The realisation that Toyota is determined to become more European than the Europeans is beginning to frighten the opposition, says Peter Wilsher.
Politically, almost everything that will define 21st century Europe is still to play for. The debates over structure, defence, currency and the power of the institutions have barely been joined, let alone resolved. But industrially, economically, commercially and managerially these are almost side issues: from January 1 1993, if any multinationally ambitious company is not there already, the almost infinitely varied landscape between Bantry Bay and Bratislava is the place where it has to be for any serious establishment of its competitive credentials.
As usual, it is the outsiders who see that most clearly. Just as it was the Americans, like IBM and Coca-Cola, who recognised the value of treating Europe as a single market, so now it tends to be boardrooms in Stockholm and Zurich, or Seoul and San Francisco, that think hardest and most constructively about exploiting the opportunities which will undoubtedly emerge, in one form or another, from the constitutional struggles currently occupying Messrs Major, Mitterrand, Kohl and Delors.
Inevitably this applies most forcefully of all to the Japanese, and it is no coincidence that Toyota has chosen December 1992 as the date to launch its own long-planned European onslaught. In just 16 months' time the 2,000 builders now working on the company's Derbyshire site will have taken their cranes away, planted 300,000 trees and left behind a £750 million investment capable of turning out, even in its initial phase, 100,000 cars a year. By mid-decade that will have doubled, and, as Fiat, Ford, Peugeot, etc. are only too acutely aware, there is ample room, if necessary, to double it yet again.
However, although the sheer scale of the Burnaston operation is impressive enough, it is the depth and far-sightedness of the strategic thinking that lies behind it that really frightens the opposition. In Turin and Paris and Dagenham, they are starting to realise the strength of Toyota's determination to make itself more European than the European.
To be European, says the Toyota game-plan, you must learn to think European. So the 20 designers who make up the core of the 100-strong staff at Zaventem outside Brussels, where the company's new £20 million technical and training centre is located, are under instructions to look well beyond the style and performance of the continent's vehicle population in their search for potential edge. Trends in dress fashion and furniture, it has been established, tend to lead the changing taste of car buyers by anything up to three years, so these areas are as much the subject of systematic study as the optimum local standard required for, say, steering or brakes.
Not that such basic mechanical considerations are being neglected. For years Toyota has been subtly modifying the limited number of models that it and its fellow Japanese manufacturers are allowed to sell inside the European Community and adapting their speed, handling characteristics and what the in-house engineers call "perceived stability" to the local taste. Now that effort has been redoubled.
Profound and powerful lessons have been learned from the Toyota experience in the United States, where the now-flourishing "transplant" facilities, which were set up with the same sort of objective, ran into such immense initial hostility. That was because they were seen as mere screwdriver operations set up to assemble Japanese designs from Far Eastern components and contribute nothing more than a few low-grade jobs to the host on whose body they had chosen to batten. It has taken a decade to refute the charges.
In Europe the objective is necessarily even more complex - Austin Rover and fish and chips on this side of the Channel, and a combination of Renault-and-pommes-frites and Volkswagen-and-apfelstrudel across the water. But Toyota, at any rate, is mobilising all of its management skills to pull it off. The intention is to act from the start as a fully fledged European operation, with at least 60% local content. Some 150 suppliers have been rigorously selected and teams of Toyota-trained specialists are now working intensively with all of them to hone quality standards and delivery times.
With similar care going into choosing and training people, for the 3,900 jobs initially on offer, Toyota's aim is to build such a solid foundation of loyalty that the chauvinists will quickly be made to look absurd. If they succeed, the whole single market project should get a valuable shove in the right direction.
(Peter Wilsher is assistant editor of the Sunday Express.)