Little Car, Big Impact Touring a Toyota plant in Japan and the Faustian bargain of industrialism.

Illustration by Tim Foley

My mom drove a Ford Thunderbird, in the ’60s, which seemed to match her sense of adventure and style. It means something (I am not sure what) that James Bond and Thelma and Louise drove similar cars. But what the Thunderbird really symbolized was a lifestyle she could no longer afford, and eventually it had to be replaced.

Mainly she looked at imports. In the heart of the country, in that period, it was said the wages of this sin would be tinny construction, a lack of power and room, and frequent breakdowns with no ready service or parts. Out of curiosity she test-drove a Volkswagen Thing, which looked and sounded like the Wehrmacht Kübelwagen it had been, but she never forgave the Germans and refused to buy their products. Apparently she could forgive the Japanese, because she bought a Toyota Corolla, the next town over, at a dealership giving them a try.

Toyota sold its first car in the United States, a Toyopet, in 1958. The Land Cruiser, Crown, 2000 GT, and Corona also entered the United States market before the Corolla, but in limited quantities. In 1963 Toyota was still only the 93rd-largest non-American company in the world, and until 1964 the United States imported fewer than 500,000 cars a year, from all countries.

My mom’s car—a little white station wagon—was one of the first Corollas in the country. It was a ’68 or ’69, because by 1970 the second generation got a tiny bit longer and more powerful to woo American consumers.

But the Corolla, which came to the United States in 1968, changed Toyota’s fortunes and would prove to be one of the most popular and hardest-working cars in the world. Autotrader calls it “the Japanese VW Beetle”—fitting, since the Corolla helped finish off the Bug.

My mom’s car—a little white station wagon—was one of the first Corollas in the country. It was a ’68 or ’69, because by 1970 the second generation got a tiny bit longer and more powerful to woo American consumers. Hers had a four-speed stick, 1,077 cc engine, rear-wheel drive, two doors, a rear hatch, and headlights. A new Corolla sold for about $1,700 ($12,000 in today’s money), but I remember hers being lightly used, returned by a first buyer after a short time, like a pet taken back to the pound.

By the time she bought the Corolla, my mom was a single parent, living on savings and minimal child support. Our house had begun to fall apart, and she was stuck in our small town. But her little car, as she called it, gave her mobility again, which is to say some freedom and dignity.

In my childhood, cars were not imagined to be a master-race of alien bots that transformed into roaring death machines, or satanically-possessed mass murderers. My anthropomorphic cars were Herbie the Love Bug (“born” the same year as me) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang—a wreck with a big heart, a child’s stubborn streak, and a name like a sneeze-fart.

My mother helmed that car, which was vaguely boatish anyway, with its curving prow and blunt stern, like a lifeboat or an enclosed water ferry, and we went everywhere in a 150-mile radius. (The car got about 30 mpg, but gas was not as cheap as we like to think, and hotels were out of the question.) Most of the time we went just to have a look, to get outside, to attend an event she read about in the newspaper. She had been a teacher and taught me to be curious, to look more deeply, and to value mysteries as well as the answers we went to find. On longer trips I lay reading and daydreaming in the back, which had an ingenious fold-down seat none of us had seen before. When she became a den mother for the Scouts, we often had seven, eight, or more people in it.

In my childhood, cars were not imagined to be a master-race of alien bots that transformed into roaring death machines, or satanically-possessed mass murderers. My anthropomorphic cars were Herbie the Love Bug (“born” the same year as me) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang—a wreck with a big heart, a child’s stubborn streak, and a name like a sneeze-fart. My mom never gave her little car a name or gendered pronoun—she was not sentimental in that way—but our experiences infused it with personality. It seemed like a gentle soul, with comically-concerned headlights and an agreeableness to move my mother and me, together, a little further down the road.

Stories of big, sweeping forces and private lives often converge in everyday objects and machines.

 

•  •  •

 

I have visited factories before: hot sauce, candy, washing machines, pudding. I worked briefly for the “world’s oldest and one of the largest manufacturers of energy control systems and components for industrial and aircraft engines,” where I ruined fuel venturis for F/A-18 fighters by accidentally grinding off all their edges.

None of those factories were as sedate as the Toyota plant I visited recently, in Aichi Prefecture, Japan, in homage to my mom’s little car.

