Pedal to ?the Medal

While Toyota’s troubles continue to roil south of the border, all is calm in Beautiful B.C

Ican’t wait for Arnold Schwarzenegger to finish his term as California governor and get back to movie­making. Think of the quips we’ve been missing. Somewhere in some Hollywood studio office, this script must be waiting for him:

“Listen aws-hole, vere did you hide the bomb?”

“I don’t recall.”

“Zat is vat Toyota used to say!” (Throws bad guy off the Statue of Liberty.) “Looks like your brakes are faulty! Next time, buy American!”

Poor Toyota. From the top of the heap to talk-show monologues in less time than it takes Tiger Woods to parallel-park on a fire hydrant. Has any international corporation ever fallen so far, so quickly? 

Toyota’s march to the top of the North American automotive pack was the flip side of the 2008 Detroit bankruptcy plague. Proud American car companies imploded while the Japanese giant looked on serenely, its success seeming to confirm the perception that GM and Chrysler were their own worst enemies. Surely the Americans were paying for a simple inability to build quality vehicles; Toyota had proved that quality sells. Now Toyota has proved that you don’t have to sleep with a battalion of bar floozies to become the butt of Oscar-night jokes. It didn’t help that Toyota’s initial explanation for the faulty accelerator issue – the floor mats did it – was pretty close to releasing a statement about a dog and some homework.

When bad things happen to big companies, the fallout tends to match the size of the company rather than the size of the problem. A couple of 1980s Delta Air Lines crashes led to macabre jokes: “New Delta promotion: 10 per cent off if you bring your dental records.”

What’s surprising is how Canada seems to be bucking the nasty Toyota news cycle. Even while U.S. sales of Toyota were down nine per cent in February, over the same time period Toyota Canada announced a 25 per cent increase in sales. This despite the death of former New West resident Christopher Eves, whose Toyota Tundra accident near Bellingham, Washington, became perhaps the most infamous incident of the entire controversy. 

I used to have an ’82 Celica. That Trudeau-era two-door was still running like a dream under prime minister Paul Martin. The popular notion that Toyota vehicles had suddenly became motorized coffins drove me to check the local classifieds, looking for bargains on libelled Camrys and Corollas, but there were no obvious discounts. Local Toyota owners didn’t seem to be buying the hysteria.

Even if faulty accelerators are now being written into the plot lines of countless murder mysteries – and perhaps a few actual plots – B.C. drivers still seem to have faith in the nameplate. Black Top & Checker Cabs operates over 100 Toyota vehicles in the Lower Mainland. You would think, based on media coverage, that a cabbie might just as well drive up in a car marked Black Death. But according to Black Top boss man Amrik Mahil, there have been no reports of customers reacting to Toyota cabs as though a yellow-and-black hearse had just rolled up. Nor has the company experienced any technical problems with its fleet. “I have a Toyota in my own driveway,” he insists. “They’re very reliable.”

So what’s the difference between us and our southern neighbours? Why do we seem blasé about an issue that’s made American consumers react like an audience watching Alien? I suspect we’re a little less exposed to the 24-hour cable news and bear less animosity to the Japanese automakers that humbled Detroit. 

As for the political grandstanding, perhaps tackling Toyota is not really Premier Campbell’s thing – more a scene for his friend, Arnold. It was, after all, the fuel-efficient Japanese car that helped kill the Hummer. For the Governator, it’s personal. n