Toyota workers' whimsy shines through the gloom Struggling automaker's 'Idea Olympics' showcases indomitable ingenuity

November 21, 1993|By Thomas Easton JTC | Thomas Easton JTC,Tokyo Bureau

Toyota City, Japan --Stuck in a traffic jam? Here are some ideas to escape: Inflate a balloon and fly over the crowds, separate a scooter from your car and scoot away, or take a sharp turn into the nearest bay and transform your vehicle into a boat.

These ideas -- and more -- were part of Toyota Motor Corp.'s Idea Olympics, an annual event held recently at the company's austere headquarters campus. It featured fanciful vehicles conceived by Toyota workers throughout Japan and meticulously constructed -- without pay -- after work and on weekends.

This year's Idea Olympics came at an odd time for whimsy, as Japanese automakers grind through their most serious problems decades. Profits are low or nonexistent, and cutbacks lie ahead. For the first time since 1979, Japan probably will produce fewer cars than America.

And forecasts offer little relief. The recent biennial Motor Show, a Japanese event that features models in development, was widely criticized for a lack of creativity. Toyota, for example, offered brilliantly functional but aesthetically bland models.

Still, amid the gloom, a weekend crammed with curious ideas provides a strong argument that any obituary for Japan's largest car producer is premature.

For U.S. competitors, the display is a vivid testament to the commitment and dexterity of Toyota's 75,000-person work force. Within Toyota's engineering and production staff, thousands of workers are willing to contribute uncompensated hours just for the sake of creating an unusual vehicle.

Work on the proposals began in January, as teams of about a dozen members from various divisions met and exchanged thoughts. In the spring, 5,000 proposals were considered, and grants of up to $10,000, plus equipment, were provided for about 200 to be built.

This year's winning team came from Toyota's primary engine development unit in Tokyo. By March, when proposals were submitted for funding, the group already had designed an innovative vehicle that could be converted from what looked like a mobile chair to a jet ski. One key engineering achievement was the directional mechanism -- the vehicle was steered solely by the driver shifting his weight.

Then came the truly creative part.

A second, larger vehicle was designed with its own propulsion mechanism and steering controls, as well as an internal forklift. The smaller scooter could fit inside the mother craft, and be released at will.

The resulting vehicle had a molded plastic shell, with painted trim and the names of team members written on its side. On the back of the craft was an English-language slogan: "Broadening the variations of everyday life."

By October, the project was finished. In the final weeks, when the after-work hours became long, family members brought meals to the 11 team members.

"They were very supportive," said team member Katsuyoshi Nakonishi. "They just told us to work hard."

Other projects were equally creative. One of the most whimsical was inspired by media reports about a man who disappeared on a hot air balloon trip across the Pacific. The team built a superstructure for a bicycle suspended from a hot air balloon, with the pedals turning a huge propeller that propelled the craft.

Another team, at a Hokkaido factory, was swayed by a worker's description of a date. Late one afternoon, he had parked next to a lake, and his sweetheart had asked for a ride out on the water into the sunset. After hearing the story, said Haruo Furukawa, part of the 14-member team, "We decided to build a very romantic car."

A white subcompact, the very definition of dull, practical transportation, was contributed to the effort.Toyota, a conservative company, doesn't make convertibles, but for this romantic quest the roof was shaved off, creating a convertible of sorts. Then the door panels were opened up and balloons placed inside, connected to the exhaust. A four-wheel-drive transmission was added, with the rear linkage attached to the propeller.

The Hokkiado government gave permission for lake forays, and soon the vehicle was on the water.

"It is just my idea, but I think it is a good idea," said Mr. Furukawa, as he clamored out of the car after a brief trip on the small, shallow pond on Toyota's campus. "If we could have gotten more money, we could have done more," he added wistfully.

Inside a Toyota exhibition center were less ambitious ideas, including a rocket-shaped, motorized baby carriage. For normal strolling, the shell can be elevated. On hectic days, the carriage's legs can be contracted into a bullet-shaped hull, a bubble windshield pulled down overhead -- and zoom. Inside, there's a radio and air conditioner.

Thousands of people viewed the two-day exhibition -- and then it was over. What did the winners get for all their time and effort, other than a chance to parade their inventions? Nothing.

Some of the most successful designs will be exhibited in Tokyo. In earlier, more profitable, years, a few also were sent to auto shows in New York and London.

But after one year, all will be destroyed -- along with the prestige given to the designers.

None of the creations of the Idea Olympics has ever been commercially produced. And none of the designers has become famous.

That, said Yoshiro Kimbara, Toyota's head of engineering, isn't the point. "The goal is to make people use their minds to do creative things."

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