Is your living room full of Volkswagen Karmann Ghia parts, with sets of “too good to pitch” chrome grille nostrils as coasters on the coffee table? Maybe your driveway includes a Saab 96, two 99s, and an orange Sonett in the garage, none if which actually run? If you’re like many Autopian readers (and writers), you don’t fit into an automaker’s standard “target market.” You are, in effect, what they might call “statistically insignificant.” However, most “non-car people” do fit into one of these neatly established car market pidgeonholes. It’s hard to think of a Japanese manufacturer (or any brand for that matter) that has understood these segments of the North American market as well as Toyota, and few brands have put as much effort into attempting to deliver What The People Want.
Hitting The Target
How did a company do this for a buying base so culturally different from theirs, thousands of miles away from the company headquarters? For one, in 1973 they developed the Calty Design Research center in California to understand what works in Santa Ana instead of Sapporo. One of their first products was the second generation 1978 Celica, a crypto-Mustang that was far better looking than the actual current Mustang (II), designed by Calty founder (and former child actor) David Stollery. The first generation Celica was a shrunken Mustang Mach I fastback or Grande Coupe covered in fake vents and scoops favored by the Japanese market (supposedly since in places like Tokyo you’re mainly looking at the car close up) which this second generation eschewed for a much cleaner form.
Around 1985, Toyota began extensive research into the lifestyles of the American upper middle class to see what they aspired to from an automotive standpoint. According to Chester Dawson’s book The Relentless Pursuit , researchers rented a home in Laguna Beach to fully understand what was important to American families earning over six figures. The resulting Lexus brand went beyond just making a great product for a reasonable price; the whole dealership buying and ownership experience was reimagined. Lexus cars lacked some of the sharp handling and firm ride of a Mercedes or BMW, but guess what? Buyers didn’t give a shit. Apparently putting a Cadillac and a Mercedes into a blender and making it more reliable than either of those cars was printing money.
Toyota even dared to take on a true American sacred cow: the pickup truck. Their initial offering- the T-100– failed to meet sales expectations due to it not being truly big or powerful enough, but the replacement Tundra model fixed those issues, all the while offering J.D. Power quality scores that the domestic makers couldn’t approach.
A Missed Target
As good as they were, over the years I’ve seen some missed opportunities for Toyota. The Camry was able to knock the Ford Taurus off the best-selling-car pedestal in 1997 and never looked back, but one wonders what would have happened if Toyota had tried to hit the bread-and-butter market sooner. In the late seventies and early eighties, America was dominated by mid-to-full-sized sedans and coupes. Hard to believe, but the best-selling car of 1980 (and the two years before, AND 1983) was the A/G body Oldsmobile Cutlass, often in two door form. These “personal luxury coupes” had visual tweaks that made them flashier and allowed the owners to feel “more special” than if they’d purchased the four door counterparts. Competitors like the Ford Thunderbird and Chrysler Cordoba proved that buyers would eat up “luxury” that was truly skin deep or craftily marketed (“Corinthian Leather” anyone?).
During this time, Toyota’s largest offerings were the compact Corona sedan and the larger Cressida “luxury” car, which was still over a foot shorter than that “downsized” Fox Body T-Bird. There was also the Japanese market only Soarer coupe, but it wasn’t any bigger than the Cressida and not flashy or trashy enough for the U.S. market. What if Toyota finally got the message and came up with a real competitor for this segment? Toyota would have started with exhaustive research by teams of Japanese and American designers in places like the parking lot of a steakhouse in suburban Cleveland, or at the bar of a public golf course in Lisle, Illinois. What do mid-level managers or insurance actuaries really want out of a car?
The result would be the 1981 1/2 Callista, named not the skinny-shamed Ally McBeal actress but for the Greek word meaning “most beautiful” (a rather presumptuous title to say the least). Plus, the name beginning in “C” fits the other Toyota monikers of the time. Utilizing Cressida and Supra mechanical components, the wheelbase would be stretch by over six inches from Toyota’s biggest sedan, while length would increase by around a foot, resulting in a car about the size of the concurrent Thunderbird and totally unsellable overseas. It likely would have had a higher price level than a Buick Regal or Chevy Monte Carlo, but it could have challenged the quality, features, performance and luxury of Eldorados and Lincoln Continentals (exceed them, truthfully). As an obvious fan of angular styling (Bishops move in straight lines), I don’t have to tell you that the A60 Celica and Supra are some of my all-time favorites, so that Toyota aesthetic of this time will be happily applied to the Callista’s unibody. Here’s Dreams West’s strange, hypnotic two-and-a-half minute worship video to that design language:
The requisite fake Mercedes grille (a non-negotiable for these things) would be very low and small in the sloped nose featuring Bitter SC/Lagonda/Ferrari 412 pop up lights, though the wedge shape ends up looking much like a bigger Subaru XT coupe.
