It was a simple design, a front-engined, rear-wheel drive, metal-bodied sedan built on a ladder frame chassis. It unashamedly borrowed its design cues from the American-made DeSoto Airflow, right down to the rear suicide doors.
Under the bonnet, lurked a 3.4-litre, straight six-cylinder petrol engine (a copy of the 1929–36 Chevrolet Gen-1 3 motor) with a modest power output of 46kW, transmitted to the wheels via a three-speed manual gearbox. About the only thing more modest was the car’s production run, with just 1404 vehicles built between 1937-43.
And yet, the Toyoda AA completely changed the fortunes of the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works Ltd company, which had, since 1926, manufactured weaving looms that revolutionised the production of textiles, delivering improved quality and dramatic increases in productivity.
That original Toyoda AA was the brainchild of Kiichiro Toyoda, the son of company founder Sakichi Toyoda. With a belief the future lay in automobiles, Kiichiro convinced his father to finance the design and production of automobiles. By 1935, the first three prototypes, known as the A1, had been built.
But Japan at the time wasn’t the financial powerhouse it is today, meaning sales of passenger cars were likely to be small, and thus not profitable. So Toyoda switched its focus to building trucks and in 1935, Toyoda’s the first G1 rolled off the production line. Powered by the same 3.4-litre six-cylinder engine as the AA, the G1 was six metres long and had a payload of 1500kg.
Undeterred, development of the Toyoda AA continued, the first examples going on sale in April 1936 with a price of 3350 yen, around 400 yen cheaper than equivalent Ford or General Motors cars. Those first cars were badged ‘Toyoda’, in keeping with family name. However, this was changed to ‘Toyota’ late in 1936 because according to Toyota “people thought it sounded better and it also meant the name could be written in Japanese with eight strokes of a pen”. Since eight is considered a lucky number in Japan, ‘Toyota’ was “chosen in the hope that not only the company, but also Japan would prosper”.
Seems they were on to something.
If you visit the Toyota museum today, you will see an example of that original Toyoda AA on display. Except, it’s not. In 1987, to celebrate Toyota’s 50th anniversary, the company searched far and wide for an original AA. None could be found. Instead, a replica was built using the original, albeit sketchy plans, and that is the car on display today.
Later, in 2008, the oldest known Toyoda AA was found in Russia. Rundown and derelict, not to mention heavily modified (it featured the undercarriage and drivetrain from a Soviet era GAZ-51 truck), it’s now on display – in its as-found condition – in the Louwman Museum in the Netherlands.
Above: The oldest known example of the Toyoda AA, found in Russia in 2008
The Toyoda AA was succeeded by the Toyota AC (the AB was a soft-top version of the AA) but World War II saw production crawl to a near-standstill, the company producing a total of just 631 passenger vehicles in the period from 1941-49.
It’s a far cry from Toyota today, one of the largest automotive manufacturers in the world, selling in excess of 10 million cars globally every year, including the number one selling car, the Corolla, with 1,187,645 sold globally in 2018. And it all started with the humble Toyoda AA.