In a famous segment some years ago, Jay Leno went to an LA-area shopping mall and watched for drivers getting into large 4×4 SUV’s. He then interviewed them about the off-road features of their vehicles. To no one’s surprise, most of the suburban moms and dads he encountered knew nothing about their all-terrain capabilities, and nearly none had ever utilized them. Most of those powerful vehicles never left the asphalt, but the status attached to owning one had drawn those drivers to them, and dealers had happily obliged.
But that’s California. Shift the scene to Texas. If Jay had stood outside, say, a Toyota dealership in Arlington, he'd have gotten earfuls of very definite opinions about why the 4Runner is better than any of a dozen other models on the lot, along with a bounce-by-bounce description of their latest hair-raising off-road adventure. Throw in a winter like the 2013-2014 edition and you’ll hear snow and ice tales–even in Texas.
Toyota has made an interesting migration through the US market over the last fifty years or so, and during that time has experienced a metamorphosis that has taken it from the king of the commuters to the king of the backwoods. That trip through the American market has been an interesting road of its own.
Given the face of Toyota as of the late 1970’s, it’s surprising to hear the name mentioned in a context of off-road use. At that time, the company was best known for its already-venerable Corolla and was broadly considered the flagship firm of a resurgent Japanese manufacturing economy. Toyota was churning out affordable, efficient vehicles with great durability. Ever-growing numbers of Toyota cars and small trucks traversed the Pacific Ocean for American dealerships, a growth that has continued to this day.
Something Less Pleasant Comes Ashore
Then there was a shift in the US market. Brutal winters in 1977 and 1978 locked most of the US in a snow-piled deep freeze, sending car buyers to the market in a frenetic search for four-wheel-drive vehicles. American manufacturers moved thousands of units, and Toyota soon saw the market could now be profitable for them as well.
In time, a full range of Toyota 4×4’s–from small pickups to the most versatile SUV’s–hit American streets, ready to conquer everything from six inches of snow to hub-deep mud–or the daily commute. By the time more epic weather arrived, specifically the winters of 1993 and 1994, you were as likely to see a Toyota pawing through the accumulation as a domestic. Even rocky Lone Star hunting expedition was as likely to be undertaken in a Toyota as in any other builder.
From Player To Coach
As was the inclination of the ambitious Toyota business model, simply fielding a vehicle wasn’t enough. The firm established its renowned Toyota Racing Development wing as a means of creating a brand for the company as a leader in the off-road field. The resulting off-road packages carved out a niche for drivers seeking cutting-edge 4×4 technology, a specialty far different from those early four-cylinder gas sippers.