In the earlier installments of this series on the first-generation Camry, Autofrei looked at how this mid-’80s family car fits into the world of 2011 in Part 1 and in Part 2 Autofrei viewed the Camry within its own historical context, especially with regards to Voluntary Export Restrictions encouraging Japanese automakers to move towards higher profit margin, upmarket, US-built and designed automobiles. Part 3 takes a short look at the design legacy of the first generation Camry, which set a standard for manufacturers’ vehicle lineups.
The 1985 Japanese Motor Industry Quarterly article “Trends in Japanese Vehicle Design and Innovation” neatly summarizes the inner conflict of the Camry – seeking to appease a wide variety of tastes in one vehicle, Toyota family cars grew ever more plain and homogenized, forcing a dichotomy in Toyota’s lineup if the company as a whole was to retain some excitement in its image. The Camry started a trend of creating more distance design-wise between interesting/exciting/sporty specialty models and high-volume sellers.
Along with intense competition and a strong yen (US market apart) import restraints have combined to push the Japanese product upmarket and in search of healthier margins – as in performance derivatives of saloons and small hatchbacks. Companies such as Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and Mitsubishi have demonstrated great flair recently in identifying other more profitable sectors and thereby creating their own specialist niches in the market…Unfortunately, Japan’s attempts to devise a common denominator – a car acceptable to widely divergent world markets – have led to allegations of blandness in the final product. By image transfer it is intended that the latest performance cars should boost the identity of more mundane models above the “dull and dependable” level.⁵
The Camry is an important point in the development of Toyota’s model lineup, a lineup that, given carmakers’ desire to capture or emulate Toyota’s success, has greatly influenced the types of offerings of all major auto manufacturers. This ordinary family car seeks to be exactly that and no more – considered as reasonable as possible by as many people as possible. Toyota, concerned with the trend in American car sales in the 1980s towards more specialized/non-sedan models, moved to address the firm’s relative weakness outside of four-door family cars.² Seeking normality in the sedan market with the Camry and pursuing special interests in the sales of trucks, SUVs and sports cars, the Toyota lineup became increasingly dichotomous.
Combined with another key element of focusing on a specific measure of customer satisfaction, the product development involved in the design of the Camry helped to define the kinds of cars we see on the road today: increasingly homogeneous. As noted in Edward Niedermeyer’s article on Toyota product planning over at TTAC, Toyota’s system of improving vehicles evolutionarily aimed to eliminate customer dissatisfaction rather than increase customer satisfaction.
The Japanese makers have historically emphasized customer satisfaction (CS), which … has often resulted in a pursuit of high scores on the Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI), which is often based on a long laundry list of “things to be done.”… [S]uch a list often consists of customer dissatisfaction elements to be eliminated rather than customer satisfaction factors to be created, because dissatisfaction is easier to measure than satisfaction. Unfortunately, however, elimination of customer satisfaction does not automatically mean high customer satisfaction, as the two are often different dimensions. As a result, the pursuit of the CS technique based on the dissatisfaction list may create high-cost products that have no problems – but no fun built in, either.³
So there you have it – one solid theory why mainstream Japanese cars grew to be exceedingly anonymous, only to be aped by other volume sellers like the Big Three. Strangeness, excitement, abnormality resided in low-volume cars like the MR2, but certainly not in the Camry. Specialty interest cars like pickups and SUVs seemed to follow the Camry model for success, aiming for blandness. The Camry itself, designed to displease no one, would, at best, get some secondhand kind of glow of interest from “halo” models like Celicas, Supras, and MR2s.
To conclude: the first generation Toyota Camry was a major step for the company towards higher quality, mainstream sales success. The Camry achieved that success, but did so by honing in on the least-offensive automotive form possible. Toyota supplemented the dullness of the Camry with specialty, niche-market cars, but this only diverted any quirkiness away from the volume-heavy center of the lineup. Strangeness could be found retreating deeper into the automotive fringe. In light of the Toyota’s success, the mainstream car in America came to represent the product of a race towards the pinnacle of blandness.
Let us praise the Camry for its quality design, for its resilient engineering, but let us also damn it for setting a precedent of success through inoffensiveness.
1. “Trends in Japanese Vehicle Design and Innovation.” Japanese Motor Business Quarterly. London; The Economist Publications Ltd. June 1985, Vol. 4. pg. 53.
2. Fujimoto, Takahiro. The Evolution of a Manufacturing System at Toyota. New York; Oxford University Press, 1999. pg. 46.
3. Fujimoto. The Evolution of a Manufacturing System at Toyota. pg. 211-212, quotation on 216.
In addition, let me highly recommend the aformentioned article at The Truth About Cars: http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/01/too-good-to-be-true-how-toyotas-success-caused-killer-decontenting/
And for my own research on the blandness of the Camry itself, I used these two enthusiast pages for an informative, if uncritical view of the car: