By Patrick B
Although it may seem like the Corolla and Camry have existed forever, the company behind those vehicles, Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC), is only celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
It is a milestone for the auto manufacturer whose founder, Kiichiro Toyoda, originally started the venture as a spin-off from his father’s loom business, Toyoda Automatic Loom Works.
The very first production model made by Toyoda Automatic Loom Works’ Automotive Department was the G1 truck, which was released in August 1935. After successfully putting the G1 truck on the market, Toyoda turned his attention to a consumer vehicle.
The end result was the AA, a four-door sedan that heavily borrowed its design from the American-produced Chrysler Corp. Airflow.
While the company we know today is called Toyota, TMC Public Affairs Division, Global Communications Department spokesperson, Joichi Tachikawa, says that vehicles produced from 1935 to 1937 by Toyoda Automatic Loom Works were branded as “Toyoda.”
“Toyoda Automatic Loom Works produced the vehicles until TMC was established in 1937,” he says.
As the company’s first commercial passenger vehicle, the AA naturally is an important milestone in the auto manufacturer’s history. However, its importance was overlooked by the company for much of its history.
The oversight became apparent when Toyota celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1987. One of the key memorial activities it carried out at that time was the establishment the Toyota Automobile Museum in Aichi Prefecture, the location of its headquarters. While TMC displayed original editions of the Toyoda AB, a cabriolet version of the AA from 1936, and the Toyota AC, a slightly updated version of the AA from 1943, the AA was nowhere to be found in its collection.
Tachikawa says TMC found itself in this predicament, because there was no thought given to preserving the auto manufacturer’s first production models at the time.
“For the same reason, the first G1 was also not preserved,” he says.
Approximately 1,400 Toyota AA automobiles were manufactured from 1936 to 1942, and despite Toyota’s recent efforts to locate an AA in the wild, the company could not find a surviving car anywhere in Japan, China or Korea.
Today, it is not uncommon for vehicles to survive several decades past their production lives, but the limited run of the AA and other factors meant it quickly disappeared from the streets.
“The start of World War II in 1941 was a big factor,” Tachikawa says.
Since Toyota could not find a surviving AA to display at its Toyota Automobile Museum, the company created a replica based on various blueprints and plans. The old schematics and drawings were often found to be lacking and incomplete, yet Toyota engineers persevered to bring back the vehicle that put the company on its automotive journey.
“Since many important vehicles, both Toyota and non-Toyota, with historical significance were collected for the museum, there was a strong desire to display the first passenger vehicle made by Toyota, the AA,” Tachikawa says.
Following its completion, the 50th anniversary replica of the AA was put on display in the Toyota Automobile Museum, where it remains today and provides visitors with a glimpse into the auto manufacturer’s past.
While it looked as if the AA story had come to a conclusion with the production of the replica, the vehicle would be thrust into the spotlight again two decades later.
An original found
It was May 2008 when Louwman Museum managing director Ronald Kooyman first heard that a surviving example of the AA had surfaced near the Russian city of Vladivostok.
“We received an offer for an existing Toyoda AA by somebody from Russia, who turned out to be a 25-year-old student,” he says. Owned by Evert Louwman, who helped establish the official Toyota and Lexus distributor in the Netherlands, the Louwman Museum displays more than 230 automobiles of various manufacturers and periods.
The Russian student was not the actual owner of the AA, but offered the location of the vehicle, and his duties would soon expand into an important liaison role.
“I was both surprised and excited by the development,” Kooyman says. “We were looking for a Toyoda AA for more than 35 years, and now one had seemingly been found.”
There had been several public sightings of AA models over the years, though they often turned out to be a very similar-looking Chrysler Airflow instead. For Kooyman, however, this car was different.
“There was no skepticism from the beginning for the simple reason that there were plenty of photos of the car sent to us by e-mail to verify,” he says.
After being convinced of the vehicle’s veracity, the Louwman Museum wasted no time contacting the Siberian owner of the vehicle via the student. Negotiations dragged on for weeks, then months. It was during that time that the Louwman Museum learned the vehicle had been owned by the Siberian family since World War II.
However, one thing the grandson could not shed light on was how the vehicle found itself all the way in Vladivostok when it had such a short production run limited to Japan.
The vehicle’s ownership was traced only as far back as World War II, which prompted the Louwman Museum to speculate that the AA was brought to Russia with the spoils of war.
“We do not know that for certain, but it seems like the most obvious explanation,” Kooyman says. “The grandson inherited the car after his grandfather passed away, and continues to live in Vladivostok.”
It is a theory that World War II historian Antony Beevor does not disagree with. “It is very likely to have been war booty after the Soviet invasion of Japanese-occupied Manchuria and northern China in August 1945,” he said.
