The Toyota Canary in the Coal Mine

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You have heard of the canary in the coal mine. The saying refers to a warning of imminent danger; that it’s time to act – before it is too late.

There’s a bright red canary parked in my driveway, right now.

It is the 2022 Toyota Supra GR, which I am test driving (and writing about; see here) this week.

Which is in fact a BMW Z4, attractively repackaged. It has BMW mechanicals – the same BMW-made engines and transmissions as in the Z4. The canary in the coal mine here is that Toyota – the world’s largest car company, excluding car combines such as  the VW Group (which also includes Audi, Porsche, Bugatti and Skoda) with all the resources and talent it could theoretically bring to bear – apparently found the prospect of designing its own engines for its new high-performance sports car to be too expensive relative to any return it could expect to make selling a low-volume car such as this.

Not because it is improbably expensive to design an engine, as such. Car companies with the resources of Toyota used to do this as a matter of course – since it was part of the reason for buying that brand of car.

The original 1979 Supra, for instance, was powered by a Toyota-built, Toyota-designed 2.6 liter inline six. (A retro-review of this car can be found here). It was the thing that made a Supra not a Datsun 240Z and thus gave buyers a reason to buy one rather than the other.

These were similar cars, of course – in terms of both of them being sports cars – but they were not the same cars, repackaged. The Toyota had its own distinct personality as well as its better and worse points relative to the Z (and vice versa). The competition between the two prompted improvements to each, so as to one-up the other.

But when both are mechanically the same – their mechanicals made by the same company – there’s not only no incentive for the company buying the engines and transmissions to make them better, they probably can’t – even if they were so inclined – because they didn’t make them. Take off the Supra’s plastic engine cover with the Toyota logo embossed upon it and you will see lots of BMW part numbers and stampings.

Toyota probably hasn’t got the rights – or the tools and other proprietary necessities to make improvements to BMW’s engines; only a license to re-sell the other company’s engines; leaving it to that company to offer improvements. Which aren’t as forthcoming when there’s less reason to make them.

After all, why should they? The Supra isn’t competitive with the Z4, except as a lower-cost alternative to it.

Toyota is a supplicant now. If it wants to sell any Supras, it must first buy engines first from BMW – giving BMW operative control over how many Supras (relative to Z4s) Toyota will be allowed to build. If BMW should decide that the Supra is selling too well and poses a threat to Z4 sales, it is easy enough to remedy – by limiting sales of BMW engines to Toyota. Or downgrading the engines it sells to Toyota.

But the true gatekeeper isn’t BMW.

It is Uncle.

Toyota could easily build its own inline six to power the rebooted Supra. It might prove to be a better engine than BMW’s engines.

At the very least, they’d be not-BMW engines.

Not that there is anything wrong with BMW’s engines. They are excellent engines, too. But they aren’t Toyota engines and that makes the Supra something not-quite-Toyota.

Which is a shame.

And why?

Because it’s not easy – much less inexpensive – to get a new engine approved for sale by the government. The emissions certification process is Byzantine in its playbook and almost impossibly expensive to play by it.

When it is too elaborate and expensive for a company like Toyota to bother with it – when it makes more sense for Toyota to buy already certified engines from BMW – you can rest assured car companies without the resources that Toyota could bring to bear won’t even think about it.

This is a mechanical elaboration of the same general trend toward homogenization of vehicle design, aesthetically – for the same reason. Uncle’s gantlet of “safety” requirements is so difficult to pass through that it is getting to be too expensive to make a vehicle that even looks a little different from other vehicles.

It is easier – and cheaper – to go with shapes that will pass.

The regs work very much like the literal template you may have seen in use at the tech inspection area of a Nextel Cup stock car race. The shape of the car is measured for conformity with the standard. Deviation is not allowed; if found, the car is disqualified. It is why all current “stock” cars look as if they were stamped out at the same factory, irrespective of the badge on the thing – the one allowable distinction, with very little difference.


The same applies to street cars – which have become largely the same crossover SUV, all of them looking as if they were stamped from the same mold, at the same factory – and then affixed with different brands’ badges.

