Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

| 23 Oct 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

Japanese cars established a foothold in the UK from the late 1960s onwards by offering high levels of equipment at temptingly low prices.

When it became common knowledge that they were also reliable – not to mention well put together – British buyers began to set their misgivings and loyalties to one side in ever greater numbers, trotting around to the Datsun, Toyota and Mazda showrooms when the time came to replace their Ford Cortina, BMC 1100 or Hillman Minx.

There they found a selection of ornate but neatly finished vehicles that had such items as heated rear windows, pushbutton radios and reversing lights as standard, and all this at prices competitive with locally produced competition, even allowing for import duty.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

The underappreciated but quietly imposing Toyota Crown arrived in the UK in 1972

They were not perfect, of course.

The tinny Nipponese newcomers rusted as quickly as anything else, and some early adopters found the driving positions cramped, for these were cars designed around smaller-framed people.

Not everybody was so easily enticed by these cars’ tinselly blandishments, either.

I was not alone in being born cynical about Japanese vehicles and had some sympathy with my gran who, recalling the suffering of prisoners of war during WW2, refused to buy any car from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

Quad rectangular tail-lights give the Toyota Crown a muscular appearance

But as memories faded this was rarely a deal-breaker, particularly when concerns about parts availability were put to rest by earnest promises of ‘full spares back-up’ by eager-to-please British concessionaires.

It was in these cars that the concept of automobiles as white goods was conceived.

To buy one was to make a choice as detached and unemotional as purchasing a packet of washing powder or a pint of milk.

Mostly rear-driven, they went well enough in a straight line thanks to usually silky engines that tended to disguise the gearing dictated by low Japanese speed limits and sometimes rugged conditions.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

The neat dashboard wants for nothing but a rev counter

Light controls and easy gearchanges made them friends among the otherwise disinterested drivers that were generally attracted to them.

We are not talking about Toyota 2000GTs and Mazda Cosmos here: most Japanese cars were unexcitingly engineered, generic family saloons, designed to a universal formula that guaranteed light, vague steering and safe but unremarkable handling with very average ride quality by way of a traditional live rear axle.

There were honourable exceptions, but even when these marques tried to do something more sophisticated, the results looked better in the brochures than they performed on the road: I recall being shocked to find that my mother’s hard-riding – and far from stable – Datsun 180B had independent rear suspension

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

The big Toyota looks to have outgrown its fairly skinny tyres

All of this was a commercial formula that worked beautifully in cars of up to two litres, but it found much less export success when it came to larger six-cylinder models with luxury or ‘executive’ aspirations.

Big Datsun 260 and 280Cs were never much in evidence on British roads, and the likes of Mitsubishi and Mazda didn’t see the virtue of inflicting cars such as the Debonair and Road Pacer on the UK public.

The Toyota Crown in its various forms probably found the widest British acceptance of all the Japanese barges of the classic era, particularly in its fourth, 1971-’74 generation, officially designated S60 to S75 depending on the specification of engine fitted.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

‘The Toyota Crown was, in truth, the first authentically all-Japanese car rather than a Western model built under licence’

For those who questioned the Crown’s pedigree, Toyota pointed to the fact that the first cars to bear the name were seen in 1955 in four-cylinder, 1.5-litre form.

The Crown was, in truth, the first authentically all-Japanese car rather than a western model built under licence.

The styling was 1950s American, so an early attempt to break into that territory seemed an obvious next move.

As with so many newcomers to the North American market, Toyota seriously underestimated what it takes to succeed: its first shipment of under-engined and under-geared, Toyopet-badged Crowns proved unequal to the long distances routinely covered by buyers in the USA.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

The Toyoglide automatic gearbox was based on Borg-Warner and Chrysler units

Chastened and rather poorer for the experience, Toyota retired to lick its wounds and regroup, although an unexpected third-place finish for the Crown in the Round Australia Rally in 1958 must have been a boost to morale.

The Crown never sold particularly well in the USA in any of its many guises, but it would become much-loved in Australia and New Zealand, where later versions would even be assembled locally.

An increase in engine size in 1960 – to 1879cc – was followed by an all-new, X-framed Crown for 1962, then the first six-cylinder and station wagon versions in 1965.

It was in this form that the first Crowns found their way to the European market, initially via The Netherlands and Scandinavia.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

The self-seeking radio can be controlled by back-seat passengers, too

For the third-generation Crown of ’67 there was a perimeter-frame-style chassis (to comply with upcoming American safety regulations), but a familiar technical formula of coil springs all round.

The live rear axle was located on a Panhard rod and radius arms, and there were disc brakes and recirculating-ball steering at the front.

A new coupé version, plus a pick-up, supplemented the restyled saloon and wagon.

