7 Samurai

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Toyota had never made a true racing car, but that didn’t stop it from thinking big. The result was a 800bhp monster. Sadly, writes Paul Fearnley, it soon became a dinosaur

Toyota, like its great rival Nissan, was a company in a hurry in the late 1960s. A 1300bhp per tonne sort of a hurry. A Group 7 twin-turbocharged 5-litre V8 hurry. Its reputation for building pootling, mundane three-box saloons was about to be shot out of exhausts the size of cannon. For what better way of getting noticed in Europe and America than competing at Le Mans and in Can-Am?

None, unfortunately, given that the fuel crisis was about to kick in. America might have gone on guzzling as before, but the conservative Japanese felt compelled to act: the 1970 Can-Am Toyota-7 ‘war machine’ you see here never raced. Three years of development shelved in the stroke of a piston.

In 1967, Jiro Kawano, the man behind the gorgeous Toyota 2000GT sportscar, had been asked to build the company’s first all-out racer. And the pressure was on, because Nissan had just absorbed the Prince company which had been racing its mid-engined R380s for two seasons.

The date for the showdown was set: the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji on May 3, 1968. This was a massive occasion for a national event, a hurdle to be cleared before the rest of the world could be tackled.

For it Toyota built an aluminium ‘bathtub’ monocoque racer which looked, understandably, like a McLaren M6B, and which featured a 320bhp all-alloy 3-litre V8. In fact, Toyota built five of them.

But Nissan had hardly been idle. Its brand-new R381s were bewinged Group 6 coupés which were supposed to be fitted with a self-built 6-litre V12. The latter unit was not ready in time, however, so 5-litre Chevys prepped by Dean Moon in Los Angeles were fitted instead. This move was indicative of Nissan’s pragmatic approach. Toyota, in contrast, was keener to do as much as possible, chassis and engine, in-house (or with its close ally Yamaha at least), whereas Nissan was happy to use a Lola platform as its base. Toyota steadfastly stated it was going motor racing to learn as much as to win. Which was a good job, because they bombed on their debut. The 7s struggled to keep up with Nissan’s old 2-litre R380s, never mind the R381s, and could do no better than eighth and ninth. There was to be no hiding behind the class win either: Nissan had finished 1-2-4-5-6.

Hiroshi Fushida was Toyota’s ninth-placed driver that day: “The programme was well funded, but we had a lot of catching up to do. The first 7 had a reasonable chassis, but it did not have enough power. And it was quite tiring to drive — even allowing for the fact that all cars back then were quite difficult to drive.”

Matters improved during the rest of that Japanese season, with a brace of wins in 1000-kilometres races, but the real test was to be the World Challenge Cup at Fuji on November 23. This would see the arrival of 10 ‘true’ Can-Am machines. The dominant McLarens of Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme were not among those scheduled to come, but the likes of Mark Donohue and Peter Revson would provide a good benchmark. And as it turned out, they were streets ahead, Revson winning, the best Toyota almost 10 laps adrift in fifth. There was a lot more to do.

The next evolution of the 7 appeared in mid-1969. With a more angular body hung off an aluminium spaceframe and a 5-litre V8 amidships, it was much more purposeful — but not without fault.

Fushida: “Now we had the power, but perhaps not the chassis.”

As it stood, however, 1969 was not a wipe-out — far from it. Fushida, with Yoshio Ohtsuba as his co-driver, won the Fuji 1000Km — the new car’s debut — but again the season was geared around the Japanese GP in October and the second `CanJapAm’ in November.

“We didn’t have a series, we had one-offs.” explains Fushida. “The Japanese GP was our World Cup Final. For a country that was relatively new to big-time racing, this event was then more important than Formula One or Le Mans.” Which is why it must have hurt so when Nissan, its open-cockpit R382 fitted with overdue V12 power, scored a 1-2.

Toyota, though, would have the last laugh. Once again 10 Can-Am regulars made the trip to Japan in November. Once again McLaren’s ‘orange crush’ was absent. But this time the locals won. Jack Oliver’s Ti22-Chevy had been quickest in qualifying, just ahead of Fushida in a Toyota-engined McLaren, and was leading the race when fuel feed problems kicked in. The win fell instead to the Toyota-7 of the impressive Minoru Kawai, ahead ofJohn Cannon’s Ford G7A. True, the opposition could have been stronger, but it was still a considerable achievement, and Toyota could look confidently towards its new, North American horizons — with newfangled turbo power.

Fushida: “The 1970 car [pictured] would have been the one. We spent a lot of time working on the chassis, making it stiffer, lengthening the wheelbase to make it more stable, altering the suspension geometry to make it easier to drive over long distances. I am sure it could have coped with the turbo engine.”

The new car was built and tested, but the fuel crisis — and Kawai’s death in testing — put an end to the project. And since then Toyota has taken a more measured approach to its expansion — and its motorsport involvement The last of its 7s is the physical embodiment of a sport carried away with itself: magnificient, but ultimately flawed. An increasingly commercial world demanded a more knowing approach. For instance, rumours of a Toyota F1 programme were flying about at the time of its Group 7 foray, yet it took 34 years for this to come to fruition. Still Toyota is building everything in-house. And still the speed is there. The difference is that now, confident of its place in the car industry, the hurry has gone.

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