At least Toyota managed to make the new Supra look different from the Z4. It still has resources sufficient for that.

But for how much longer?

It is already almost-impossible for a new car company to form – if it is not electric car company, making electric crossovers that look as if they were stamped from the same mold, from the same plastic, at the same factory – and powered by the same electric motors. Heavily subsidized by the same government that is making it next-to-impossible for a car company like Toyota to make any money designing and building and selling engines of its own.

So singeth the canary – who just dropped dead, to the floor.

. . .

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58 COMMENTS

  1. I know value is being shown over the price of the Z4, but at the end of the day, Toyota buyers will not be happy with the costs/expenses of keeping up a German drive train.

    This will remain a niche car because the ones with a brain will know to only lease this for a couple years or wait and buy it up on the cheap when depreciation sets in. Toyotas are known for their resale value, BMWs, not so much.

    However; using another manufacturer’s power plants isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Look at the Lotus Elise. Uses a Toyota engine (tuned up of course). Take a manufacturer known for their unreliability (LOTUS – Lots Of Trouble Usually Serious) and put something relatively reliable into it. In the case of Lotus, Toyota let them mess with their engines. Will BMW let them mess with their engines? I would think not considering Lotus is no threat to Toyota.

    • At first glance, I thought the title was “Toyota Camanary in the Coal Mine”, as a clever play on words.
      Darn that crazy dyslexia again…still a great read and observation as always from Eric.

  2. Eric – I dont get it. How does this benefit BMW? I mean its the same car in so many respects, which BMW is selling for more…. wont that be more disadvantageous to BMW, that a buyer who is a car guy (and I suspect most who buy a sports car today will be) will go for the toyota (also given its less likely to have all the annoying bells and whistles associated with a “luxury” car, but more suited to a drivers car).

    • Pure speculation, but what about getting access to the Prius electric drivetrain? Or the software that manages it? Europeans are having a tough time getting electrics going despite the war on internal combustion. And they can sell a few engines too.

  3. This is the regulatory equivalent of smoking a sherm before going for a drive.

    You wander around your yard for some time trying to find your car, and when you do, you have considerable difficulty getting inside.

    You then encounter other problems, as you try to start the car by jabbing at the dashboard with your house key. Much effort is given for some time. It sounds like there are robots periodically yammering over the radio, but as far you can tell, the radio isn’t on.

    Eventually someone opens the door, rips you from the car, throws you to the ground. It’s the cops. They’ve been called by the neighbor who took issue with you breaking into his car and tearing apart the interior. Of course, from there, the day only gets worse.

    • i LIKE SMARTASS COMMENTS AND YOURS passes with high marks.
      I am too lazy to fix the caps lock that I blame on my cat leaping at a spider on my wall.
      Foul tempered observations often make my day.

      • Hey Erle! Pleasure to be of service, and thank you! And, at least your cat is useful as an exterminator, if not much of an editor. 😉

      • Haha yes, Jim, my story is probably remarkably similar to the Biden experience. Save for the fact that people salute Sniffy as “Commander in Chief”, while the other guy goes straight to jail.

      • Me too. The best truck I ever owned was an 08 Tundra I got new dirt cheap during the gas price spike under Obama. I hate myself for selling it.

      • a friend is selling his ’03 Tacoma with 200K on the clock, and is in great shape. He said he’s asking $15K and will take 12, already got an offer for 11.5. OMG. I’m guessing that this was darn near MSRP back in ’03?
        Eric, you’ve been right all along, a lot of people don’t want, nor can afford, a new $30K+ truck.

        • Hi Chris,

          I think it’s not only can’t afford a new truck – it’s don’t want one. I count myself among this crew. The current half tons are (to me) preposterously oversized – and over-tall. I don’t need or want a jacked-up 4×4.I want a truck with a bed I can reach without standing on a milk crate or using a step ladder. No one makes such a truck anymore. I don’t want a turbocharged V6 or four cylinder engine, either.

          I do want a manual transmission that I control. I don’t want a touchscreen or “assistance” of any kind.