Crowns had always been popular with the taxi trade in Japan, but with this model Toyota wanted to attract more private buyers.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

Steering the Toyota Crown at low speeds requires some might

It was in this S50 form that Toyota brought the Crown to the UK in 1969, but only in saloon and station wagon guises.

Fitted with Toyoglide three-speed automatic transmission (which was based on Borg-Warner and Chrysler technology) as standard and the largest of the available overhead-camshaft straight-six engines (good for 115bhp), the £1468 Crown came in one fully-loaded specification that included tinted glass, reclining seats and a power antenna for the self-seeking radio.

A few found buyers.

There were enough of them, certainly, for the local importers to feel confident in bringing the fourth-generation 1971 Crown to the UK market in 1972.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

The Toyota Crown’s rebuilt ‘six’ required some fettling by its owner to get it right

These S60-S75 models were the first to be badged both domestically and internationally as Toyotas rather than Toyopets.

As before, they were assembled in New Zealand and Australia, where the following for them remains strong, and they were the last Crowns to be exported to the North American market.

In the UK, quotas were keeping a lid on Japanese imports.

But, with the recent demise of traditional saloons such as the Vauxhall Cresta/Viscount and the large Humbers and Austins, the Crown arrived at an opportune moment in the English big-car world, filling a gap in the metal-for-the-money sector that was yet to be fully captured by the Ford Granada.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

The Toyota Crown’s attractive pillarless coupé profile

With that distinctive ‘step-front’ nose and wraparound indicators, the shape of the 1971 Crown took its lead from Detroit and particularly the latest fuselage-inspired large Chryslers – although Toyota said aerodynamics had been the motivation behind the design.

The car did not find universal favour with ultra-conservative Crown customers in Japan, and it was subject to a late-cycle facelift that amounted to a return to chrome rather than body-coloured bumpers and tweaks to the saloon’s rear-window line.

The engineering and perimeter-frame structure were carried over, and would stay much the same for the following 30 years.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

This classic Toyota has European and US styling cues

The exception was that the UK only got the new, 2.6-litre version of the overhead-camshaft 4M straight-six, with a non-negotiable automatic gearbox as standard.

Domestic Crown buyers still had the option of a 2-litre engine in four- or six-pot form and with manual gears; some markets still got the 2.3-litre straight-six.

The UK importer decided to bring in the hardtop coupé version this time around, alongside the saloon and eight-passenger estate with its column gearchange and Peugeot 504/Citroën DS-rivalling luggage space.

In its home market the Crown coupé had rectangular headlights, but it sported quad circular types, as per the saloon and estate, elsewhere.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

The Toyota Crown feels imperious on the move

As before, the range-topping Toyota got reserved approval from the UK press, but the sheer usefulness of the Custom Crown estate was particularly acknowledged in a world where luxurious load-carriers with three rows of seats were few and far between.

As a value-for-money offer its appeal was obvious (although at £2100 it was not a straightforward big-car ‘bargain’ any longer), and the finish and general refinement were deemed good.

But the likes of Autocar and Motor were less impressed by its low gearing (80mph equalled 4850rpm), 18mpg thirst, heavy manual steering and strong understeer.

In a car that otherwise bristled with so many standard features, power steering seemed a strange omission.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

The Toyota Crown wears a stylish front grille badge

This criticism was heeded on the facelifted 1973 Crown range, which, as well as having power steering as standard, gained a slightly more powerful 150bhp engine, now fully balanced and with a higher compression ratio.

The £2700 Crown Special saloon (marketed as the Royal saloon in Japan) had an 8-Track player, head restraints and air conditioning as standard, plus a coolbox in the boot.

Two years on and the big Toyotas faced stern opposition in the form of the new Ford Granada, which was much less ponderous to drive and, in 3000 GXL form, only cost just over £100 more than the Crown 2600 Deluxe.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

The Toyota’s thickset C-pillar does impede rearward vision

The Toyota’s acceleration was respectable, with 0-60mph in 12.7 secs, but the low overall gearing still limited the top speed and, more importantly, the comfortable cruising pace.

You wonder if the typical Crown buyer even noticed, however.

They wanted gadgets and value for money and were attracted by the promise of reliability and the US/mid-Pacific looks, particularly in the pillarless coupé.

It’s hard to find production figures for these cars, but going off yearly totals nearly 400,000 fourth-generation Crowns were built.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

The domestic-market-friendly low gearing tempers the Crown’s cruising prowess

It’s safe to assume the coupés are the rarest: they were hardly ever encountered on the road in the 1970s.

One famous owner of a Crown coupé (to be fair, likely the only one) was northern radio comic Al Reid, who had his most famous catchphrase, ‘Right, monkey!’, painted on the metallic-green front wings.

I was surprised to learn that there were as many as 70 registered in Britain in 1997; the latest available figures (fourth quarter of 2022) show just one Crown coupé taxed and on the road, with another four holding SORN status.