Nearly 17 million people have toured the Toyota plant since 1960. There were 40 more in our English-language group, on a morning in mid-July, a mix of nationalities including a Dane who “was in physics” but now worked for a bank, looking at financial markets “with similar math and modeling.” Her husband was a physicist at Oxford with a joint appointment in Japan, and she had free time.

“I just like robots,” she said.

Our tour guide, a young Japanese woman, asked us to call her Ruby. She said the Headquarters building on the main campus where we stood had 8,000 engineers under its roof and was “bigger than 17 Banks of Tokyo.” She wanted us to know the advantages of The Toyota Way, which stresses teamwork, respect, and continuous improvement. She asked me to please stand within the painted lines in the empty parking lot as our group waited for the bus.

As we rode a few minutes to the Motomachi assembly plant, Ruby narrated. Toyota has 12 plants in Japan, she said, all in Aichi Prefecture; 10 are in Toyota, an industrial city of 400,000. The plants were built 15 to 30 minutes from each other to move parts around quickly. Toyota employed 75,000 in Japan and made 3.1 million vehicles each year; another 5.5 million were made at 50 Toyota plants in 27 countries.

The Motomachi plant is the “mother ship” to 11 global plants and pre-dates the Takaoka plant, four miles away, that made my mom’s Corolla. (Toyota PR insisted I visit Motomachi.) As the bus pulled in under an overhang in the rain, Ruby said the concepts of “Jidoka” and “Just in Time” were two key factors we must know about the Toyota Production System.

“I would like to tell you more details,” she said. “We hope you will find it very interesting.” But first she was sorry to tell us we must leave all cameras and phones on the bus, as well as anything wireless that could mess up the system.

“You are allowed to breathe,” she said in the same voice she used to recite facts.

We filed up a flight of stairs as music like something from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory blared.

“I will explain that,” Ruby said. But first: Motomachi made the Crown, Mark II and X, Estima (Previa in the US), Mirai (a hydrogen vehicle whose name means “future”), and the Lexus LC. There were 8,500 employees at this plant, but 80 percent of the work was automated.

The Welding Shop was a good example, and the only space we would be allowed to see that was congested, dirty, and really interesting. From our perch on a glass-lined catwalk, we saw one human in a large room filled with a dozen robots, cables, servos, generators, and control panels. His job was to tend the robots. The robots were just articulated metal arms, 15 feet tall, with calipers and welding rods as fingers. Their shoulders were bolted to the factory floor. There were 700 robots in all, Ruby said, which welded 99 percent of everything. Each “white body”—what they called the finished car frames—got 4,000 spot-welds.

The fingers pinched an existing part or made a stand-off with the calipers to position, steady, and ground the arm, then let fly with the current. A blue arc, sparks, and the weld was done. The robots’ movements were precise, even delicate, but also frighteningly fast and violent. They looked like Transformers.

The robots began working on four cars at once. Their articulated elbows bent double, the wrists spun, and fingers flew down to the skeletonized frames. The fingers pinched an existing part or made a stand-off with the calipers to position, steady, and ground the arm, then let fly with the current. A blue arc, sparks, and the weld was done. The robots’ movements were precise, even delicate, but also frighteningly fast and violent. They looked like Transformers.

Ruby walked us to the next station, where workers inspected freshly-painted car bodies, minus their doors, for damage and imperfections. (The doors were taken off while interiors were installed, to prevent damage, and later were reunited with their bodies.) The shed emitted an unearthly yellow glow used to see dents and scratches more easily.

“They dedicate themselves to never overlooking a scratch,” Ruby said.

The Danish analyst wanted data: what percent of cars was found to be damaged?

“Zero percent,” Ruby said. She smiled with pleasure. The Dane tried again, but Ruby was certain.

Back on the bus, Ruby counted heads twice. “Did. You. Enjoy. The. Welding. Shop?” she asked.

We stopped at another building the size of a city block: Assembly. Inside were the usual asbestos-sprayed rafters, air ducts, fans, wires, fluorescent lights, and storage racks, but if I had not known it was a car plant, I might not have guessed. It looked like the Jelly Belly factory in California. As we walked down a catwalk, I began to see sound liners and taillight lenses, wiring harnesses and batteries—still there was a feeling they might be for anything mechanical—then engines stacked 3x3x3 on pallets, and finally recognizable chassis, suspensions, and interiors. The cars themselves, when we reached them, were not nose-to-tail in assembly lines, with people swarming and doing things at breakneck speed, as I had come to expect. There was one car here, a couple there, and never more than two people around them at a time, working efficiently but not at sweatshop pace.