          Hence, I will keep my ’02 Nissan Frontier for as long as I can keep it going.

          • Couldn’t agree more. They have been growing larger and taller for a while. I personally have to drive a late model and I enjoy how large they are, because I’m a 70’s boat wanna be. And these new ones are that with a ride similar to boot. Not floaty like before which I actually liked, but no harshness at all (at least Ram is not harsh).
            I can see how a lot don’t want/need it though.

            • Maybe that is an idea for an independent builder to come up with a frame based pickup with good aerodynamics. Perhaps even with an old 215 Buick and a T10 in it.

  4. If not for the state meddling in the free market, we would probably have colonies on Mars, mining asteroids by now. With Elon Musk left behind trying to figure out a way to get the state to finance one of his tech fancies.

    • I was in the process of ordering a VW UP! GTI but was told on Friday the car came with Emergency Braking and Lane Assist as per EU decree. I asked to order the car without these “Features” since they are not mandatory until the middle of 2022. VW said, No Way so I cancelled my order. It seems I purchased my last new car in 2018.

    • Hi Luke,

      What is it with the “tojo” stuff? General Tojo was hanged some 75 years ago. The war is over. Do you regard all Japanese as “tojos”? Why? Are all Germans “Hitlers”?

      I don’t get it.

      • Eric, “Luke” is one of the bigoted peckerheads that pops in here every once in a while. Apparently the Japanese are on the list of people he doesn’t like. (That list seems to include anyone who is not of European descent.) From what we’ve seen from him the guy is a phony self-styled Christian who picks Bible quotes out of context to fit his agenda and doesn’t have a clue what his namesake (Luke 22:36) actually means.

        • Hi Jason,

          Yup. It’s always disappointing to me to come across people who – on the one hand – seem to oppose collectivism and then espouse that very thing.

          • I get crap from my wife on calling them Toyopet.
            I tried to buy one of your recoes as a Toybox ’21 Camry but she derided me for my youth learned terms so I have to keep a double hand me down ’02 Mercury van. It runs OK but has a noisy muffler.

      • Japan is a dieing nation, negative population numbers. Like the Chinese, they stole most of their technology from us. I watched how they dumped their cars on the U.S. market costing thousand of good manufacturing jobs while creating barriers to our products. Stupid Americans, especially women bought these cars and refused to admit glaring problems with early models. Consumer Magazine covered for them and to this day produce yellow journalism and biased product evaluations. In my opinion we are using them as a barrier to Chicom expansion. That is their only value. Do you get it Eric?

        • Hi Henry,

          It’s more nuanced than that. What happened was the American government – via the EPA – destroyed the American car industry by imposing emissions mandates and fuel efficiency fatwas that the traditional American cars (mostly large, RWD and powered by V8s and big sixes) could not comply with, without radical alterations – done on the cheap and quickly, to meet the deadlines. The Japanese – Honda and Datsun, principally – made only small cars with mostly four cylinder engines that fit the new, artificially created environment better. Yes, they took advantage of the opening. Can you blame them? More precisely, why not blame the white American politicians – like Trucky Dick Nixon, for instance – who gave them our market on a silver platter?

          • The other main requirement Eric, was that each US maker had to make their own pollution control systems. The Japs all combined their resources and used one system on all the cars, saving vast amounts of money and time.

          • They were very clear about the goal of ridding the automotive landscape of the RWD V8 and inline six cars back in the late 1970s and into the 80s. What we ended up with the SUV nonsense.

            Lots of ridicule was used on big cars for years and years.

        • You’re right Henry. I was part of the late 70’s, 80’s Japanese car explosion. I think it was all, and only all about mpg. Those care broke just as much as American cars, but were lots more $ to fix. I know cause I was a mechanic back then. Saw it a hundred times, the poor lady that bought a honda, etc… for say $6-8K, and she needed a complete valve job, etc… for $2K+ within 60-80K miles. Etc., Etc………..
          Just like today, they could have bought a lot of gas for the differential.
          And like Eric said, the US car manuf. were handcuffed by changing stuff fast to meet ill intentioned regs.