The farmer was not aware the car was exceptionally rare or important. Despite the sudden attention paid to the vehicle, which was not only in a derelict condition but heavily modified, the owner seemed to take it in stride. “The grandson didn’t speak English and seemed detached throughout the negotiations, but he was happy with the financial end of the deal,” Kooyman says.
The car had been used extensively on the farmland since it was acquired by the Siberian family, so it was already decaying badly when the student discovered it. The AA’s body had been altered with parts from other vehicles and was a Frankenstein of sorts, with the original Toyoda engine having been replaced by a Chevrolet engine and the original right-hand steering had been changed to the left.
While robust in design, the AA would have been ill-suited for the harsh farm terrain in subzero Siberia, and most likely broke down after it surpassed its limit. With no way to source replacement parts for the already-rare vehicle, the farmer had modified it with parts that were on hand and not difficult to replace in the event of another breakdown.
Despite the rough appearance of the AA, Kooyman says that he was immediately “touched by the purity” of the vehicle. “This was the missing masterpiece of our Toyota collection,” he says.
Kooyman was determined to bring the vehicle to the Netherlands after seeing the initial photos, and further inspections of the derelict AA only cemented his resolve.
During this time, TMC in Japan was carrying out its own research based on the supplied photos to determine the vehicle’s authenticity before it would became involved in the matter.
“But as we were trying to do that, the vehicle was purchased by the Louwman Museum,” Tachikawa says.
Thus, Toyota’s involvement with the AA in Vladivostok ended before it could begin, leaving the Louwman Museum with full rights to the car.
Rescuing an unknown
Following the acquisition by the museum, it took seven months to ship the car to the Netherlands, thanks to plenty of government bureaucracy. Because the recovered AA was more than 50 years old, permission for export had to be obtained from the Russian Ministry of Culture, and this took months as the government mulled over the historical value of the vehicle, or lack thereof.
“It always takes a long time to arrange and process all of the necessary paperwork,” Kooyman says.
The AA managed to pass through all the red tape without causing any red flags. Kooyman saw it as a repeat of the situation with the Siberian farmer.
“The Russian Ministry of Culture was not aware this was a Toyoda AA, that’s probably why,” he says.
For practical reasons, Kooyman says the car was transported by train from Vladivostok to Moscow and then to the Netherlands by lorry. After settling in the Netherlands, the AA was moved to the Louwman Musem where it is now on display, still in derelict condition.
Several years have passed since the vehicle was found and put on display, and the Louwman Museum has kept it in its decrepit and modified state with no moves to restore it or change its appearance. Kooyman says that is because the institution prefers “conservation over restoration.”
“We were looking for a Toyoda AA for 35 years and we are happy that we can display the car in our museum,” he said..
The Louwman Museum’s financial and no doubt emotional investment into the AA has meant that the facility has shown no indication it will part with the vehicle, at least not on a long-term basis.
“Of course we would like to display their AA in the Toyota Automobile Museum,” Tachikawa says. “However, as the transport costs from Holland to Japan are quite high, there are no plans at the moment to display it here.”
With TMC recognizing that the Louwman Museum purchased the AA with the intention of preserving and displaying it in its museum, there has not been any real push by the auto manufacturer to acquire it. Tachikawa says that curators from the Toyota Automobile Museum have gone to the Louwman Museum and confirmed the vehicle’s authenticity.
For the time being, that is enough for Toyota.
In addition to the visit by Toyota’s experts, the Louwman Museum has been carrying out its own research on the vehicle. “So far, we haven’t researched the car in detail, as we have only recently opened the new Louwman Museum in The Hague in 2010,” he said. “More than the AA’s research, that was our priority.”
With an AA replica on display in the Toyota Automobile Museum and an original but modified AA on show at the Louwman Museum, the lingering question has been which of the two is the more authentic.
Despite verifying its authenticity, Tachikawa says that Toyota’s position is that the recovered AA is “not a complete original” due to the replaced engine, switched placement of the steering wheel, and body modifications.
“We were moved by the AA’s discovery, though at the same time we were able to confirm the high level of completion of our replica,” he says.
Regardless of which AA is more authentic, the company is able to celebrate its 75th anniversary this year with not one, but two different AAs across two continents.
The Toyota Automobile Museum in Japan opened a special exhibit called “Toyota 75: 75 Years of Toyota” on Oct. 20 and will continue the display through April to mark the milestone. Approximately 50 Toyota vehicles, includes TMC’s AA replica, are scheduled for display, as well as 50 1/5-scale models. Go to www.toyota.co.jp for details (website is in Japanese).
For the latest prices on Toyotas, check out our 2013 Collector Car Price Guide.