TOKYO — Shoichiro Toyoda, the chief of the automotive giant Toyota, who led the company as it expanded production into North America in the 1980s and helped transform it into a global brand, died on Tuesday. He was 97.
He died from heart failure, Toyota said in a statement. The statement did not say where he had died.
In a decade at Toyota’s helm, Mr. Toyoda marshaled his considerable skills in engineering, management, politics and diplomacy to put the company founded by his father firmly on the path to passing General Motors as the world’s largest automaker.
The accomplishment was all the more impressive because he took charge of Toyota in 1982, at the height of U.S.-Japan trade tensions, when Japanese cars had become a powerful symbol of American fears of a rising Japan replacing the United States as the world’s largest economic power.
Despite those tensions, Mr. Toyoda expanded his company’s production into North America, first forming an alliance with General Motors in 1984 before opening the company’s first American plant, in Kentucky, in 1988, yielding to American pressure to produce cars in the United States.
By the end of his tenure, he had expanded production globally, making the company truly international.
Mr. Toyoda took a pragmatic approach to relations between the United States and Japan — then the world’s first and second largest economies — arguing that as Japan rose, it needed to work harder to ingratiate itself with its competitors, a message that he made part of Toyota’s corporate philosophy.
After stepping down as Toyota’s chief executive, he became in 1994 the head of Japan’s most powerful business lobby, where he helped shape the country’s efforts to fight the economic stagnation that began in the early 1990s.
Shoichiro Toyoda was born on Feb. 27, 1925, in Nagoya, an industrial port city in central Japan, the second of four children of Kiichiro and Hatako Toyoda. He enjoyed a privileged childhood: in a 2014 column for the Nikkei Shimbun newspaper, he recounted how his elementary school classmates had teased him when he revealed that he breakfasted with his family’s “maidservant.”
His father founded Toyota Motor in 1937, spinning it off from an automatic loom manufacturer started by his father, Sakichi. The “d” in the family name had been changed to a “t” because it looked better when written in Japanese. During World War II, Mr. Toyoda began studies at Nagoya University. He was passed over for the draft because his major, engineering, was considered vital for the war effort, he wrote in the Nikkei article. When the war ended, he enrolled in a graduate program in Tohoku University and later received a doctorate from Nagoya University.
In 1950, a debt-racked Toyoda split into two companies, one for manufacturing, which Kiichiro Toyoda ran, and the other for sales. Faced with a festering labor dispute, Mr. Toyoda’s father was forced to resign, temporarily ending the family’s leadership of the company. He died soon after.
Shoichiro Toyoda joined the company at 27 as director of the inspection department. Early in his career, he played a key role in Toyota’s first foray into the United States, signing off in 1957 on the export of the company’s Crown model after taking it on an American road trip that included a cheeky stop in front of Ford’s Detroit headquarters.
But American drivers rejected the car, complaining of its weak engine. The failure made Mr. Toyoda “determined to develop a high-quality passenger car that would perform well anywhere in the world,” he wrote in the Nikkei in 2014.
Despite the flub, he quickly rose up the company’s ranks, partly because of his talent for engineering and business and partly because of his family’s continued influence over the firm. By 1982, when the two halves of the company reunited, he was at the top.
It was a period of both great promise and risk for the company. Japan had surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest automaker, and with inflation, unemployment and protectionist sentiment running high in America, Tokyo and Washington agreed on the first of many rounds of import restrictions on Japanese automobiles.
While Nissan and Honda established American factories, Mr. Toyoda led the company into a deal with General Motors, intended to help the company increase its American sales. In an interview with The New York Times, one company executive said the move was like offering “salt to our enemy,” a reference to Japan’s feudal period, when warlords would sometimes feed people in enemy territory. Car and Driver magazine ran the headline “Hell Freezes Over." The partnership ended soon after General Motors declared bankruptcy in 2009.
Even as he competed with American companies, Mr. Toyoda pushed for Japanese companies to play a bigger role in the communities where they built their factories. In a 1990 speech, he encouraged Japanese industrialists to “contribute on the same level as Americans” by becoming active in local charitable organizations in the United States. (The Japanese government gave tax breaks to those that did.) As Americans became enamored of Toyota’s ultraefficient production practices, he started a management training center to help U.S. businesses. And he helped to keep trade tensions down through concessions to Washington.
By 1992, when Mr. Toyoda stepped down from his role as president to become the company’s chairman, Toyota had plants in 22 countries and was competing with its former partner, General Motors, for the title of the world’s largest automaker, which it won in 2008.
In 1994, as Japan’s meteoric economic rise suddenly turned into a period of stagnation, Mr. Toyoda was appointed head of the business lobbying group Keidanren, where he spent four years pushing the country to reduce the many regulations that he believed hindered its growth.
Mr. Toyoda stepped down from his position as Toyota’s chairman in 1999 and became honorary chairman for life, a position where he continued to influence the company’s course. In 2007, he was inducted into the U.S. Automotive Hall of Fame.
Reflecting on his career in the 2014 article, he wrote “I have worked single-mindedly to add at least a few new lines to the auto industry history books.”
Mr. Toyoda is survived by his wife, Hiroko, whom he married in 1952, and his son Akio and daughter Atsuko.
Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.
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