      • Hi Nunz!
        Funny how that little fact of cutting off their energy supply gets lost in the “remember Pearl Harbor” propaganda. Poor Uncle is soooo innocent.

        • But Mike! “We” are always the good guys…and the rest of the world is evil and out to get little old us! “I, little Goliath didn’t do anything…I was just minding my own business in the schoolyard when that 50 pound second-grader walked into my fist and simultaneously gave himself a wedgie!”. 😀

          Next you’ll be telling us that the Iranians have no right to be mad at us, after we did them the favor of overthrowing their government and installing that nice Shah, and helping their enemies!

          Tsk, tsk, tsk…..I don’t know WHAT you’re thinking, Mike! 😀

  5. This raises a bigger question for me. I am a Manuf. Rep in engineered equipment, and all manuf. are now getting some or all of their parts from Asia. How long until they all start lookin the same as well? It sickens me that we have allowed our ‘rust belt’ manufacturing power to decay to almost nothing. All under the guise of ‘environment’. It sickens me what I hope is not coming for us.
    And I’ve begged my Manuf. to open up plants here, written simple business plans for them showing them it would work. Crickets………..

    • A major hurdle for rekindling manufacture in the US is the lack of a properly educated work force. The product of current public education is concern for undeserved self esteem, political correctness, etc. “Math is hard”, “working makes me sweat”, “how can I watch my Facebook if I have to work”, “texting is more important than reading and writing real English”. I have experienced the results for many years. During my 25 year tenure in construction, I was often paired with a fresh out of high school kid. They nearly ALL had a severe allergy to work. They started sweating and insisted it was time to take a break, in air conditioning. I got out of construction field work 25 years ago. Which is why its now dominated by immigrants, who are tickled to death to sweat for a paycheck.

      • I agree John, it is very sad. I see it too. However, the reason I chose the rust belt as an example is because there are still 2nd and 3rd generation machinists, skilled labor, and engineers, etc… that unfortunately have all had to find work elsewhere, or they don’t and whither away. I know that these people would love nothing more than to go back to working in manufacturing.
        I wish I had the capital to put-where-my-mouth-is to do it myself. Although I try very hard to support those that remain to the best of my ability.
        ps: there is a little hope, although very little, that there is small percentage of our youth (18-25?) that seem to get it, and they have caught my interest.

  6. ‘It is already almost-impossible for a new car company to form.’ — eric

    We’ve seen this movie before, in the late-1990s ‘tobacco settlement.’

    A handful of incumbent makers of gov-disapproved cigarettes were effectively frozen into place. Their oligopolistic price hikes funded their heavy settlement payments to state governments, who were supposed to use the funds to help ‘injured smokers.’

    Of course, state governments simply used the funds for any purpose they wanted. Actual injured smokers — say, with lung cancer — were left to pay for their own treatment, or go on Medicaid.

    Big Gov: the efficiency of the post office; the compassion of the IRS; the malice of a violent hoodlum on angel dust.

  7. Toyota has never been about sports cars- they’ve never quite been able to “get it” (Yes…the Supra- but the bar was pretty low then)- and why should they? They’re thing is making durable reliable economical mass-market vehicles- so I don’t understand why they even feel the need to have to have a sports car…which is not only not even their own, but which will tarnish their otherwise excellent reputation. It’s STUPID! They should just do what they’re good at; what they long been good at; what makes them a thriving success as all of their competitors are faltering.
    Trying to corner every niche of a market…especially when to do so means that the customer ends up with someone else’s product whose only relation to your company is the name plate it bears….is just counter productive.

    • Hi Nunz!

      I disagree with you about this; the 2000GT – which preceded the Nissan Z-car – was a fine piece of work. Also the Celica (which gave birth to the Supra). Let’s also include the mid-engined MR2, which was everything the Fiero might have been but wasn’t!

      • Toyota has a well deserved reputation for durability. They have always held back from increasing power very much. Which makes sense when you consider any time you increase power you increase breakage. Breakage a durable care can’t have.

