Where it all began

Toyoda AA

The Louwman Museum’s halls are lined with a century of automotive excellence: streamlined car bodies glint, alloy wheels glisten and the aroma of aged leather hangs languidly in the air.

In fact, there are so many pristine show-stoppers on display, you’d be forgiven for overlooking a large, rust-marked car standing alone in low light. The problem is you’d be missing one of the museum’s most precious finds: The Toyoda Model AA. 

An unpolished gem that’s a treasured piece of Japanese history, it was Toyota’s very first production passenger car and this is the only known pre-War original that exists in the world today!

The Toyoda Model AA side view
 The Toyoda Model AA front side view
toyodo to toyota
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The AA was born in 1936 at the automobile division of Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, bearing the name of its founder Kiichiro Toyoda. Before cars, Toyoda’s family had built a successful weaving business in Japan, but for the entrepreneurial Kiichiro, inspired by visits to America, its automobiles and its factories, a future making his beloved cars beckoned.

After releasing an early prototype model in 1935, the A1, Kiichiro’s dream finally became a reality when the Model AA was released to the general public a year later. Inspired by the successful design of the leading American cars of the time, the AA bore many similarities to the popular Chrysler Airflow.

Like the body, the engine was modelled after the proven units found in the States; so a 3.3-litre, 6-cylinder unit was developed to power the AA, while passengers in the rear could revel in new-found levels of comfort and space thanks to a clever balance of weight between the wheels.

The new division needed a new identity, so in 1937 the company ran a competition to find a new company name. Thousands of entries later, the Toyota Motor Co. was established, its name chosen primarily because it was composed of eight ‘lucky’ strokes when written in Japanese.

The Toyoda Model AA rear view
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Five years later in 1942 – after six years and manufacturing 1,404 cars – the Model AA ended its run of production. Now, seven decades later, the significance and rarity of this first car can only be fully appreciated inside the Louwman Museum.

"The Louwman Museum had desperately hoped they had found and acquired an original Model AA, the rarest in the world."

The Toyoda Model AA rear side view
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The Discovery
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The fact that the Dutch museum now has in its possession one of the most important cars in Toyota’s history comes down to a little bit of good fortune and a lot of determination.

In a story that could be the work of fiction, in 2008, Ronald Kooyman, Louwman Museum’s Managing Director, took a call from a contact saying they knew of someone selling an AA. Kooyman, fighting the scepticism that descends when such a rare car is supposedly ‘unearthed’, made a call to Russia where a 25-year-old student had apparently noticed the car for sale in a local newspaper. Even though the car was mistakenly advertised as the aforementioned Airflow (a mistake also replicated in the car’s paperwork), the student was convinced of the car’s true identity – and, after an exchange of more emails and photos, and some intricate detective work, it was indeed confirmed as an AA.

Incredibly, the car was being sold by the grandson of a farmer who had used the AA as a workhorse on his land in Siberia since World War II. Time was of the essence: a flight to Moscow and a connection to the remote Russian city of Vladivostok resulted in the news that the Louwman family and everyone at the Louwman Museum had desperately hoped – they had found and acquired an original Model AA, the rarest in the world.

Seven long months of admin ensued with lots of form-filling, more emails and lengthy phone calls, but finally the Russian Ministry of Culture gave the museum permission to take the car out of the country where it could assume pride-of-place in its new home in the Netherlands.

"It has the unusual ability of looking like it’s moving even when it’s stationary."

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Seeing a car with this prominence in person is quite something. Strangely, what hits you first is the smell. On this occasion it’s not the sweet smell of leather, but a combination of musty upholstery and the odour of oxidised metal – not surprising when you think of the long, challenging life it’s had.

Naturally, a car with this kind of backstory hasn’t survived completely free of modification. Those eagle-eyed AA experts will notice the newer radiator grille, headlamps, door handles and wheels, but that’s not important in this instance – the features that you want to see are there and they charm you in the way only a few true classics can.

It has the unusual ability of looking like it’s moving even when it’s stationary. The elegant wheel arches wrap around the tyres and flow into wide doorsills, finishing with a subtle lift at the rear where they meet the curvaceous tail. The imposing bonnet tends to dominate the view, but this dramatic front-end is neatly offset by three delicate veins that run down each wing to exacerbate the feeling of momentum.

The Toyoda Model AA windscreen
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A key design feature of an original AA is its split windscreen, and the narrow slither of glass is still there offering the driver a commanding view down the long bonnet. Over its life, the discreet wipers have moved from their original ‘top-down’ position, to a more modern bonnet level, but it takes nothing away from the character of the screen.

The Toyoda Model AA window winders
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Not surprisingly, the interior is still in the condition it was when found and can be best described as ‘agricultural’, but your imagination fills in the gaps and you soon look past the ripped seats and trims to see how it would have looked when new.

The Toyoda Model AA interior dashboard

The large three-spoke wooden steering wheel appears huge compared to a modern car’s, and in this example now sits on the left, a switch from its original right-hand drive position. In its day, a strip of rich dark wood would sit luxuriously across the narrow dashboard, housing a series of small chrome-ringed dials and cockpit switches centrally, just above a long floor-mounted gear lever.

Thought even went into the sound of the AA’s horn at the time. As cars were a rare sight in Japan, the streets were still mainly populated by horses and carts. It soon became apparent that the animals were frightened by the new sounds emitted from cars, but didn’t react adversely to the sound used by the local Tofu vendor’s stalls. So the AA’s horn was engineered to sound like these, and if you hear one now it still sounds as if it’s shouting “To-Fu”, “To-Fu”.

The Toyoda Model AA interior dials
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Seeing the AA in the condition it was found – ignition key still in the barrel tied with a piece of string, cracked side windows and ripped seat covers – added to its mystique and just enhanced my affection for the car. When you visit a museum you expect to see examples of absolute perfection – cars without a blemish or a mark that are lovingly cared for – but, for me, seeing an original AA complete with battle wounds and scars, knowing that when it was collected in Russia it still started and drove, just reinforces the dedication to quality that was at the forefront of Kiichiro Toyoda’s mind when he first started building the AA, and is still the heart of everything Toyota stands for today.

Having now spent some time looking at the AA up close I can say that, to me at least, it’s perfect just the way it is.

Many thanks to Ronald and his team at the Louwman Museum in The Hague for their help in producing this article.

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