Imagine a world where the average American had never seen a Japanese car. A world where the second best-selling import brand in the U.S. was Renault, and foreign sports cars only came from Europe — but they spent more time in the shop then they did carving corners. This is the world the Toyota 2000GT was born into, a car that single-handedly legitimized Japanese cars to the global automotive community, nearly became lost to history, then reemerged to become one of the most desirable sports cars ever built. It is one of the most effective halo cars in history, and arguably the single most important performance car to ever come from Japan.
Before the 2000GT was unveiled in 1967, Japanese cars were less than an afterthought in the American market. Toyota had reached American shores only a decade before. Nissan began selling cars as Datsun in 1958, but Subaru wouldn’t sell cars in the U.S. until 1968, and Honda didn’t offer cars until 1969. Japanese models were rarely seen on American roads, and if they were, it was largely in Southern California, where the companies had established small headquarters. At best, they were seen as quirky alternatives to the Volkswagen Beetle. At worst, they were considered unsafe, awkwardly proportioned, and awful to drive.
But the 2000GT changed all that. Introduced at the 1965 Tokyo Auto Show, it was based on a design proposal by Albrecht Goertz — the man who penned the BMW 507, and later the Datsun 240Z — and finished by Toyota designer Satoru Nozaki. From the beginning, the car was designed to have an impact on the global market. Like the Acura NSX that would come along 22 years later, the 2000GT combined stylistic and engineering elements from the worlds greatest sports cars to create something entirely different, proving that Japanese manufacturers could run with the best.
Toyota knew what it was doing with the 2000GT right from the start. Even though it sold for $7,000 — a princely sum when it was released in 1967 — Toyota lost money on each car. But it knew enough to use its halo car and drum up some much-needed PR. Luckily, it worked. A pre-production car was released to American journalists in early 1967, who fawned over it. Road and Track called it “one of the most exciting cars we have ever driven … an impressive car in which to sit or ride, or simply admire.”
The 2000GT single-handedly introduced the world to high-revving twin cam Japanese engines. Its Yamaha-built inline-six was good for 150 horsepower, which was enough to take the 2,400-pound car from zero to 60 in a respectable 10 seconds. Still, straight-line speed was never what the 2000GT was about. Immediately after ending production of the Shelby Cobra, Carroll Shelby turned his attention to the unproven Toyota, building and campaigning three cars with considerable success during the 1968 Sports Car Club of America racing season.
On top of its world-class performance, the car’s looks were enough to make James Bond trade in his Aston Martin DB5 for a 2000GT in the 1967 film You Only Live Twice. Toyota built two convertible versions of the car especially for the film (it’s rumored that Sean Connery was too tall to fit in the coupe), and with the film’s release, Toyota was transformed from a relatively unknown automaker struggling to gain a foothold outside of Japan to the builders of dream machine lusted after the world over.
From the beginning, the 2000GT’s long nose and round fastback have been compared to the Jaguar E-Type. At worst, it has even been dismissed as a Japanese copy of the iconic British roadster. But while it shares some clear styling DNA with Coventry’s big cat, the 2000GT was far more a bridge to the 1970s than the Jag. With its its pop-up headlights and Coke-bottle hips, it has elements of the C3 Corvette, and its fastback profile and round tail lamps predict the Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona — and it beat both cars to production by over a year.
Unfortunately, the 2000GT’s price put it closer to Ferrari territory than Corvette territory, and sales suffered because of it. Production ended in 1970 with 371 cars built, and only 60 reached American dealerships. Without a replacement, the car quickly faded into memory. That same year, Datsun introduced the 240Z, another sports car with Jaguar-inspired lines and a smooth twin-cam engine. The affordable price and world-class handling characteristics of the Datsun made it the first successful Japanese sports car in the American market, and further helped prove that Japan could compete with the world’s best.
During the first collector car boom of the 1980s, Toyota’s first supercar seemed to be allergic to the rising values of 1960s performance cars. But by the early 2000s, as Japanese cars began to enter the market in earnest things began to change fast. Seemingly all at once, collectors all over the world were struck by the 2000GT’s gorgeous looks, great handling, and important place in history. In 2006, a rough but drivable car could be had for under $100,000 — far less than most other 1960s exotics. By 2013, a beautifully restored car sold for $1.2 million, becoming the most expensive Japanese car ever sold at auction.
Today, the 2000GT is a bona-fide automotive legend. Its iconic looks served as the inspiration for the Toyota AE86 (known as the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ in the U.S.), and it’s so prized that it makes international news when one is destroyed — it’s just that important of a car. For nearly 50 years, it’s been the benchmark by which every Japanese supercar, from the Acura NSX and the Lexus LFA, has been judged, and has gone down in history as the first car that proved to the outside world that Japan can compete on every level.
It’s hard to imagine a world where Toyota isn’t an automotive juggernaut, but there once was a time when Japanese engineering was highly suspect, especially in America. The 2000GT single-handedly showed the world just how good a Japanese car can be. Half a century later, the world has taken its lesson to heart.