Last week’s Economist carried a lengthy briefing on the troubles of Toyota, one of which is identified as a drop in quality and reliability as they pursued headlong growth at all costs. Apparently, several polls and reviews in the US and elsewhere have placed other cars ahead of Toyota in several areas, one being where they were allegedly always king: reliability.
Me, I’m not so sure. Without a doubt Toyotas are reliable enough, probably more so than most other cars and certainly no worse than any, but I don’t think that tells the whole story about where their reputation comes from. I once owned a 1974 lightweight Land Rover, half of which I rebuilt myself using basic tools, a Haynes manual, and the back of the thing as a workshop as it lay parked on the street in Manchester. Land Rover had, and for the older models still has, a reputation for being reliable. This may come as somewhat of a surprise to anyone who has actually owned one, because the damned things leak oil from brand new (I’m talking about Series III and earlier here, I don’t know if the newer ones were plagued with the same issues) because of daft designs and the use of paper gaskets between roughly machined surfaces, and bits were corroding, coming loose, and falling off all over the place. It took an entire tube of instant gasket to stop the oil leaking from beneath the distributor mount (the distributor runs off the oil pump). The brake cylinders on one side had seized completely. The synchromesh was shot through and the gear teeth so worn it kept leaping out of 1st and 2nd gear. Everything was corroding from the chassis to the thermostat housing to the aluminium panels at the point where they were cleverly held in place with a steel bolt. The door seals were non-existent, so you drove it in wellies and ignored the big pools of water on the floor (this was not a problem on the passenger side where the huge hole in the footwell served as a handy drain). The windscreen wipers worked if you fiddled with the earthing wire a little bit. Land Rover enthusiasts are well aware of the enormous shortcomings of the early Land Rover design, and they all add the fun of driving one. In fact, stuff ceasing to work as you’re rattling along the road is the fun of driving an old Land Rover!
Where was I? That’s right. The reputation Land Rover had for reliability came not from their infrequency of breaking down but the fact that any problem you encounter can be fixed on the spot with a very basic toolkit and some gaffer tape. All you need is a few ring spanners, a decent hammer, some WD-40, and a monster 12″ screwdriver and you can be on your way again no matter what happened. Oh, and don’t forget a couple of adjustable spanners. For some unknown reason, 49% of Land Rover threads are metric, 49% Imperial, and the remainder being some completely unknown type with a hexagonal head no socket will fit and you wonder who the hell owned it before you and botched the job in such a manner. Or maybe it came like this from the factory? It took me to a very small, old fashioned engineering supply shop near Salford where a lady caked in layers of grease rummaged through boxes of random fittings to find the pinch bolt on the main gear selection rod; the local Land Rover supply shop were themselves at an utter loss. So reliability in the sense of a Land Rover is a case of reliability in completing your journey, not in not breaking down at all.
Now Toyotas are not as easy to fix as an old Land Rover should something go wrong, but they do have a similar advantage. Consider that when I lived in Dubai and was as close as I’ll ever get to a wide-boy phase I bought an 8-year old Mercedes CLK 320. It looked lovely, nice long bonnet, leather seats, 3.2l flat six engine which although not great off the mark could get you from 70-100mph in a few seconds with remarkable ease, and drove beautifully. Unfortunately, it gave me as much of a headache as my Land Rover. Firstly, stuff started going wrong which should not have gone wrong in a German car. Small stuff. The back windscreen sunshield motor failed. The air conditioning pump seized. One of the electric ventilation flaps jammed, meaning cold air couldn’t blow through the central vents. Then one of the coolant pipes burst and left me somewhere in Furjeirah having to come back to Dubai in the cab of a breakdown truck, which was very uncool. So I took it in for a service.
And there the fun began. Every garage told me the same thing: they could only do half of the work, because they can’t work on Mercedes and don’t have the parts. Better take it to the main dealer. The first thing the main dealer did was remove my arm and leg for the privilege of talking to him. Then he charged me a small fortune to look at the car and tell me what was wrong with it. Everything, it seemed. Engine mounts, bushes, clips, all these tiny items which added up to a list as long as an arm which would have been bad enough in itself, but there was more to come. Half the items on the list “were not in stock and we need to order them from Germany”. Yes, Mercedes main dealer in Dubai, which probably enjoyed greater revenue than any other Mercedes dealer anywhere, had to order stuff from Germany to fix things which a routine service has highlighted. Jesus wept. I did, especially when I got the bill.
Contrast this with the experience of a Toyota owner in Dubai. He has a problem. He goes to any garage he likes, and a Romanian, Indian, or Armenian will tell him he’ll have a look, call him back the next day to say he needs x, y, and z which are all on the shelf behind him and he can fit the lot that afternoon. No main dealer. No specialist tools. No hidden maintenance procedures. No flying parts halfway round the world. If you have a Toyota and something goes wrong, wherever you are in the world if there is a garage then they will be able to fix a Toyota and the parts will either be in stock or very close by. And it is this as much as anything else from which Toyota’s reputation for reliability derives: it might break down, but you can get it back on the road quickly and cheaply. Unless and until Toyota’s German and other competitors realise this, Toyota’s crown is not going to slip very far.
Needless to say, I have driven nothing but Toyotas since I arrived in Sakhalin. What I drive now is a Surf, basically a car on a Hilux chassis, and it is the most popular 4×4 on the island (a place where few get accused of driving vehicles with unnecessary off-road capabilities). Any problem, and it’s into the nearest garage where whoever comes out of the gloom and smoke takes one look and knows immediately what he’s dealing with. This is Toyota’s real strength.