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Fast-selling Toyota faces backlash in US

There's no joy in Toyota even though the biggest Japanese carmaker also became the third biggest seller or cars in the US in January. It only focuses on the stunning gains which all the Japanese auto manufacturers have made in the US in the last 10 years and which, in effect, have backed the US carmakers into a corner and brought new cries of "foul" by oth Detroit and lawmakers in Washington.

The fact is the Japanese may build more vehicles this year than Detroit, much to the chagrin and anger of the US firms.

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In 1979 the Japanese took more than 70 percent of all imports car sales in the US or, in simple figures, 1.7 million units. Imports, both from Europe as well as Japan, accounted for some 22 percent of the total US car market.

The Japanese, notably Toyota and its arch rival, Nissan, which puts out the Datsun, seem almost apologetic for the success of their high-mileage, high-quality cars and light trucks. But so far they have not indicated any positive interest in following the lead of West Germany's Volkswagenwerk and Honda of Japan in setting up vehiclemaking facilities in the US.

The Japanese are wary of the prospect of dealing with the United Automobile workers, for one thing. In Japan an unhappy worker wears a black armband but continues to do his job and sing the company song. Also, the Japanese carmakers can build cars in Japan, ship them to the US, and still sell them at a more favorable price than if they were built in the US.

The Japanese government, worried about the explosive potential of the situation, has been pressing both Toyota and Nissan to set up some kind of production facility in the US so as to take the heat off the issue.

Clearly, the government is fearful that US lawmakers in an election year may see fit to slap either legal restraints on the import of cars or an added tax in an effort to stem the flow.

Detroit companies charge they have made minuscule gains in the Japanese home market because of constraints or the intricacies of doing business in Japan.

US car buyers have moved in swelling volumes to the Japanese cars because of their high fuel-mileage potential, the record for quality construction, styling, and price. The strengthening dollar relationship vis-a-vis the yen also has had the effect of keeping prices down in contrast to a year or more ago when the dollar was in a much weaker position.

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Last year Japan shipped more cars out of the country than West Germany buil -- 4.56 million vehicles worth $20 billion.

In a drive to reduce the tension, Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry is sending Vice-Minister Nachira Amaya to Washington soon to discuss the worsening car situation between the two countries. More than 200,000 autoworkers are on indefinite layoff because of sharply declining sales of domestic cars.

Meanwhile, Honda, Japan's fifth largest automaking firm, is planning to set up a $200 million car-assembly plant in Marysville, Ohio, adjacent to its brand-new motorcycle- building plant, which opened last December. The automobile plant when in full operation will have the capacity to turn out 15, 000 cars a month within three years.

The Honda situation is far different from that of its two larger rivals because Honda is running out of car-building capacity in Japan.

Toyota and Nissan have had fact-finding crews in the US intermittently for a number of years to explore the possibility of US assemly of their cars. Up to now they've been unable to come to a decision.

Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira will visit Washington in early May for talks with President Carter. If the Ministry of International Trade and Industry can get an affirmative decision from the two biggest Japanese carmakers by then, the Prime Minister could deliver the message to the US at that time.

All the Japanese carmakers are hard pressed to meet the demand for their cars in the US. If available, they probably could sell another half million vehicles here. Honda and Toyo Kogyo (Mazda) dealers in the Boston area, for example, have long lists of potential buyers for their cars.

The Japanese blame the US car companies for their present straitened circumstances. A Nissan official says that his company is a scapegoat for the bad decisions of the major US companies, which stuck with their large gas-guzzling models while the world's petroleum crisis worsened and prices shot through the roof.

The US companies are now beginning to take the small-car market seriously. However, because of the long lead-time requirements of the automobile industry, they may not be fully competitive with the Japanese for two or three years.

Nonetheless, Detroit will begin funneling a new generation of small cars into the market-place next fall and in the spring of 1981. Clearly, a lot depends on the price and availability of fuel during the 1980s. As prices continue to rise , and especially if widespread lines again develop at the gas pump, the trend to small, fuel-conserving cars seems assured.


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