I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
—Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
At the risk of upending a hundred years of literary history as we come upon the centenary of the above poem, we think Robert Frost may have been heading the wrong way. Where he sees a split path, we see a merge, the inevitability of coming together. Does the path diverge in the wood, or does it converge in the same place? With all due respect to Mr. Frost, it's a question of perspective.
It is convergence that interests us today, rather than its divisive corollary; without the proper elements coming together, this remarkable Toyota Crown could never have happened. Now, "remarkable" and "Toyota Crown" don't often show up together in sentences; by all indications, the Crown was anything but remarkable. But this one, updated in modern accoutrement and brought back to vibrant life, is properly described.
The heart of this convergence begins with the people involved. Janet Fujimoto: longtime Toyota employee, and longer-time car enthusiast, with four S20-powered S13 Nissans, a pair of tweaked Honda S2000s, a pair of Toyota MR2 Turbos, and another pair of spotless hachiroku in her high-performance past. She's also a wild creative spirit who dreams big and demands bigger, requires the closest earthly approximation to perfection as is possible, and has an impeccable eye for detail. Duane Tomono: a man who builds raw power with his bare hands, a man who turns ideas into kinetic, high-powered 3-D sculpture. A lifelong fan of American steel, with more than 100 builds to his credit, he still harbors a '69 Chevy Camaro Z/28 in his garage and has had cars grace the covers of both Car Craft and Hot Rod magazines (both sister publications in Super Street owner TEN's stable of titles) over time.
Their paths were forged independently, and each is a creative force to be reckoned with in their own right. Put them together, combine their talents and their outlooks and their experiences, and unexpected things happen. Like Pro Touring Toyota Crown sedans. Janet knows what she wants; Duane has the talent to make it happen. (Or, as Janet puts it brightly, "I twist his arm, and he does 'em for me.") The result is staring you in the face on these pages.
That concept: a Pro Touring-style MS55 sedan that kept as many Toyota pieces as possible, while still offering the necessary performance upgrades. "Duane is more into muscle cars, and I love Japanese cars," Janet explains. "We gave a Toyota that muscle car vibe."
True, the Crown was about the size of a Dodge Dart, Ford Maverick, or AMC Hornet when these were all contemporaries, but it's not fair to call the Crown "American-sized"—small cars were still the exception, not the norm, out of Detroit. But the build overview reads like a street rodding who's who of components. Vintage Air, for the modern R134a-filled compressor and full HVAC system. Painless Wiring, to undo the crispy factory spaghetti throughout the donor's body and to make things simple and clean. AutoMeter gauges filling the stock holes in the dash. Magnaflow muffler with a glasspack—a metal tube with a thin strand of fiberglass that vibrates off the exhaust flow—as a resonator. Dynamat insulation to keep things quiet. An Optima gel-cel battery. All of them longtime, established names in the world of hot rodding. None of them, save for perhaps AutoMeter and Optima, are household names in tuner-car circles. "Because a lot of people only do imports, they may see cool things but don't understand the meaning behind it," Janet says.
Once Janet had her concept sketched out, the search was on for a donor car. Material was thin on the ground and the result was, to say the least, intimidating: a clean sedan became available, with glass and most of the body panels, but no driveline and no nose to speak of (fenders, hood, grille, bumper). The good news: no rust. The bad news: practically every panel needed to be straightened. "They always look bad in the beginning," Janet tells us, "but I'm confident that Duane can transform it into my vision."
Now, finding parts for a 45-year-old sedan isn't quite the same as finding parts for, say, an S13 240SX, or frankly any other performance car of interest built in the last two decades: You can't just pop down to the boneyard and start pulling parts, or head to the dealer and see what Crown bits are collecting dust on a shelf. What's more, while there's a thriving catalog business for '60s American cars and trucks of most descriptions—even some of the more obscure and workaday ones—there isn't a central source (even in Japan) where you can buy the acres of trim and brightwork necessary to make an MS55 Crown look new again. Janet beat the bushes for two years to get all of the parts needed to make her Crown whole again, searching as far as Japan and Australia for the right pieces. "And every piece we got had to be worked on—that car has about 140 pieces of stainless on it," Duane says. That which could not be found was simply made.
Janet adds, "They're old cars, and no matter what parts you find, they're never perfect. The thing I really like, people are so nice, and in that community, people will always help. If they have something, they're happy to share. We do the same." Even so, Duane tried to convince Janet that de-chroming the body might be the way to go—for that monochrome Euro-look vibe—but Janet stuck to her guns. Duane tells us, "'With the color I want to paint it [a custom-mix gunmetal gray], the chrome will look better,' she said. She was right!"
