Musings on the Past

Toyota Sera – Why is this 30-year-old curiosity Toyota’s only “bubble-era car”?

Every car exists for a reason. Whether created for market demands, niche-making or to sprinkle magic branding pixie dust, no car pops out of a vacuum. Which makes one wonder if Toyota’s all-knowing product gurus were on holiday when approving the production of the Toyota Sera.

A concept made manifest

Introduced in 1990, the Toyota Sera broke the mould from the start. It didn’t look like any other Toyota creation before. Its body was smooth and sensuous, it had the colours palette of a budgerigar, and its glasshouse was an arresting melange of curved glass panels.

30 years may have marched on by, but the Toyota Sera hasn’t lost the whimsical quality in its appearance. It was as though the little Toyota was the product of imagination instead of a committee discussion. Well, that is because it was.

Unlike many of its production contemporaries, the Sera was a near carbon copy of a concept car – the AXV-II. Built for the 1987 Tokyo Motor Show, the AXV-II was one of four concept cars Toyota built to showcase future powertrains and designs.

While Toyota’s gas turbine and electric car concepts were too ahead of the time, the AXV-II wasn’t. Despite its looks, the AXV-II was close to production-ready by the time it made its debut. Its show-stopping shape might be futuristic, but its mechanical underpinnings were that of a humble Starlet hatchback.

Miraculously, Toyota didn’t water down the design as it brought the AXV-II into production as the Sera. One could argue that the production car looked better with its slimmer projector headlights – a state-of-the-art feature back then.

Beyond flights of fancy

Nevertheless, it was the Sera’s iconic forward and upward-opening “gull-wing doors” that would be its pièce de resistance. A remarkable achievement not just in the grandeur of its presentation, but the sheer ambition and confidence in its execution. Bringing those doors with its curved wraparound glass panels into production must have caused some sleepless nights at Toyota.

At least, those sleepless nights weren’t for naught. As fate would have it, a solitary Sera that found its way to England became Gordon Murray’s muse for the doors of his seminal work, the McLaren F1. So at least for once, the Sera subverted the common accusation of Japanese automakers “lifting inspiration” from its European counterparts.

Though according to Toyota, the Sera wasn’t just all doors and drama. The little car also introduced newly developed Toyota Production System techniques. One of which was a new flexible and simplified press manufacturing system designed for low volume manufacturing. That said, the company’s new production process didn’t make the Sera a very affordable car either.

Curiosities don’t come cheap

Prices of the Sera is hard to ascertain as Toyota never sold it outside of Japan. And finding information on Japanese domestic products before the advent of the internet amounts to hearsay. By Motorsport Magazine‘s own estimates, the Sera costs the same in Japan as a new BMW E36 316i would in Europe.

Mind you, beneath its smooth egg-shaped body there was nothing especially remarkable about the Sera. The Sera packed an 81kW 1.5-litre inline-four engine from the Starlet. Whereas its only performance promise came from its “asymmetrical unidirectional high-performance tyres” fitment.

On the face of it, that makes the Sera an obscenely overpriced trinket. A tiny Toyota hatchback for the price of an entry-level BMW sedan? That is utter madness, surely the Toyota product planners were asleep!

Though when put in the right historical context, the Sera’s asking price wasn’t all that outrageous.

Ambitious but not outrageous

BMW in the 1990s wasn’t the hotly desired premium brand it is today. It was an up and coming name known for sporty cars and were building its repertoire amongst enthusiasts and yuppies. But nevermind BMW, the concept of a “cheap brand” and a “premium brand” wasn’t so pronounced in Japan.

Class distinctions between brands weren’t quite stratified over on the other side of the globe. Toyota wasn’t a maker of cheap and disposable cars as the Western world made them out to be. Instead, Japanese automakers offered a diverse range of models, ranging from humble Kei-cars right up to aspirational cars like the Toyota Crown or Nissan President.

This dichotomy is evident in the Lexus LS400’s purpose. Its target wasn’t getting Japanese customers to upgrade to a “luxury Toyota”, but Toyota’s international customers. For Japanese customers, there was nothing “peasant-grade” with buying a Toyota-badged Celsior or Century.

Furthermore, foreign brands were struggling to make a foothold in Japan’s unique market environment. To the average Japanese in the late-1980s, buying a Toyota had no connotations of lowly societal status.

Excluding the perception of brands today, the gulf in desirability between the Sera and an entry-level 316i wasn’t as great as you might imagine. Even so, the Sera was a pricey automotive curiosity and one that was heading off the cliff of one of history’s most influential financial periods – the Japanese asset price bubble.

Doomed to fall

If there is a barometer for the scale of Japan’s economic disaster, the Toyota Sera would be it. Between 1990 and the end of 1995, Toyota made 15,852 examples of the Sera. Within that short period, three-quarters of all Seras were produced and sold within the first 18 months.

By the time Toyota moved into its “Phase II” of the Sera’s production in the second half of 1991, Japan’s economy was already coming apart. The implosion of the great Japanese economic miracle that followed would take down the optimism of its society and the ambitions of its automotive industry in one fell swoop.

