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Several prominent Japanese automakers first came into existence to build a completely different type of product. Toyota evolved from a textile firm. Sakichi Toyoda formed Toyoda Automatic Loom Works in 1926. Sale of patent rights later allowed his son, Kiichiro, to add an automotive department.
Experiments began in 1930 with a two-cylinder engine, followed by an Atsuta prototype. A more successful A-1 prototype emerged in 1935. Production models were called AA (sedan) and AB (touring car). AA/BB six-cylinder engines were modeled on Chevrolet's chassis, while the gearbox came directly from Chevrolet. Styling resembled the avant-garde but ill-fated Chrysler Airflow.
By 1937, a second company, Toyota Motor Co. Ltd., was in operation. Toyota made cars, trucks, and buses. The Toyoda name continued for non-auto operations.
Truck production resumed right after World War II; cars, in 1947. Toyopet was the name chosen for the new SA two-door sedan. Not many were made, but Toyopet was the first Toyota automobile to reach American shores. Toyota also was making a four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser.
Starting in 1955, the four-door Crown was on sale in Japan, with a three-speed column shift. Then came Corona. English-language sales catalogs appeared in 1956, and the first Crowns (Toyopets) arrived in the U.S. in 1958. Underpowered and relatively expensive, Toyopets failed to capture much attention.
Crowns and Coronas were restyled in 1964, with export in mind. At that time, Crowns could be either six-cylinder or V-8.
What first drew significant interest in the U.S. was the Corona, with its angled-back front end and column gearshift. Americans also took to the Land Cruiser, rivaling Jeeps and Land Rovers.
Meanwhile, the first Corollas came to the U.S. as 1971 models. In 1972-73, two-door Carina sedans sold briefly. Compact pickup trucks also were available.
Sportiness became part of the Toyota picture, too, starting with the 1971 Celica coupe. With a five-speed gearbox and front disc brakes; Celicas were capable of competition. In 1965, Toyota had a well-known 2000 GT sport car, but it had little impact in the U.S.
A larger, top-of-the-line Cressida sedan arrived for 1978. By 1980, Toyota stood ahead of Chevrolet as the world's leading maker of private autos; with plants in 40 countries. Early in the 1980s, Toyota introduced the tiny front-drive Tercel, along with another mini-size car: the rear-drive Starlet. Midsize Camry sedans with front-drive began to arrive in 1983. Sports-car fans could select a mid-engined MR2 starting in 1984, while enthusiasts who favored a larger roadster might pick a Supra instead. For 1991, the angular-shaped MR2 two-seater got a curvaceous restyle, and a rounded Previa van replaced its squarish predecessor. Toyota's new luxury division, called Lexus, emerged for 1990.
Early in the 1990s, Toyota added a sporty little Paseo coupe to its American lineup. Avalon sedans came along in 1995, as upscale companions to the Camry. Toyota introduced its compact RAV4 SUV (later called a crossover) for 1996, rivaling Honda's soon-to-arrive CR-V.
A new breed of two-passenger MR2-the Spyder-emerged for 2000, five years after the first-generation model dropped out. Toyota, along with Honda, led off the hybrid-powertrain phenomenon with the first-generation Prius, launched in 2001 and earning a 45/51-mpg fuel-economy estimate.
Camry four-door sedans evolved into two-door Solaras, including convertibles, starting in 2003. Taller than the usual subcompact, the Echo lasted only from 2000 to 2005. As part of its connection with General Motors, Toyota introduced the compact, youth-oriented Matrix wagon for 2003, built in California alongside the Pontiac Vibe. That joint venture, New United Motors Manufacturing (NUMMI) had started making Corollas in 1986.
Highlander gave Toyota a second midsize SUV in 2001, but unlike the similar-size 4Runner, this one was car-based. A Highlander Hybrid came later. Toyota's truck-based 4Runner SUV has been around since 1984. All along, the big Land Cruiser has attracted a following of off-roaders. FJ Cruisers arrived for 2007, looking more rough-and-tumble, courtesy of a design that harked back to the early-day Land Cruisers. All told, Toyota has had one of the largest lineups of SUVs in the industry, topped in size by the Sequoia that joined the group in 2001.
Pickup trucks are another Toyota mainstay, offered in compact form as the Tacoma since 1995, and as the full-size Tundra since 2000. Toyota's first and only conventional minivan, the Sienna, debuted in 1998. A sizable Venza crossover SUV arrived in 2007. So did Yaris, Toyota's latest subcompact car. Corolla, meanwhile, continues in production as the bread-and-butter compact sedan, now entering its fifth decade on the market.