While Janet was busy sourcing brightwork and some other more crucial components, Duane started the technical end of things with the suspension. They wanted coilover suspension to get the right stance, but of course no one makes coilovers for an MS55 Crown; the result is a custom setup using QA1 parts, with mounts fabricated by Duane and geometry calculated to offer a smooth ride and decent steering ability, too. While he was under there, he trimmed the standard Toyota axle (and its stock 4.11 gearing) by 3/4 of an inch on each side for clearance, but kept the pumpkin's guts intact. Brakes are Brembo, with 12.3-inch crossdrilled rotors and four-piston calipers in front, with 12.7-inch rotors and two-piston calipers in back; both hubs and caliper brackets were custom CNC'd by Duane to make 'em fit the Crown chassis. The frame, he notes, didn't need any fortification to accommodate the doubling of power that would soon come, and neither body nor chassis required any relieving to accommodate the 18" Enkei wheels and Yokohama rubber.
Crowns, despite their luxury status at home, weren't available with power steering on the MS55 generation—something available on American cars since the '50s—so it wasn't just affixing a power-steering pump to the engine's accessory drive; it was finding a power-steering box that would work. Janet managed to come up with one: They incorporated an '82 Corolla unit, fabricating mounts for the chassis. "Nothing was available," Janet reminds us, "so we had to come up with creative solutions."
Some would see the addition of Toyota's venerable 2JZ (sourced from a '92 Lexus SC300, as was the three-speed automatic trans) as a creative solution in and of itself: With an aluminum head, sequential electronic fuel injection, and a couple of decades of design improvements, the engine itself was rated roughly double what came in the Crown to start with (possibly a little more, thanks to the vagaries of gross/net horsepower ratings and emissions considerations). But that doesn't mean that a new straight-six will just slot in place of an old straight-six: Mounts needed to be fabricated, and the stock oil pan was in conflict with the Crown's front crossmember, so Janet sourced a Japanese-application oil pan that would clear things. The air conditioning compressor and alternator are both mounted low on the 2JZ, and Janet worried about maintenance issues of things went wrong; rather than have to lift the engine out to change 'em, they were placed elsewhere, within easy reach.
The decision to stay normally aspirated boiled down to clearance issues: There was no way to fit the turbo and make everything fit in the Crown's chassis. "With a turbo, there would be no room for air conditioning, a trans cooler, power steering...it came down to, did we want a race car, or a cool hot-rod restomod that you can drive all day, every day? We went with driveability," Duane explains. And even some of the aftermarket components needed to be tweaked: Two of the main pipes in the OBX header had to be refabricated to clear the chassis, and the downpipe would have gone straight into the frame had it not been rerouted. The exhaust itself is a 2 1/2-inch mandrel-bent pipe. For cooling, a Koyo aluminum radiator and Spal dual electric fans are kept in place with custom brackets—the top ones are made of titanium.
The desert-rat interior had to be redone—but rather than go the radical route, with rock-hard buckets sporting lumbar-grabbing bolsters, she opted for a softer approach—one that kept much of the original furniture intact. "We had original door panels that we made look like new. The seats are the original Crown buckets, but reupholstered, and the headrests are original Crown headrests with Crown emblems. We couldn't find a dash pad, so we made an all-metal dash top. The original gauge cluster is still there, but AutoMeter gauges are inside." And...the stock steering wheel? Janet laughs. "We debated going aftermarket with the steering wheel, but this one had the Crown emblem in the center. I liked that. It's very different than today's fatter steering wheels."
As you read this, the Crown will be entered into SEMA's annual Battle of the Builders, a top-level competition held each year during the annual festivities in Las Vegas. Janet likes the Crown's chances: "All the cars we do get totally redone, from bushings to hardware. That's how we do all of 'em. We're both perfectionists, Duane and I. The things I can't do, he does. Does that make us a good team or a bad team?" The question hands in the air, unanswered. "We have fun."
And so, with apologies to Mr. Frost,
I shan't be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads converged in a wood, and aye,
Crown companion by their side,
I say that has made a difference.
A Brief History of the Toyota Crown in America
In America, Toyota's Crown is a curiosity and a footnote—it's an outlier, a biggish sedan in a field of economy cars. But at home, the Crown is a legend.
Japan, in the 1950s, was full of undeveloped roads. Homegrown cars were frequently air-cooled twins of no more than 360cc in displacement, and they were built for roads that rivaled that bouncy house at your niece's sixth birthday party in terms of smoothness. Any car was a luxury in those days—motorbikes were far cheaper and more efficient. The few locally built cars were largely built from complete knock-down (CKD) kits, like Isuzu-built Hillmans and Hino-built Renaults. Toyota's Crown was the first Japanese car that was designed and engineered entirely in Japan; for this reason alone, the Crown was (and remains) a source of enormous pride for both the company and the country.
