A small group of Toyota representatives travelled to the U.S. in 1957 with two small cars in tow, keen to show prospective dealers and curious reporters what Japan was capable of making for export.
The cars they brought would remain in market for a little over 15 years, yet their unique position in the development of safety technology would extend much further.
Not only were the iterations of Toyota Crown and Toyota Crown Deluxe developed in an era that saw a paradigm shift in vehicle safety but, as the longest-running Toyota nameplate, globally, the Crown’s legacy would be felt far beyond these years.
The steely new competitor
The Crown arrived having established itself as the reliable workhorse in Japanese government and taxi fleets. Even more impressive, the same year it came to North America the Crown became the first Japanese car to complete the grueling Round Australia Rally, a 19-day, 17,000km testament to the cars durability.
From its introduction as part of Toyota’s first foray into the North American market, the Crown’s safety pedigree was there to see.
On this first model, steel was 50% thicker than that used by US automakers – the frame of the cars was so rigid that jacking up the car at the rear bumper saw both back tires lift off the ground.
In 1962, a completely re-designed Crown took to the market. In keeping with the times, the restyled sedan was up-to-the-minute modern with a flat deck, smooth fenders and a contemporary profile that echoed the popular designs of the time.
While this more stylish Crown would come to Canada in 1964, the following year would see all auto manufacturers rethinking their designs along safety lines.
Unsafe at any Speed?
Ralph Nader’s groundbreaking 1965 book ‘Unsafe at any Speed’ focused minds on car safety like never before. As a non-fiction best seller, Nader’s work shifted attitudes amongst the buying public, politicians and vehicle manufacturers.
Reaction to the book helped drive the passage of the 1966 U.S. National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act – which set the first federal safety standards for motor vehicles.
Safety technology had moved into a new era. Seatbelts had become mandatory equipment for all automobiles, along with headrests, energy-absorbing dashboard padding and shatter-resistant windshields.
The new emphasis on occupant safety was reflected in the construction of the third generation of Toyota’s flagship automobile, starting with the 1968 models. The Crown’s X-shaped frame was replaced by a perimeter-style frame that provided greater collision protection with its “crushable” front structure. It was deemed so strong that the chassis remained in production for more than two decades.
The Crown became the pioneer of safety features in the Toyota range and, in some cases, for the automotive market in general.
Changes brought in on the Crown – which soon migrated to other Toyota models – included four-bulb headlamps, three-point seatbelts, energy-absorbing steering columns and analogically controlled anti-lock brakes on the rear axle. The innovative brakes were replaced with two-wheel electronically controlled ABS brakes on the 1971 Crown – among the first models in North America to do so.
Yet as the era of rapid roll out of safety features was beginning, the story of the Crown was coming to an end – in North America, at least.
The Crown would by replaced the Corona Mark II, and subsequently the Cressida, but the legacy of the Crown remained intact.
Into a new era
As the evolution of vehicle safety gathered pace, the Crown and its closely related contemporary models marketed in North America – eventually including the Lexus GS and LS models – introduced and popularized many of the most important advances in safety technology that have saved thousands of lives.
Safety-related automobile technology and design proliferated. The windshield became an integral part of the vehicle’s structure for the first time; new adhesives ensured the body and roof structure were stronger when the windshield was bonded in place.
Other advances included the emergency locking retractor seatbelt in 1973, shock-absorbing bumpers for the North American market in 1974, and speed-sensitive power steering. Radial tires became standard equipment on Toyotas in 1975, a more durable construction that left far fewer motorists stranded on highways with a flat tire.
Side-door impact reinforcement was added to all doors to help protect occupants in side collisions. Brighter halogen headlamps were introduced by Toyota in 1979, which helped drivers to see more clearly in all weather conditions.
The advent of powerful microprocessors allowed engineers to introduce traction control in 1987 as an outgrowth of four-wheel antilock brake technology. A supplemental restraint system, unveiled in 1989, positioned an airbag in front of the driver.
By this time, safety technology was on the cusp of a shift to much more active safety technologies – those that sought to avoid collisions rather than mitigate their impact. The possibilities of safety technology had come a long way since 1957.
With the opening of these new possibilities, the question would soon become how far and how quickly emerging technologies could be applied beyond the flagship models such as the Toyota Crown.
The automobile has been a crucial part of our technological success over the last 100 years. Evolving from slow-moving horse drawn carriages—vehicles today are fast, connected, have engines that can be powered by electrons or fossil fuels, are capable of driving themselves and have achieved a level of occupant safety that was a dream just 20 years ago.
Join Wheels.ca as we take a journey through the last century and explore the evolution of automobile safety from its infancy to thoroughly modern systems like those found on Toyota Safety Sense equipped vehicles. No longer reserved for high-end cars this comprehensive suite of safety technology is designed to protect drivers and pedestrians alike, helping to make our roads safer for travel.