There could be no doubt of intent. With its 1978 Cressida, the purveyor of Corolla, Corona, and Celica was clearly moving upmarket for prestige and profit.
There was, too, a wider organizing principle at work. Delightfully Japanese as it might have been for a car to share its name with a Shakespeare character, this largest Toyota would be its most American effort.
Toyota had made a name for itself on small cars that gave Americans the one thing that many wanted most. As a French Renault engineer would exclaim with comical horror, "The priority is not style, or performance, or comfort… just that the car starts."
Then, the 1973 gas crisis had brought frugal Japanese cars rapidly increasing fame and fortune. Japan's car exports had grown steadily. By 1979, Japan would export as many cars as it bought.
1977 Toyota Corolla commercial
The United States took the lion's share of Japanese car exports, twice that of Europe. Now, Toyota wanted to increase its profitability – and that meant a larger, more prestigious car. Cressida would be the largest car that Toyota had yet exported. To ensure success, it was logical that Toyota would emulate the style of America's large cars.
Indeed, at the February 1977 Chicago auto show, visitors to the Toyota stand could have been forgiven for thinking they'd taken a wrong turn, so much did the newest Toyota resemble a Chrysler Cordoba, or Dodge Aspen, or Plymouth Volare. Its face was a mix of Mercury Bobcat compact and Ford Mustang II; the "sweepspear" down its flanks referenced Buicks of the ‘40s, and there were echoes of Ford Granada.
The Cressida wagon, with the full Country Squire faux wood side trim, was the best evidence yet that Toyota was willing to adopt an American aesthetic.
Over in Britain, as with many such things, the late, great LJK Setright put it best. "Those critics who take the broad synoptic view have been saying for years that the Japanese are setting about making American cars for America," he wrote for Britain's CAR magazine in 1980.
"It has been implicit in this view that when the Japanese had succeeded, they would as a matter of course make American cars for everybody else as well. The latest version of the Toyota Cressida… is evidence that the Japanese have succeeded in their first objective, and are now proceeding towards their second, and will in due course have the whole world up to its ears in American cars."
Indeed, the British were horrified, CAR berating Cressida for its "confusion of curves and corners, the mélange of horizontals with rising and falling moldings along its flanks, the heavy bright metal treatments around its lighting units."
The chasm between European and American preferences in cars made it clear that the Cressida, with its Detroit styling, flat-bottomed seats, safely soggy chassis, and imprecise steering, would struggle for credibility in Europe.
Less obvious was the tussle which awaited it in the United States, the market for which it had apparently been designed. Indeed, no matter how hard Toyota tried, Cressida would only serve to prove that selling Americans a luxury Toyota, or a larger Toyota – and these were by no means the same thing – required a different strategy. As Road & Track concluded of the Cressida in 1978, "You can't beat Detroit at its own game."
Toyota's marketing - in America, at least - did not make much of Cressida's quality, and that was a curious omission. If any company credibly owned "reliability" and "build quality" in the American customer's mind, it was Toyota.
More was the pity; for despite its flaws, Cressida was beautifully built. Each car had the weather stripping around its doors applied by hand. Engine wires were organized and set neatly and snugly in place, in an engine layout as clean as one invariably found on Japanese cars (and almost never in anything else). The hood was counter-sprung and self-propping. Underbody protection was applied with visibly more care than were the standards of the day, and was thoughtfully supplemented by plastic shields under the wheel arches to cut off mud traps and subdue road noise. The fuse box was beautifully housed in a drop-down shelf on the right of the dashboard, and all the minor controls worked as smoothly and positively as might be expected. But not until Lexus, almost fifteen years later, would the advertising of a luxury Toyota spotlight such things.
Early computer-aided design techniques made Cressida light. In 1980, Cressida introduced Toyota's first fuel-injection system. Over the next decade, it would enjoy mechanical commonality with the impressive Supra, and would even develop a somewhat more authentically Japanese character. In spite of all this, through four generations, the Cressida failed to make much of a dent in the market. Indeed, perhaps its greatest achievement was to set the stage for Camry to become America's family sedan. As a luxury effort, Cressida was doomed.
It would take the 1989 introduction of Lexus to get Toyota where it wanted to go.