When it launched in 1955, the Crown was king among kings in the world of Japanese cars. The first Crown (designated S30) was not much bigger than today's Corolla, but it was still a massive step up from the bikes and trikes that populated Japanese roads then. If you had a Crown, you had arrived. Indeed, the Crown's image was dictated largely from the back seat—if you could afford a Crown, you could afford a driver, too.
Toyota brought the Crown came to the States in 1958. Its chassis was just five inches wider and longer between the wheels than a Beetle, one of the top imported cars of the era, yet Toyota outrageously claimed that it seated six in comfort. Styling was American lite—upright, with ample filigree but with a tall greenhouse that belied its small-car proportions. Sixty horsepower out of a 1.5L engine sounded good at a time when VW made just 36 hp out of its 1.2L. But even with a 5.2-geared final drive, the 2,650-pound Crown strained to reach to 60mph in 26 seconds; the quarter-mile arrived in 23.5 clicks. That's right, the first Crown couldn't hit 60 mph through the quarter-mile traps. Top speed was 80 mph, or so it was claimed. Crown wasn't cheap: when a base 1,200cc VW was $1,545, Toyota charged nearly $2,000 for a Crown. Sales, as you might imagine, were terrible: just 287 were sold in 1958.
A larger engine in the early '60s couldn't rescue the S30 Crown, and it was soon pulled from the U.S. market altogether in favor of the lighter, sprightlier Tiara sedan as well as the Land Cruiser off-roader. But rather than give up, Toyota figured out what America wanted. The result? The all-new S40 Crown for 1962. It was larger in all dimensions, yet weighed the same as the S30. Toyota's full-line sales grew, though it must be said it was largely on the back of the Tiara: from just 1,100 cars in 1963 to twice that in '64, to 6,400 cars in '65 to a whopping 20,000-plus in '66 (the brand-new Corona, taking over for the Tiara, was the reason why). America couldn't care less, but the more "American" the Crown became, the more the Japanese lapped it up; a six-cylinder variant arrived in 1965, and broke the thousand-unit sales mark for the first time here in the U.S.
Crown grew again in 1967: the S50, and face-lifted MS55, generation rode a 105.9-inch wheelbase, and for the first time had an all-aluminum 2.3L OHC straight-six under the hood, making 115 hp and 127 lb-ft of torque. "A good, solid, sensible machine," said Road and Track. "In many ways, it reminds us of the small Mercedes sedans in that both are solid and rattle-free and both have that completely honest no-nonsense look and feel about them." It also cost a dollar a pound: $2,899 in 1970, about $400 more than a comparably sized (and powered) Slant-6 Dodge Dart. Yet despite this price disparity, the S50 Crown was by far the most successful version of the nameplate on U.S. shores: More than 22,000 S50-generation Crowns (like the one Duane built for Janet) were sold in the US.
But it wasn't enough. In the U.S., with the Corona and Corolla, Toyota was gaining a reputation for solid little gas-sipping cars that were tremendous value. Corolla was priced comparably to a Beetle, offering solid build quality with better room, power, and amenities. The Crown seemed increasingly out of place in a value-priced lineup, and by 1972, shortly after a bizarro-world restyle and a price tag flirting with $3,000, the Crown disappeared from our shores. A six-cylinder Corona Mk II seemed more palatable to the American public, and finally the six-cylinder Cressida would appear in Toyota's American lineup in the late '70s; both cars took the Crown's place in Toyota's lineup in their time, and the Crown never returned.
What Is Pro Touring?
Pro Touring was coined in the mid-1990s to describe the then-new phenomenon of making a car from the '50s and '60s behave like a new (i.e., '90s) car—using modern technology to enhance performance while simultaneously making it more street-friendly, offering better ride/handling combinations and driver comfort. Ex-Car Craft, Hot Rod, and Chevy High Performance editor Jeff Smith came up with the term. In those days, American iron was often tweaked for its ultimate quarter-mile abilities—recall the Pro Street movement of the '80s; this makes for a compromised ride on the street. Pro Touring is a more balanced approach that improves power and speed while also adding handling ability and over-the-road comfort into the mix; it put 1990s feel and technology into a classic shell.
Pro Touring cars are meant to be driven—whether gobbling up cross-country miles in comfort, or being taken on track days. In the mid-'90s, programmable fuel-injection and greater use of Overdrive transmissions allowed greater efficiency and power, more modern wheel-tire combinations, and suspension tweaks added bracing cornering to a compliant ride, and you could idle all day in traffic with the air conditioning on and not have to worry about puking coolant or triggering vapor lock. The bodywork was largely left stock, save for perhaps choice of paint, or an added-on hood or trunk wing; the popular pastels and graphics of the early '90s made way for factory-style paint colors and trim.
In short, with Pro Touring, American car guys do to their cars what Super Streeters have been doing to theirs for the last twenty years or so. With Janet Fujimoto's Crown sedan, it seems the trend has come full circle.