Industrialist who led Toyota and formulated 'The Toyota Way', a production system admired globally
Eiji Toyoda, who died on September 17 aged 100, led the emergence of his family's Toyota car company both as a global mass-market competitor and as a beacon of manufacturing efficiency.
A first cousin of the founder of the company, Eiji Toyoda was Toyota's head of manufacturing from 1950, president from 1967 to 1981, chairman until 1994, and thereafter a senior adviser. Though his manner was taciturn, he was greatly admired by his industry peers.
His first effort to break into export markets foundered because the heavily built Toyota Crown, designed for poorly surfaced Japanese roads, was too sluggish for America's interstate highways. But he went on to huge success with the Corolla, launched in 1966 and destined to become the world's best-selling car of all time, even surpassing the Volkswagen Beetle.
As American and European consumers gradually shed their postwar prejudices against Japanese brands, recognising their value for money, design quality and increasing reliability, Toyota's growth was dramatic. Last year, it reclaimed the title (from General Motors) of the world's biggest car manufacturer. Yet Eiji Toyoda ensured that it was not only big, it was also highly profitable – while its bloated western competitors struggled through repeated financial crises.
In his later years at the helm, Eiji Toyoda led a move to establish manufacturing plants outside Japan, including a joint venture with General Motors in California. And in 1989, Toyota followed its rivals Honda and Nissan in building a first British factory. He also fulfilled a long-held ambition to take the company upmarket. In 1983, he convened a secret meeting of Toyota executives to discuss the possibility of creating a Japanese luxury car to challenge the likes of Mercedes and BMW. The resulting project, code-named F1 (for "Flagship One"), led to the launch in 1989 of the distinctive Lexus marque, another major export success.
Eiji Toyoda was born on September 12, 1913, in Nagoya, central Japan. The original Toyoda family business was in textile manufacturing. Eiji's uncle Sakichi was an entrepreneur-inventor who devised a series of improvements to textile machinery, culminating in a design for an automatic loom, which set a new international standard in the 1920s. In the early 1930s, income from selling the rights to Sakichi's loom to a British company, Platt Bros, funded his son Kiichiro Toyoda's ambition to enter the glamorous world of car manufacturing.
Having studied mechanical engineering at Tokyo University, Eiji joined cousin Kiichiro in 1936 to work on the prototype Toyota A1 six-cylinder sedan, which closely resembled the Chrysler Airflow model of the era. The Toyota Motor Company was officially founded in 1937, and Eiji was given charge of building a new factory headquarters on a forested site at Koromo – a small town outside Nagoya, which grew with the factory, and changed its name to Toyota City in 1959.
After the disruption of the war years, the Toyota business was close to bankruptcy and suffered an extended strike by workers whose wages had not been paid. Kiichiro Toyoda was forced out, but Eiji was promoted in 1950 to managing director. Toyota was still producing a very modest numbers of cars, but he travelled to America to see Ford's River Rouge mass-production plant at Dearborn, Michigan, returning awestruck by its scale but scornful of its inefficiencies.
With a veteran Toyoda loom engineer, Taiichi Ohno, Eiji set out to perfect the "Toyota Way". It was overlaid on an aspirational philosophy laid down by Sakichi Toyoda in earlier days, and the result was a nimble, cost-conscious manufacturing system that eliminated virtually all wastage of materials, labour and time. Though Toyota has suffered the embarrassment of model recalls due to faulty components in recent times, the Toyota Way remains the envy of factory managers the world over.
Eiji Toyoda died in the Toyota Memorial Hospital, originally a clinic for company workers, in Toyota City. He is survived by his three sons, all Toyota executives.