Thursday, February 11, 2010



I bought my first Toyota in 1972 when it wasn't the world's largest carmaker. I had to explain to friends and neighbours that this exotic Corona was said among car writers to be the best bet for a economical small family sedan to do the gruntwork for many years.
It did too. Survived sons ripping the sides off and other indignities until some time in the 1980s when it was retired as basically a sturdy engine and sturdier transmission surrounded by rust. It had been a gamble, because I don't think you should buy into a car model in its first year.
I drove one of the first front-wheel-drive cars in North America, an Austin 1800. I remember a trip to the U.S. where the attendant checked my oil (now isn't this history) and called everyone out of the sleepy gas station so they could stare at the first engine they had ever seen mounted sideways. Then the starter started sticking and I had to unbolt it and hammer it and bolt it just to start the car. Happened daily, but the repair bill was more than the car was worth.
I drove a Ford Taurus within a month of it being launched as a radical new look and the transmission dropped out two weeks later. Lovely car though.
Over the decades, four of my new cars were chosen Car of the Year. Yet you pay a price until all the bugs are worked out. Yet I thought the Corona was a good bet, even though it seemed a mystery just what year it was in because it was sold under other names in other countries. Now the name has been retired.
So Toyota established a basic trust with me for dependable quality. Still seemed pricier than the more modest offerings of the Big Three.
I drove a series of company cars, from Fords and Dodges to even a BMW. (A deal too good to miss.) But then the Grand Caravan started to limp in my early retirement and I followed my heart back to a 2005 Toyota Sienna. After all, Toyota stood on the pinnacle of being a leader in quality and satisfaction.
It has been a delightful highway car, just perfect for the trips to Florida and the cottage. A bit cumbersome for driving inside Toronto though. I press the old BMW into service because parking then is not an adventure. And only one problem beside routine maintenance. The rods holding the rear door gave up the ghost in the middle of a trip, meaning I had to carry a pipe to prop it open during loading.
Then the slight inconvenience of one of the two sliding power doors freezing shut on occasion became a daily battle with both doors. And the Toyoto dealership who pooh poohed the problem (owned by a friend) was no help. The service adviser said it happened to all vans with sliding doors. And we sprayed the rubber with silicone. Both doors were frozen within an hour.
For weeks, people had to scramble in the back. My veteran mechanic advised pouring hot water down into the gaps, and that generally worked. Or I poured quarts of windshield washer fluid. However, I didn't feel like going around pouring boiling water and alcohol on the sides of my van. Not great for the paint
I found out after hours on the Internet that there were frustrated Toyota Sienna owners in every cold nook of the world. They were furious that Toyota refused any help or solution for a problem that had existed since 2004. Safety concerns were cited, like a family trying to get out of a Sienna with frozen doors after an accident. Perhaps they were supposed to wait for any flames to thaw the doors.
My disappointment in Toyota was of the variety where the great beauty turns her face to you and you discover an ugly blotch. You shake your head and wonder how that was allowed to happen. How can the largest and best car maker in the world not care about a problem every wintry day that drives Sienna owners into a fury?
And then I find that Toyota hasn't led the world in flaw-free production for some years. And then comes the recalls, the hundreds of thousands of recalls, and they don't exactly spring forth in response as quickly as they should. So there were 8.5 million drivers at various stages of anger and the goliath moved at a grudging pace.
When the big boss finally makes his apology, there's the stiff bureaucratic crackle of the old Japan which feels superior to the world and refuses to allow any foreigner to become a citizen.
Toyota has slipped from the peak and can never climb back despite all the PR tricks. You never forget major hassles with your cars. I remember all of mine going back to my first, a 1930 Model A Ford bought for $75 and sold for $80.
Toyota may well continue to make the best selling models in the world and it and Ford will be the car companies to imitate in the immediate future. But you can't have recalls of this staggering magnitude without giving doubts to millions.
And when you make so many cars, it's inevitable you are going to have cars with chronic problems beyond the recalls. There are former Toyota fans like me who come out of the house on wintry mornings and when the damn doors won't open, bow deeply towards Tokyo and curse.

P.S. Things have just kept getting worse for the fallen icon of the automotive world. It's as sad as watching GM founder under all the goodies that the unions negotiated away from the incompetent managers for decades.
Turns out that there wasn't just a problem with the cars but with the managers. Their arrogant disregard of faults that have existed for years verge on the criminal, and they deserve everything that the governments of North America, indeed the world, throw at them in the way of fines and sanctions and public condemnations.

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