What image does the name Toyota bring to mind? Whether it be the bland, characterless lines of a saloon or the equally insipid profile of a hatchback, it's sure to be something far from exciting. That's the sad situation in which commercialisation has put the Japanese giant. But what many, including Toyota, seem to have forgotten is the much more exciting past that the carmaker had, when it used to be more active in motorsports.
Starting in 1957, when a showroom-spec Toyopet Crown completed the 19-day, 17,000km Rally of Australia, Toyota's sporting history spans more than half a century leading up to the highest form of motorsport, where it was a principal team until recently.
Of the many racecars that Toyota has built over these years, the most strikingly radical one remains the Toyota 7, the pint-sized two-seater with which it challenged the Group 7 category in 1968.
Masterminded by the legendary Jiro Kawano, who was also the brain behind Toyota's 2000GT, the 7 was constructed by Yamaha. The prototype's design was in line with the Group 7 regulations specified by the FIA at that time, with aluminium side sills and scuttles for the main cockpit and a glass-fibre body.
Although the first prototype that was tested in early 1968 had a fuel injected six-cylinder 2.0-litre lump borrowed from the 2000GT, when it made its official debut at the fifth Japanese Grand Prix at the Fuji Speedway, it was powered by a 3.0-litre V8. But unfortunately, the 7 could not hold its own against tough competition from the more powerful Nissans and Porsches, managing to secure only eighth and ninth positions.
Leaving this lacklustre debut behind, Toyota continued with the 7 for the rest of the season, and just a month later, it was fielded against Porsches and Lola T70s in the Grand Cup at Suzuka, where it swept the podium. The Toyota 7 went on to prove its mettle in various other endurance races including the first and second Japanese Can-Am races, the Fuji 1,000km, Suzuka 12 Hours and the Suzuka 1,000km.
In 1969, Toyota gave the 7 a new 600bhp 5.0-litre engine, and although it still couldn't win the Japanese GP, it managed to take third to fifth positions at the race.
The following year, with an eye to competing in the US Can-Am races, Toyota began developing a twin-turbo version of the 7, that was good for 800bhp, while weighing just 620kg.
The deaths of two test drivers and changed rules meant this meaner version could never race. Rebuilt by a team of engineers led by Kazufume Toriya in 2001, it made its public debut at the 2002 Goodwood Festival of Speed, giving motorsport enthusiasts a glimpse of what it would have been capable of if it had raced.
Now the 7 sits on a podium at the Toyota Automobile Museum in Nagakute, to serve as a reminder of those glorious days when Toyota looked beyond sales figures and came out with real cars and not just merchandise that appeals to the masses.