      • and the 2000gt was a copycat design with the final polish , if you will, being provided stateside. Of course, the Datsun was a copied design too…but Datsun did a WHOLE lot better job of it.
        We’ll hafta agree to disagree – ro maybe we won’t – here, but tojo has never had any original design. What I know of their stuff – which admittedly is somewhat limited and of an older nature – can all be directly traced to stolen Western design. They just market well, with the help of “journalists”.

        • Hi Luke,

          All cars borrow from previous cars. The best designers concede this. Ask Bill Mitchell, for instance. As far as innovation, the Japanese were the first to develop mass-market/reliable SOHC/DOHC superbikes. I own/have owned some of these. There was nothing that could touch a ’73 Z1900 – not even a Vincent Black Shadow (cool as that bike was). I think you’re being unfair to the Japanese.

      • Hi Ya Eric,
        I’m certainly no eggspurt when it comes to sports cars- so maybe I’m wrong- but other than the MR2 (Which really wasn’t all that mass-market -with just a li’l over 100K of them being made for the US & Canada combined over a ten year run) I don’t really see the Celica )a fine enough car) and the others being quite on the same performance level as ‘Canary’ 😀 – but more so sporty cars- like the Mazda Meatus…err….Miata or Maazda[sic] RX7 as opposed to a true performance sports car. Please correct me if I am wrong here though.

        It seems to me that the MR2 is the only real contender….but toi make it great, they weren’t able to do it on a mass-market basis. No?

      • Senor Dos, MR2 the second version. Still miss mine. That was a real sports car in every sense of the word, but the only one Toyota ever got just right.

  8. And the left, bless their empty chests, just cannot understand how this applies to other areas where Big Uncle gets involved. They can’t see these lovely ‘environmental’ regulations, ‘safety’ regaulations, and now whatever that ‘clean certified’ type of regulation is, are just taxes that small businesses cannot afford to pay. They are regulations and taxes that Amazon, Wal-Mart, etc loves to pay because they can afford them and their competition can’t.

  9. So instead of the ultra-reliable “just change the oil every 3000 miles for the next 20 years or 500,000 miles whichever comes second” Toyota engineering, you’re buying a Nipponese car with a Teutonic maintenance schedule?

    • Hi RK,

      Yup. I wonder what the arrangement is as regards servicing these cars – which are BMWs in every way except the cosmetics. Are Toyota stores equipped to service BMWs? Are Toyota techs trained to work on them? Or must the cars be taken to a BMW store?

      • Not to mention that the Germans are NOT famous for making cars that are cheap to maintain. Audi is so bad in this regard that there are mechanics who specialize in working on nothing else because of their complexity. German engineering is excellent, if they just knew when to quit. I had the same experience working printing presses. Italian presses, easy to maintain. German presses hard to maintain.

        • JK,

          Over-engineering is what killed the Germans during WWII! Their tanks were over-engineered with precision machined parts, etc., which weren’t amenable to field repairs and maintenance. The Germans are great at engineering stuff, but, as you said, they don’t know when to quit.

      • Maybe they’re figuring that all the car dealers are massive consolidated entities now, so even though you check in at the Toyota desk they route it over to the BMW bay.

        Because no one would ever even think about taking it to an independent shop, right?

        • I remember my dad bought a Chevy Prizm. Part for part, same thing as a Corolla, just had a bow tie on the front.

          At that time, the Toyota dealer wouldn’t work on it.

          FWIW

          • Hi Publius,
            I’m still driving my 2001 Chevy Prizm, a Toyota Corolla for a Chevy price when I got it. Getting a bit rusty but still runs great.

              • 😆 funny you should mention that, I have to open the driver’s side door from the outside because I don’t feel like taking the door apart to fix the inside mechanism. The rod must be stretched out from years of use.

                • Mike,

                  Water gets in there & freezes, then the plastic part breaks. They all do it, it’s a design flaw. my brother & dad went to a junkyard & they were all gone, & hard to find on eBay.

    • I don’t know, but the Toyota 86 was/is a rebadged Subaru, complete with boxer engine.

      I’m guessing that would be the model they are following for the Supra.

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