side of the Pacific.

The red 7 Turbo at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2007.

The red 7 Turbo at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2007.

The Toyota 7 Turbo was a brilliant boosted brute created to vanquish Nissan’s V12 maniac once and for all. As well as cleaning house in the domestic arena, Toyota wanted torpedo the pinnacle of the sport: Can Am. By turning to aircraft technology, the 7 Turbo belted out more power than any other sports prototype before it, perhaps too much for its own good.

Owing to questionable decisions by the local governing body, a dangerously aggressive power delivery and the death of a beloved icon, the 7 Turbo missed the boat on more than one level. A nation in mourning simply couldn’t bring itself to support Toyota’s latest hero on a potentially lethal mission to a foreign land. In the end, Toyota learned a tried and true lesson: with great power comes great responsibility.

Three Toyota 7’s have survived the great deal of misfortune the project suffered in its final year. The trio consists of a blue-liveried naturally aspirated model, an orange Turbo, and a red-painted Turbo built to resemble the car that took Minoru Kawai’s life. The cars are regularly on display at Toyota’s museum, as a reminder of the turbulent start to Toyota’s long and successful journey in prototype racing.

The Toyota EX-7.

The Toyota EX-7.

Curiously, a fourth chassis was used as the base for a futuristic supercar concept, the EX-7. This car was shown to the public at the 1970 Tokyo Motor Show, equipped with a detuned 450 horsepower version of the naturally aspirated V8. However, like its racing cousin, the EX-7 never matured beyond the prototype stage.

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Comments (6)

  • It's so freakin clean!!! I love it!

      2 years ago
  • A good read. Thank you. One of the race cars i have always been interested in.

      2 years ago
  • Fantastic article as always!

    I know this race car from playing Gran Turismo, but I didn't really know the story about this car... Reading this article fascinates me a lot!

    Good job! I'm looking forward for the next article.

      2 years ago
  • Great stuff! 👏

      2 years ago
  • Hi congratulations - your post has been selected by DriveTribe Classics Ambassador for promotion on the DriveTribe homepage.

      2 years ago
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