Rare Rides: The 1996 Toyota Classic, Truck-based Throwback
Today’s Rare Ride is brought to you by a Tweet that featured today’s subject and was the exact moment your author became aware of its existence. Released in the Nineties prior to the American retro styling craze, the Classic was a limited edition sedan sold only to Japanese customers. Curious yet?
In 1996 Toyota celebrated its 60th anniversary as a car maker and approached the conclusion of its peak quality era with the likes of the 1996 Camry, Corolla, 4Runner, and Land Cruiser. To commemorate 60 years of automobiles, Toyota sought to make a modern interpretation of one of its historical models. And what better place to start than the first passenger car the company ever built, the AA.
The project that eventually became the AA began when Toyota was still a manufacturer of automated looms and called Toyoda Automatic Loom Works. Founder Sakichi Toyoda invented the Model G Automatic Loom in 1924, a key component of the company’s success. His son Kiichiro took over the company after his father passed away in 1930, and brought with him an interest in cars. Kiichiro established an automotive division of the loom company in September of 1933, and it operated as a department of Toyoda Industries.
Development of an automobile began immediately, and the company made an announcement that it planned to make cars on January 29, 1934. Prototyping for a new engine and car platform took most of the year. The Type A engine was finalized first in September 1934, and it was added to the prototype sedans known as A1 in the spring of 1935.
There were three A1 prototypes in total. All three sedans were blessed in a Buddhist ceremony, and Mr. Toyoda drove one to his father’s grave to honor him. Unfortunately, none of the A1s survived history.
After the prototypes were finished Toyoda put passenger cars on hold to develop the G1, a pickup truck. Though Kiichiro Toyoda was more interested in passenger cars, trucks were easier to sell in 1930s Japan where the economy was not advanced.
The road to G1’s completion was not an easy one; developing a truck was an expensive task. Toyoda overleveraged itself to the verge of bankruptcy and took out loans that were many times the company’s annual profits. Once the G1 was in series production, money flowed back into the company, loans were repaid, and attention returned to finalizing the A1 into the AA (sedan) and AB (convertible). Both cars were very similar to the A1 and entered production in 1936.
Though it was an all-new design from a new car company, the AA drew its looks from an extant model, the Chrysler Airflow. Albeit to a much smaller scale, the AA followed the Airflow’s lead with a huge chrome waterfall grille, aerodynamic and swept back front fenders, and flowing side profile.
Compared from a side-on view, it looks like the AA was a Xerox copy of the Airflow at about 58 percent. Sweeping fenders, integrated running boards, and even the Airflow’s chromed spear detailing on the fender were replicated. Similar, too, were the AA’s steel wheels and chrome hubcaps. Even the winged hood ornaments were not dissimilar.
Copycat looks aside, the AA and AB started Toyoda in passenger car manufacturing. The company renamed itself Toyota Motor Company Ltd. on August 28, 1937, and distanced itself from the family name which established it.
Sixty years later, the AA that consumers had long forgotten was resurrected in spirit by Toyota. Though the retro-modern styling wave hadn’t reached North America, it was present in Japan courtesy of Subaru. They marketed a special Bistro version of their Vivio kei car (which was also turned into a tiny targa convertible, by the way). With a British-looking fascia, the Bistro was an unexpected hit: Subaru sold 62,000 examples within seven months of introduction. They’d expected the Bistro to be of niche appeal and sell only 3,500 copies.
Toyota’s 60th anniversary lined up perfectly with the release of a retro-styled celebration car, so designers dreamed up the Classic. The new car would mimic the looks of the AA as best it could under modern regulation, and be rear-wheel drive just like the AA. For the reasons below, that may not have been the best platform choice.
Speaking of platforms, Toyota’s engineers made an interesting choice for the Classic and used the Hilux. The fifth generation N80 Hilux was in production from 1988 and remained on sale in markets outside North America through 1997. Specifically, the Classic used the regular cab, long-bed wheelbase of 112.2 inches.
Classic’s overall length was 192.3 inches, which was over six inches longer than a regular cab long bed Hilux. At 68.3 inches wide, it was also nearly two inches wider than the truck on which it was based. The Classic had a tall roof and an overall height of 65 inches. That was just short of a 4WD Hilux but much taller than a 2WD example.
Oddly, power was not borrowed from the Hilux. The engine was an overhead valve 3Y-E inline-four. With 2.0 liters displacement, the engine managed 97 horsepower and 118 lb-ft of torque. While the 3Y family was generally used in commercial applications, that engine, in particular, found its way into the Mark II sedan, the Daihatsu Rocky, and the late Eighties Hilux Surf (4Runner to you).
With its truck platform and retro body, the Classic was not at all focused on performance. Those 97 horses were forced to push around 3,263 pounds before any passengers entered its luxurious cabin. For reference, a 2023 Camry weighs 3,310 pounds in base LE spec but has 203 horsepower.
As far as styling, the Classic was more of a mix-and-match than the AA it sought to honor. The waterfall grille was shorter than on the AA, but the same Airflow front end shape was retained. Free-standing headlamps were on short stalks, and side strakes detailing returned in body color. Fenders were wide and rounded and gobbled up the small truck tires, which wore some upscale lace alloys.
The Classic’s side profile was where things started to fall apart a bit: Hilux front and rear doors appeared, complete with a Hilux truck mirror. There was no attempt made to disguise the origin of the doors, which were front-hinged, unlike the AA.
Because the truck’s doors and windshield were used, it meant the Classic had a tall roofline. And while that meant it had more headroom than the squat-looking AA, it was much less cohesive looking. At least the rear side window of the six-window sedan looked to be a custom fabrication.
Fenders sloped downward and around the rear of the Classic as they did on the AA, as onlookers were met with a very 1930s treatment. The large trunk lid pivoted via exterior hinges and included a faux spare tire cover. Below, a wrap-around chrome bumper did a good job of replicating the style of the AA. The trunk itself was large, deep, and had a step in it that covered the actual spare tire’s location.
Inside the Classic customers faced a Hilux interior that was dressed up with the expected trappings of luxury, and a standard Hilux dash that was covered with faux burl wood applique. The wood covered as much of the dash surface as possible and extended onto the door panels where it continued to the rear.
Also finished in wood was a Nardi Torino steering wheel, as a Camry wheel with an airbag was deemed unsuitable. Carpets were thick and a wine red color, while passengers sat against bordello red leather. The same leather even covered the shift lever in the center console.
The Classic was limited to just 100 examples, all of which were painted the same black and red two-tone scheme. Offered only in Japan, they asked $75,000 ($143,933 adj.) and were quickly snapped up by collectors. Pleased with the Classic’s success, Toyota tried the same formula again with the retro and Lexus adjacent Origin, in 2001.
[Images: Toyota, YouTube]
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