The Man Who Made Toyota A Modern Success Dies At 100

Robert Siegel speaks with automotive reporter Michele Maynard about the death and legacy of Eiji Toyoda, the former president and later chairman of Toyota.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

A giant of the auto business died yesterday, a few days after he turned 100. Eiji Toyoda was president and later chairman of Toyota. The family name is T-O-Y-O-D-A. Toyoda played a key role in the company going worldwide, especially Toyota's move into the U.S. market. Micheline Maynard covers the automotive industry. She's a contributing editor for Forbes these days. Welcome to the program.

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Thanks for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: And, Micheline, the obituary that you wrote for Forbes is headlined, "How Eiji Toyoda created the modern version of Toyota." And I gather the critical moment in that story was in the early 1950s when he visited the famous Ford auto plant in Michigan. What happened when he saw Ford?

MAYNARD: Back at the moment in time, the rouge operations were enormous. Henry Ford had this idea that you could actually start from Northern Michigan, from the mines up there, and move raw materials down the Great Lakes. And they would arrive at docks, and then Ford would be able to go, literally, from ground up to an automobile on its own. So what Eiji Toyoda saw when he got to Ford was this great process of raw materials to finished automobiles. But he also saw a lot of waste. He saw quality issues, and he saw workers that weren't being listened to. And he took a lot of notes and took them back to Japan.

SIEGEL: But in the early 1950s, this auto company that had obviously interrupted operations, normal operations during the Second World War, had sold a total of 2,500 cars. And Ford was turning out more than that every day.

MAYNARD: Right. They were building about 8,000 cars a day. And so it just didn't seem to be very much of a threat to have this executive from a struggling Japanese auto company come in and take a look at the operations at that moment of time.

SIEGEL: A few years later, Toyota tested the U.S. market, tried to sell a car here that failed. Where did his confidence come from? That - and at the time when Americans thought Japanese goods implied shoddy goods, why did he think he could make it here, as he did, ultimately?

MAYNARD: He had a couple of things on his side. First of all, in the 1960s, you had the baby boomers come into the market for the first time. And you saw people buying literally hundreds of thousands of Volkswagens, which were German cars. And that gave him the thought that, well, if they're open to German cars, they'll probably be open to Japanese cars. And he had moved over here to run Toyota's operations, and he found that dealers were looking for something else to sell besides the automobiles that were coming out of Detroit.

And by the end of the 1960s into the early 1970s, you were starting to get the first concerns about the environment. And when Detroit automakers had to downsize, it was very difficult for them in the '70s. But Toyota was already building fuel-efficient vehicles for the Japanese market, and they were able to bring them over here.

SIEGEL: Eiji Toyoda was born in September 1913. How recently was he still going to work?

MAYNARD: He was going to the office into his 90s, dressed in a suit, bringing a briefcase. And I remember visiting Japan not long ago and saying, you know, how is Mr. Toyoda? And everyone is saying, he's fine. We just saw him recently. So, you know, the remarkable thing about Eiji Toyoda is that he is the first cousin of Kiichiro Toyoda who founded the car company, and it's as if Henry Ford's first cousin, Henry Ford - the original Henry Ford had just died. I just think this is an amazing moment in automotive history.

SIEGEL: Automotive writer Micheline Maynard is a contributor to forbes.com. Mickey(ph) Maynard, thanks for talking with us today.

MAYNARD: My pleasure, Robert.

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