Ruby said this plant was able to use its system to build quite different cars on the same line. The line we were looking at built both left- and right-handed drive cars, as well as different models, and cars built to customer specifications. A special-order Lexus was being built on a line with two Crown police cars.

The plant would not have been painfully loud but for the Willy Wonka music, which now blared different tunes from several directions at once. Ruby was trying to shout over it that “Jidoka” meant “man and machine unity,” which accounted for both quality and speed on their line. Someone next to her asked something, and she shouted, “The music plays for safety when certain things happen, or to call leaders, or to announce the arrival of automated guided vehicles with necessary parts. All musics is different musics in their place!”

“I would go stark-raving mad if I had to listen to that shit all day,” an American visitor said.

Under a banner that read “Good thinking, Good Product,” a woman was putting a transverse engine into its impossibly-tight compartment with the aid of a robot that bore all the weight. (“So you can never get it back out again,” said the grumpy American.) A “synchronized dolly” on an overhead track followed the car through construction with necessary nuts and bolts and other small parts. A Digital Picking System (DPS) at the start put the right parts in the right dolly for each build.

The plant would not have been painfully loud but for the Willy Wonka music, which now blared different tunes from several directions at once. Ruby was trying to shout over it that “Jidoka” meant “man and machine unity,” which accounted for both quality and speed on their line.

“Jidoka,” Ruby said now, meant “automation with a human touch.” Workers had agency, she said, and if they needed to stop defective items from passing down the line, they could hit a “call button.” She pointed to one such event, below. Another layer of music was playing, a huge screen had lighted up yellow, and a line boss was strolling over with no sense of urgency. Ruby said the boss and worker would get things corrected. As we watched, they apparently did, because the car moved on. She did not want to discuss the line stopping entirely but admitted it happens. She said the “Poka-yoke” (a fail-safe device) could also turn the screen red “when an abnormality is determined” and stop everything if needed.

The plant had two shifts: 6:25 am to 3:15 pm, and 4:10 pm to 1:00 am. Workers got an hour-and-15 for breaks, including lunch. They made 80,000 cars a year. The system was down to such a science, Ruby said, that it took only one day to make a car, from stamping to final inspection—17 hours, actually, she said. The American with strong feelings was disbelieving and tried to argue about how long paint took to dry. In answer, Ruby offered one more definition of “Jidoka”: “harmonization of man and machine.”

Finally, she took us to a dimly-lighted area with games that mimicked production tasks on the Toyota line, like a bad children’s museum. HR flyers extolling employee opportunities had been pasted on the wall. Visitors tried the “Passing Rope Game [pulling a rope through eyelets]…target 8 sec.,” “Grommet Game…target 12 sec.,” and the “Flip and Place Cylinder Game…target 14 sec.” No one did them properly in the allotted time.

Ruby watched appraisingly and laughed. “I think that you will need more practice,” she said.

As we returned to corporate headquarters, Ruby told us the name “Toyota” takes eight strokes to write in kanji, a number traditionally lucky in Japan. The founding family’s name, “Toyoda,” takes two more strokes, which is one reason they decided to change it. In addition, she said, the Chinese or Japanese character for “eight” looks like Mt. Fuji, which means “upward endless possibilities.”

The family also wanted the company’s name to be different from the family’s, to highlight they were separate entities; the company was for its employees and the world, Ruby said, not just for the family.

The current CEO of Toyota Motor Corporation, Akio Toyoda, is the great-grandson of Sakichi Toyoda, the automated-loom inventor considered the father of the Japanese industrial revolution, and grandson of Kiichiro Toyoda, who started the car business that became the tenth-largest company in the world (by revenue).

Akio Toyoda is a billionaire ranked #29 on Forbes’ “World’s Most Powerful People 2018” list. Toyota line workers start at the equivalent of $19,920 a year.

 

•  •  •

 

Sakichi Toyoda started a business in 1890 by copying looms made in Japan and overseas. Later he went abroad several times to see others’ technology, which he copied, improved, and sold back to them. Eventually he sold the patent rights for his automated loom to the largest textile manufacturing company in the world, in England, where he had first gone for inspiration.

