the minor petroleum crisis of 1979 did what the major crisis of 1974 had failed to do – completely changed American buyer preference in motor vehicles. In just about a month the market for large cars almost vanished; customers were looking for vehicles with good fuel economy, and these the American motor vehicle manufacturers were unable to provide in anything approaching sufficient quantity. ¹
The ’79 Oil Crisis did redirect the American car market towards small cars, by which I mean redirected towards Japanese cars. That the car companies of Reagan’s America didn’t seem to have the ability to compete in the compact sector led to U.S. government pressure on the Japanese to scale back their exports.
The Japanese auto industry, on the rise since the early 1960s, took on a position of cooperation rather than confrontation as American manufacturers began to catch up with Japanese production methods and their government prepared strict barriers to Japanese imports. Building on the profits of their 1970s operations, in the 1980s the Japanese moved into America with new partnerships with American firms and new factories on American soil. It might also be prudent to mention that in 1980, Japan was the world’s number one producer of automobiles, a lead increased to 28% of global production in 1983, leading the United States’ 23%.²
Importantly, Japan’s car manufacturers reluctantly agreed to Voluntary Export Restrictions in 1981 (they ran until 1994) that capped the number of cars that could be shipped to the U.S.³ This policy did lead some of the Japanese auto industry to move production stateside to get around import restrictions, as mentioned above, but it also pressured Japanese manufacturers to seek more profit per car with sales held relatively constant.
And it’s in this trend that the Toyota Camry took its definitive step towards is fundamental identity. Toyota had built cars outside of the econobox mold for some time, as I noted in a look at the 1977-1980 Cressida, but the Camry differed from the Cressida in that the Camry didn’t take the role of the top-of-the-ladder product of Toyota in America. With the Camry, Toyota was making a full effort to produce a vehicle high on quality and refinement for the mainstay of the American market, the mid-size family sedan.
Spurred on by the Voluntary Export Restrictions and building upon the increases in perceived quality and dealer networks, the Camry was the car that established the vision of Toyota as bearing the standard for build quality, reliability, and, well, standardness for cars.
Given it’s automotive context, the Camry is both a daring move by Toyota and a straightforward progression of contemporary trends. It all depends on perspective. Bearing the history of General Motors in mind, the Camry was an audacious departure for Toyota. General Motors had been engaged in a monumental modernization of its entire product line for over half a decade when the Camry came to market, and the most daring of GM’s moves was to introduce its first front-wheel drive cars for the masses in 1980. The cars represented a massive undertaking for the traditionally rear-wheel drive General Motors and the new cars were woefully unreliable, a definite contributor to the decline of the company towards bankruptcy.⁴
Toyota resided in a similarly behind-the-times rear-wheel drive position when the Carmy came to market, only the Camry wasn’t terrible. It is easy to end the story of the Camry here – the American manufacturers (principally General Motors) stumbled, practically welcoming in Japanese alternatives into American garages. It’s a story that had been growing more and more true since 1973 and the first Oil Crisis reopened America minds to fuel efficiency. It’s a story that has grown tired by now, full of wallowing Detroit barges and nippy Nipponese hatchbacks.
But there is so much more to the Camry, a major influence on trends in the makeup carmakers’ vehicle lineup, especially in terms of a stricter separation between “mass market” and “interesting”. Stay tuned for part three.
1. Rae, John B. The American Automobile Industry. Boston; Twayne Publishers. 1984. p.153-154.
2. “The Rise and Rise of the Japanese Motor Industry.” Japanese Motor Business Quarterly. London; The Economist Publications Ltd. September 1984. Vol 1. pg. 75.
3. Niedermeyer, Edward. “Too Good To Be True: How Toyota’s Success Caused Killer Decontenting.” The Truth About Cars. January 28, 2010.
4. Niedermeyer, Paul. “Curbside Classic: 1986 Toyota Camry.” The Truth About Cars. April 16, 2010.
Niedermeyer, Paul. “Curbside Classic: 1980 Chevrolet Citation.” The Truth About Cars. December 21, 2010.