There can’t be many as nice as this restored car, owned by Clive Lewis, which is very much on the road and in regular use.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

The neatly embossed vinyl is a theme throughout the Crown’s gadget-laden interior

It was born light blue, but its respray in white suits the shape, which is part early Mustang fastback and part AMC Ambassador coupe.

On 175-section rubber and 14in wheels it looks handsome but under-tyred, and nothing like as substantial as it appeared to the 1970s schoolboy version of me when I occasionally spotted a Crown in the wild.

Raise the rear-hinged, self-supporting bonnet and the crossflow straight-six has a very Mercedes look to it, with a single downdraught, two-barrel Aisan carburettor and neat exhaust manifolds.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

The Toyota Crown’s three-spoke steering wheel has elegant detailing

The interior, an orgy of synthetic black materials, takes me back to the Crown estate a friend’s dad ran and loved for years.

The long doors make entry to the roomy rear seats easy, but the fat C-pillars are not great for reversing.

Neither the dash nor steering wheel are things of beauty, but everything bar a rev counter is there for your convenience.

Labour-saving trinkets include central locking, an insistent buzzer to tell you the key is still in the ignition when a door is opened, radio controls for rear passengers, remote bootlid opening and rear electric windows.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

‘The Crown fairly purrs along, its engine a remote hiss, gearchanges silky and road noise well suppressed’

The flat sprawl of the bonnet makes the big Toyota feel important: it fairly purrs along, its engine a remote hiss, gearchanges silky and road noise well suppressed.

The kickdown feels quite responsive, but mainly results in added noise rather than discernible extra pace.

The Crown coupé is stable in a straight line, it dips its nose under braking and only feels really ponderous at low speeds, when you notice the heavy steering, which requires lots of large, coarse inputs and has a poor lock for an unwieldy turning circle.

Nothing about the car will stir aggressive tendencies, and many would appreciate the big Toyota for that very reason.

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

The Toyota Crown coupé wasn’t a common sight in its day and is even less so now

Coming just 25 years after the war from a country with no real tradition of car-making, it was an impressive ‘product’ but not quite enough of a true luxury car to be a credible alternative in a sector where status meant more than good value.

Today, there’s a kitsch dimension to the Crown – particularly in ultra-rare coupé form – that gives it a strange attraction.

Full of self-importance and 1970s gimcrackery, it was trying too hard to please on the one hand, but somehow missing the point on the other.

Its maker got the message in the end, however, and reinvented these barges as arguably the best luxury saloon of all: the Lexus.

Images: Max Edleston

Rebuilt Toyota Crown worth its weight in gold

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

Clive Lewis’ Toyota Crown was originally light blue

“My great gran bought a new Crown in 1972,” explains dedicated owner Clive Lewis.

“It was passed to my grandad, who then passed it to my dad: I came home from hospital in it the day I was born. My dad missed that car, and it took 30 years to find another.

“It wasn’t in bad shape but it required some restoration, and it took 10 years to get it to its current state.

“Dad got it around 80% complete, but the engine was smoking and needed a rebuild.

“The mechanics had the car for over a year, during which time my father emigrated to the Far East where, unbeknown to him, he would be unable to export the Toyota: they only allow left-hand-drive cars to come out.

“Disheartened, he passed the Crown to me to complete.”

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs
Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

Restoring this Toyota Crown has been a labour of love

“I began by chasing up the engine,” Clive continues.

“Months later it was ready, and I was excited about getting behind the wheel: I remember driving it home, and realising it had no power steering and how much effort it took to turn.

“Then the engine started to smoke. The garage promised the car was finished, but it turned out they had replaced the valve-stem oil seals, but the tappets were never adjusted, which allowed the seals to spin.

“So we fitted new ones, adjusted the tappets and finally the smoke cleared.

“The carb took some time to sort, too, and I have only recently got the engine to accelerate and tick over as it should.

“A misfire was solved by my uncle with an electronic-ignition module.”

Classic & Sports Car – Toyota Crown: foreign affairs

After some early hiccups, this restored Toyota Crown looks and feels wonderful

“The chrome side grilles were refurbished,” he tells us, “and I’m still sorting the paint where the masking edges need polishing.

“I sorted the rear electric windows, fitted new seatbelts, installed the speedo, radio and ashtrays, and repaired the clock.

“The bootlid didn’t stay up, but my uncle found a solution online so now, when you turn the key in the ignition anti-clockwise, it pops open.

“I found the car a handful at first, but now I really enjoy taking it out to shows. Nobody knows what it is.

“I must say a big thanks to my uncle for helping me along this journey: between us we now have lots of knowledge of how a Crown goes back together.

“A lot of time and effort – and money – went into this car to get it where it is today.”

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