“The worldwide recognition of a Japanese invention and the request from a foreign company for a patent rights transfer were a truly noteworthy event in the technological history of Japan and instilled confidence in many Japanese,” Toyota says.

The rights transfer created seed money for his son to start the car business. From the early 1920s, Ford and GM had had a “monopoly” on car sales in Japan, and the plants they built there in the mid-‘20s killed off early Japanese car companies. That would invert in a few decades.

Kiichiro Toyoda, the son, had no experience in auto manufacturing and copied elements of a Chevy engine, a Ford chassis, and a Chrysler body to make his first cars. He sent his company director to the US in 1933 on an “overseas inspection” of foreign factories and to buy machine tools for auto manufacturing. The next year, a top Toyota engineer “visited the United States from January to July 1934 to plan the mass production processes used to build automobiles. Kan visited 130 plants, seven research facilities and five universities to study the automotive and machine tool industries.”

Toyota’s first large project was to make trucks for the Imperial Army, as Ferdinand Porsche made Kübelwagens and Beetles for the Nazis. They were successful enough that the Allies had plans to bomb the factories of Aichi, but Japan surrendered first. The war, the Japanese say, taught them “to use ‘quality’ to counter the national superiority in ‘quantity’ on the American side. […] Those technologies contributed to the recovery and high-level growth of postwar Japan, and have been inherited by the industries of the present day.”

Though Toyota almost went bankrupt after the war, it came roaring back with orders from Japan’s former foes, the US military, for vehicles to use in the conflict in Korea, another longtime foe. From ’50 to ’55, sales of Toyota vehicles shot up 1,300 percent. Year after year Toyota made profitable choices and had good luck.

Toyota’s first large project was to make trucks for the Imperial Army, as Ferdinand Porsche made Kübelwagens and Beetles for the Nazis. They were successful enough that the Allies had plans to bomb the factories of Aichi, but Japan surrendered first.

Improbably, a company that honored its founder with precepts such as, “Always be faithful to your duties, thereby contributing to the Company and to the overall good,” and, “Always be practical and avoid frivolousness,” became a car-seller of choice to a nation of individualists who liked big things and often put personal interests above community needs.

Toyota’s biggest success has been the Corolla. More than 44 million have sold since 1966—enough to circle the earth five times. A new one sells every 15 seconds. They are built now in 16 plants in 13 countries or regions; in fact, “the first Toyota car built on American soil [was] a white Corolla FX16…produced on Oct. 7, 1986, at the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. plant, a joint venture with General Motors.” Toyota is now the largest auto manufacturer (by production) in the world.

 

•  •  •

 

My mother had the good fortune to live the first half of her life when the United States was ascendant. Hers was the America of labor’s rise; the America of two world wars won (my father fought the Japanese at Leyte), and the commerce and influence that followed; the America of a viable middle class; the America of public education and works.

In the middle of her life, fortunes falling, my mother bought a little car with the beauty of a well-made toy. It was economical, utilitarian, self-effacing, and anti-macho—all the things she needed or wanted at that point. The Corolla created a transactional relationship on both sides of the Pacific, but it interested her more as an intersection of cultures old and new, local and global.

In the second half of my mother’s life, the world began to change. There was the slide of the U.S. middle-class, the return of fascism and nationalism, and the rise of supranational corporations and foreign manufacturing dominance. Our government engaged in conflicts with no possible resolution. Downtowns died. Detroit failed, and our enormous network of roads and bridges became too expensive to maintain.

Toyota, of course, is intent on developing technology to fix what technology hath wrought. What else can they do?

Now it was not only those disenfranchised from the system who questioned the project’s methods. (“What a bunch of poop,” my mother began to say.) Even stockholders had to wonder sometimes about the wages of corporate ambition, how resources were squandered, and the environment never entered in the calculation of true costs. Try to think of 44 million Corollas: the energy, metal, plastics, and other petroleum used in their construction; think how many miles they were driven and, economical as they were, happily emitting and leaking, until they were dumped for something else. Think of our investment in personal conveniences that only seem to have nothing to do with others around us.

Toyota, of course, is intent on developing technology to fix what technology hath wrought. What else can they do? The company museum in the self-named town is filled with prototypes of high-tech solutions. (Hint: they do not involve public transport.) Tatsuo Hasegawa, Chief Engineer of the first-generation Corolla, had a saying: “A Corolla for the welfare and happiness of humanity.”

A little car means something, if only about humans, their machines, and harmony.

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