By Muhammed El-Hasan Staff Writer American consumers may have had an inkling of Toyota Motor Corp.’s ambitions when the Japanese carmaker introduced its first car for the U.S. market, the Toyopet Crown. A few years later, Toyota introduced the Tiara, and later the Corona – a Latin word for crown. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREGame Center: Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, 10 a.m.Half a century later, Toyota is on the verge of dethroning Detroit-based General Motors Corp. as the world’s No. 1 automaker. Today, Toyota marks 50 years in the United States, a milestone made more impressive by the Japanese carmaker’s extraordinary growth and transformative effect on the American auto industry. Also this year, Toyota marks a quarter century since opening its U.S. sales and marketing headquarters in Torrance, a far cry from the firm’s humble beginnings in a Hollywood office. “Their success is not a mistake,” said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “They believe in hard work, execution, details. They have worked hard to keep the DNA of the company everywhere they grow in the world.” Torrance-based Toyota Motor Sales USA employs about 2,100 workers in the South Bay and nearly 1,100 in Long Beach. Beyond Toyota’s direct employment, the carmaker also has a “significant” economic impact on the area, said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. “They’re doing marketing, which includes purchasing advertising, collateral material,” Kyser said. “They’re doing a lot of things there.” Other beneficiaries include local restaurants that cater corporate events and hotels that house visiting executives. Toyota has also added to Torrance’s stature as a business-friendly city and hub for Japanese businesses. Toyota’s arrival in the United States preceded the arrivals of two other Japanese carmakers – Nissan in 1958 and Honda in 1959. Honda still has its North American headquarters in Torrance, but Nissan moved its U.S. sales and marketing headquarters from Carson to Nashville, Tenn., in 2006. Toyota may have had great ambitions when it entered the world’s largest car market. But the company stumbled early. And badly. “It was a travesty,” said Irv Miller, group vice president of corporate communications, regarding the meager 287 Toyopets sold in 1958, its first year in the United States. Yet, the failed Toyopet is also a symbol of the company’s resilience and devotion to kaizen, a Japanese word for continuous improvement. The Toyopet, designed for Japan’s rudimentary post-war roads, was underpowered for American freeways. So Toyota created a new, more powerful car specifically for the American market called the Corona, which caught on quickly after its 1965 launch. “You could say the Corona was the answer to the lessons learned by the Toyopet,” Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said. Those lessons are evident at the Toyota Automotive Museum in Torrance. In one corner, three Toyopets are parked in a row, each bulging hood housing a 65-horsepower engine. The base price was $1,989. Next to them is the Tiara, then the Corona, which had 90 horsepower and a $1,760 base price. Dozens of Toyota vehicles – including pickups, concept cars and the Prius hybrid – line the museum’s showroom walls, with more rows of cars in between. The progression of Toyota vehicles over the years paralleled the carmaker’s growing sales and service network in the United States. In fact, starting from scratch may have hindered Toyota’s first plunge into the U.S. market, said Susan Sanborn, the museum’s curator. “We didn’t have dealerships and service garages, so people had to carry their own parts. So in 1957, 1958, that was probably a disincentive,” Sanborn said. “And we’re launching 12 years after World War II in a foreign market. There were 80 automakers in 1957 when Toyota entered the U.S. market, so it was stiff competition.” Like other foreign brands, Toyota began by competing on price, then mileage and quality. Each time Toyota gained a strong position in a category, its competitors closed the gap. Fifteen years ago, for example, Toyota vehicles had a fraction of the number of defects as its competitors. That difference is much smaller today, said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. Toyota’s emphasis on quality and efficiency has been so successful that competitors copied it. Even companies in other industries and nonprofits such as hospitals have tried to emulate Toyota’s processes. “Everybody else’s quality has improved. And (Toyota) saw that,” Cole said. “So they said, `What other pillar can we build on?’ And they chose to build on a green image.” Toyota’s green image comes from its efficient production methods, high-mileage conventional vehicles, and its hybrid Prius, the best-selling gas-electric vehicle. But even now, Toyota is losing its lead in this area as other carmakers, even those best known for their large SUVs like General Motors, begin to offer hybrid vehicles. “You never can own forever what is the intellectual high ground. ? So they’re potentially vulnerable,” Cole said. “So they will make sure that whatever comes along, they can play that game very well.” What is coming along may involve further development of existing projects to limit car emissions such as plug-in hybrids and hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles, and so-called intelligent transportation systems to reduce congestion, Toyota’s Miller said. “All of us have to stop being vehicle companies and transform into transportation companies because it’s going to be a lot more than just a vehicle as we move into the next era,” Miller said. “Today, there’s vehicles. Tomorrow, they could be mass transportation systems.” While considering Toyota’s first 50 years in the United States, Miller added: “The next 50 are going to be wild.” [email protected] local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!