A glass and acrylic “targa” bar at the B pillar wraps over the roof and forms a skylight to lighten up the back seat space (unless you ordered the power moonroof). Pillar-mounted opera lights are a big deal with these kinds of coupes, but I chose instead to use an edge-lit etched logo script at the bottom of the tinted center side “opera” window that illuminates with the headlamps on, as seen on the poorly-built and terrible-selling 1979 Chrysler New Yorker. It’s all a bit kitschy but remember that I’m NOT designing a car for myself; it’s for a successful advertising salesman in 1981 like this:
Side flanks are kept rather clean except for a recession on the side of the body that includes front fender “gills” (that replace the side repeater turn signal light for other markets). Low Chrysler Imperial style taillamps wrap around the back with a cetral back up light, and including small amber rear turn signals to keep Jason happy.
A Full Sized Line Of Mid Sizers
A four-door sedan would be another body styles available with a front bench seat and column shift for the automatic (the standard transmission on all models). There’s also a station wagon model with a rear-facing third row and a power tailgate window, plus woodgrain side trim option. If you read ANY of the garbage I create you KNOW that I’m gonna send one of my designs to American Sunroof Corporation to do their magic, right? The Callista Cabriolet keeps the targa band in place, but lift-off T-tops and fold down rear top (similar to a Lancia Beta Zagato) give open air motoring while maintaining a tight body structure.
Form-follows-function might be a good inspiration for the dashboard, and it certainly was for the designers of the 1976 Rover SD1. This Ferrari Daytona rip-off “four door coupe” was yet another British Leyland product that was THIS close to greatness before bad decisions, bad management, and even worse labor relations conspired to ruin it (as well as US headlamps).
It’s not readily obvious when you look at the dashboard, but this car featured a completely modular system that can easily adapt to different requirements. Look at the image below-see how there is a gauge “block” on top of the dash, a fresh air vent/light in front of the passenger, as well as an analog clock next to the center vents?
Now look below at a left hand drive model…whoa! See what happened? It’s all the same parts, except:
-The gauge “block’” was moved, and the components within the block switched around (including the TRS-80 keyboard buttons next to the speedometer)
-The steering wheel and the fresh air vent/light have now switched position with steering wheel column
-The analog clock and the logo panel/gear shift pattern graphic flanking the center vents have switched positions
-Glove box door and enormous fuse box door (VERY important in a Lucas equipped car) are switched.
We’ve done the same thing with the Callista’s instrument panel. The gauge “block” and wood veneer upper glove box can be moved to either side, with a center pod featuring an analog clock and perspective schematic of the car over LED warning lights.
I’ve also taken a feature that I proposed for a similar-era car earlier, which is a cassette tape changer in the center console. You lift the tray out to get to the cartridge which moves fore and aft and drops in your chosen tape, allowing the ad executive at the wheel to switch from Chistopher Cross to Boz Scaggs or Michael McDonald at the touch of a button.
The Power To Make You Jump
The 1G-GEU 2.8 liter twin cam six would have powered the rear wheels, but a four-liter V8 modeled after the Mercedes M117 would have lived under the hood of the more expensive models. Fully independent suspension, rack and pinion steering, and four wheel disc brakes sound like the stuff of Black Forest fighters, but that would absolutely not be the mission of these cruisers. It might have been much like Toyota’s own Cressida, a rather staid looking but Supra powered sedan that Car & Driver described as “a schoolmarm with a harlot’s heart.” Like other “Personal Luxury” cars and gilded sedans of the era, the Callista would have had delusions of grandeur about itself that many owners would actually believe, and Toyota quality would make them believe it for a long time.
Maybe middle American needed a giant Toyota, an excuse for paunchy copy machine executives to jump in the air and say “Oh What A Feeling!” Would a Tokyo T-Bird have sold, and if so would it have been as indestructible as the just-revived Chicago Cutlass? Sadly (or maybe blessedly) we’ll never know.