Toyota’s 1997 Tribute to its First Car Is Now a Classic Itself

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One of the rarest Toyotas that you can find in the world is actually a tribute car. The Toyota Classic is a late 1990s homage to the 1936 Toyoda Model AA, the first passenger car built by the company that would come to dominate the auto industry. The best part is, at least three percent of the total production of Toyota Classics is for sale right now in the U.S., despite the fact they were never imported here.

To understand this wonderful vehicle we must rewind our clocks to 1933. Back then, Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, founded by Sakichi Toyoda, was a smashing success cranking out innovative machinery for the textile industry. Toyoda’s son, Kiichiro Toyoda, used this success to expand the company’s portfolio into automotive manufacturing. In 1936, the new automotive division held a competition to find a name for its new model that would work well on the worldwide stage. The name “Toyota” was chosen and in the same year the company launched its first car, the Model AA.

1936 Toyota AA, the first vehicle to wear the Toyota name.

Photo: Toyota

The Model AA had styling largely mimicked American cars of the time, like the Chrysler Airflow. As noted by Curbside Classic notes, this was no coincidence — Toyoda had imported an Airflow to Japan to inspire designers and engineers. The car they came up with was a body-on-frame design powered by a 3.4-liter Type A inline-six making around 65 horsepower. Built from 1936 to 1943, Toyota produced just 1,404 examples. It’s a small number, but it set Toyota on the path to eventual dominance of the industry.

In the 1990s, the automotive juggernaut set out to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its very first car. The Classic launched in 1996, and Toyota put a surprising amount of work into this limited-edition car, despite only planning to build 100 examples.

Image for article titled Toyota's 1997 Tribute to its First Car Is Now a Classic Itself

Photo: Bring a Trailer

On the outside, the Toyota Classic bears a striking resemblance to the Model AA, with its prominent waterfall grille vintage-style lighting. And who can miss those big chrome bumpers and those fenders and running boards? Some details, like the modern wheels, door handles and window glass, give this away as a modern-era machine, but the styling is pure vintage Toyota.

Image for article titled Toyota's 1997 Tribute to its First Car Is Now a Classic Itself

Photo: Bring a Trailer

Mechanically, the Toyota Classic is a pretty faithful tribute to how the original AA was constructed. The modern car rides on a rear-wheel-drive fifth-generation Toyota Hilux chassis, powered by the Hilux’s 2.0-liter 3Y-E four-cylinder making 96 hp. If you look closely you’ll notice Toyota robbed the Hilux parts bin: The Classic uses largely unmodified doors from a four-door Hilux.

Image for article titled Toyota's 1997 Tribute to its First Car Is Now a Classic Itself

Photo: Bring a Trailer

Inside, there’s lots of Hilux too, including the cards and dashboard, but they’re trimmed in red leather with wood accents for vintage pizzazz. I love the look of the seating in there. And the Classic isn’t small; it’s 16 feet of Japanese luxury.

Toyota produced just 100 of these. Sadly, there are more Classics remaining than there are original Model AAs. Toyota had long feared that every original Model AA was lost — the company constructed an exact replica from scratch to put on display in its museum. In 2008, a single Model AA was discovered in, of all places, Siberia, in rough but intact shape.

Image for article titled Toyota's 1997 Tribute to its First Car Is Now a Classic Itself

Photo: Bring a Trailer

As you could guess, the Classic wasn’t sold in America. Yet, you can find at least three of them for sale right now here in the States. The 1997 Classic featured here was imported in 2022 and is for sale on Bring a Trailer with bidding currently at $20,300 with about five hours to go. But if you miss out on it, two more are for sale at Duncan Imports. Because the Classic is now 25 years old, making it eligible for legal importation to the U.S. — and a “classic” in its own right.

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