An uncertain purpose

Even if the Japanese economic bubble avoided collapse, the Sera would remain as an unexplainable oddity in Toyota’s history. As outlined at the beginning of this lengthy commentary, the Sera doesn’t seem to have a clearly defined raison d’être.

It certainly wasn’t an expensive luxury flagship like the LS400 or a sporty brand builder like the MR2 or Celica. Aside from its show-stealing doors, the Sera had a “Super Live Surround Sound” stereo system, which Toyota described as “one of the most radical audio systems it had ever engineered”. Wonderful.

By most accounts, the Sera didn’t set a new yardstick for enthusiast cars. Rather, beneath its forward-thinking looks, many felt it was a slightly improved Paseo coupe with a bit more comfort. Decent for an affordable compact coupe, but it won’t captivate the passionate, especially for its asking price.

So, it was an expensive, not terribly quick, useful, or exciting coupe that didn’t really redefine anything in its generation. More damningly, it only became the darling of motoring circles thanks to the allure of tasting Japan’s forbidden fruits.

In a way, the Toyota Sera was the perfect product of its time. And I don’t mean that metaphorically in terms of design but literally. The Sera was the epitome of Japan’s “Bubble era cars”. The strangest part of all this being the fact that Toyota wasn’t exactly all in on the game.

The escalation of the “bubble era”

Thanks to rapidly escalating prices of assets and stocks, Japan’s bubble economy filled the nation with an unparalleled sense of optimism and wealth. Behind the scenes, a confluence of complicated monetary and economic factors was steadily inflating Japan’s economic conditions.

But to the average Japanese salaryman, it only meant one thing. The good times have arrived, Japan’s economic power is unstoppable, and it is time for a new car. And Japanese automakers were only too happy to oblige.

A sharp increase in spending power amongst the middle class quickly compelled Japan’s highly competitive domestic market to compete with one another in increasing intensity.

First, they started developing more models than necessary. Then they started over-engineering their cars for the sake of it.

This eventually heightened to introducing more complex and innovative electronic features such as touchscreen infotainment systems and electronically controlled suspension systems. First to impress, then to outdo one another.

Staying out of the gold rush

These new “Bubble era” creations were neither effective in garnering sales nor efficient in production costs. But that didn’t matter. The Japanese thought the bubble would never end. And so did the automakers. Except for Toyota, who kept its chips out of the market.

Toyota had no revolutionary all-aluminium supercar in development like what Honda was working on. Or an exclusive line of retro-inspired curiosities such as Nissan’s “Pike cars”.

Neither did it sought to push the limits of engineering like what the four-wheel-drive, four-wheel steering, active-aerodynamic-equipped Mitsubishi 3000GT did. Or build an entirely new V12 engine for Formula One racing out of the blue as Isuzu did.

Sure, Toyota did embark on the “F1” project, which would culminate in the game-changing Lexus luxury brand. But that move was motivated by Toyota’s desire to increase the profitability of its export operations. And as mentioned earlier, to give Toyota customers a convincing option to “upgrade” towards to.

The LS400 wasn’t a project-driven to capitalise on the Japanese market’s newfound riches either. At least not in the same vein as Mazda’s Japan-market only triple-rotor Eunos Cosmo luxury coupe.

Eyes on the prize

First Toyotas manufactured in the US arrives in Japan in 1992

There was no doubt that Toyota, Japan’s leading automaker had the financial resources and capabilities to deliver the last word in Japanese bubble era excess. But it didn’t. Fortuitously, this was thanks in part to Toyota’s rational strategy and its international interests.

Ever since Japanese cars started gaining momentum in the North American market following the oil crises of the 1970s, the United States government sought to limit this new Japanese invasion by “imposing voluntary restraints” on exported cars from Japan.

First Toyota Motor Manufacturing quality-approved Camry in 1988

These restraints meant that there was a ceiling to the number of cars Japan could export to the United States. In turn, Toyota had to focus on establishing a North American manufacturing base to circumvent the restraints. Fortuitously, by securing its overseas operations, Toyota’s was in a better position for the moment the Japanese economy began to unravel itself.

The requiem of a dream

Whether Toyota saw the writing on the wall ahead of time is uncertain. Neither am I sure if Toyota found the game of one-upmanship in its domestic market a zero-sum game. Either way, the Sera is proof of Toyota’s priorities in this crucial moment in automotive history.

The Toyota Sera was a concept car made manifest in its purest form, but nothing more. Toyota didn’t bother engineering wild powertrains or brimming it full of technology. Its body was a demonstration of a new and more efficient Toyota Production System. Its mechanical components were from a bog-standard hatchback.

And the Toyota Sera didn’t need to be anything more than that. It wasn’t the greatest creation of Japan’s short-lived gilded age, but it was the perfect “bubble era car” for Toyota. It simply defies all logical explanations because it was the product of a time that defied all logic.