Inside the factory that only builds white Toyotas

Although they look like stormtroopers in military terms, the comparison is not appropriate. There are endless ranks, tiers, and rows of Toyotas. Each one is a sparkling, pristine white. These, however, are hidden away in an underground bunker and are equipped with unfailing reliability and fearsome durability.

What was that white Land Cruiser you saw in the news last night It’s likely that it made it through here. You can see the back of shot cars in all reports from war zones, aid programmes to disaster relief, and third world development projects. This was their home once upon a time. Around 650 vehicles – more specifically 650 white Toyotas – leave here every month destined for global hotspots. Welcome to Toyota Gibraltar Stockholdings (TGS), the world’s most remarkable car dealership.

“We don’t really think of them as cars,” TGS co-chief executive Jonathan Gourlay tells me. “We’re just giving our customers a tool that does a job, whether that’s feeding children or delivering medicines.” You might think, like me, that the 70 Series Land Cruiser is utterly cool and want one very badly, but cool plays no role here – this is transport at its most fundamental. Simplicity and reliability are more important than anything. “If you look back 25 years, there were a few players in this market,” Gourlay continues. “There was Land Rover, there was Nissan and Mitsubishi, but gradually they’ve focused on building what I’d call ‘first world’ vehicles for Europe and North America. Toyota still makes a 4.2-litre diesel engine. You can’t register a new one in Europe because of its emissions, but it doesn’t go wrong and any mechanic can fix it in the field because there’s no electronics around it. You don’t need diagnostic tools, you just need to know how an engine works.”

Photography: Mark Riccioni

At every level, economies of scale are important. Toyota can justify building simple, tough cars such as the 70 Series as long as a market exists (the UN alone doesn’t prop up this 40-year-old design – Australian outback farmers and African safari tours take their share). When others cleared out, it increased Toyota’s footprint. And it’s the same for Toyota Gib, as it’s fondly known. It’s been in this market for over 30 years, used to have rivals. Over time, the dealership at the Mediterranean’s mouth has become the dominant. Here, the UN, NGOs and international aid agencies, as well as governments, buy their vehicles.

Geography plays an important role. Gibraltar serves as a central distribution point. I assumed tax, er, efficiencies played a part too, but it’s not an offshore company. The vehicles leave their factories via a T1 Transit Doc, which allows them the freedom to travel between bonded regions. Taxes are only payable when they reach their final destination. Toyota offers UN and other institutions preferential pricing.

The White Company

Why not send them straight from the factory? Because a basic Land Cruiser, Hilux or Hiace is rarely what’s needed – 90 per cent of the vehicles that pass through Gibraltar are modified. They are taken to the stormtrooper bunker where 1,000 vehicles can be kept at a given time. Then they are sent to the dockside warehouse to get kitted out. Each has to be driven due to Gibraltar’s claustrophobic road network. Then it’s bull bars, radios, winches, spares packages, tyres, upgrade kits. That’s the basic end. A Hiace or Land Cruiser can be transformed into a fully functioning ambulance, mobile library, laboratory or prison van with 100 hours of hard work.

These were the last vehicles that were sent to Ukraine. “Some major organisations – Médecins Sans Frontières is a good example – will always go straight in [to conflict zones],” says Gourlay. “But even before they sent any requests we’d seen what was happening and spoken to Japan, which agreed to pull forward [70 Series] production for us.” Land Cruiser ambulances, rather than Hiace? “In war zones the roads and bridges are the first things to disappear, so it becomes progressively harder to move around. It is essential that the vehicle can handle the terrain. Three months into the conflict we’d already sent 300 vehicles there.”

It is possible to turn around quickly. Toyota Gib, a Royal Navy support vessel, loaded cars from its docks directly onto RFA Argus during the 2014 Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone. It’s not unknown for vehicles to be airlifted. This morning was the latest emergency scramble. Transport for the Earl & Countess de Wessex as they tour the British Overseas Territories on their jubilee tour. The Lexus was scrambled. “Bit of an unusual one that,” Gourlay tells me.

Although the day job is less glamorous, most of the cars are shipped on ro–ro vessels. However, the logistics and numbers are staggering. Around 800 cars could be heading to 85 countries at once, and they keep track of them all. Notifications, status updates, email alerts, tracking, delivery – it’s automotive Amazon for international aid. But it’s much more. Toyota Gib’s knowledge and experience is second to none. They have the knowledge and experience to provide you with everything you need whether you need an anti-poaching Hilux in Tanzania, a rescue van in a disaster zone or a pick up for mine clearance in the Middle East. Anything that could be considered military is not allowed. You can purchase a ballistics blanket but no armouring. The UN is not a warmonger, but a peacekeeper.

The White Company

The cars are warrantied, there’s aftermarket support, and even driver training. After all, what’s the use of sending a vehicle to an end user who doesn’t know how to operate it? Valérian Lemoine heads up TGS’s driver training programme. “It’s everything from using the clutch and gears properly, reducing wear and tear, to being a safe driver. If you’re giving someone a 2.5-tonne vehicle they need to know how to handle it. Plus organisations realise these cars are the face of their project – they don’t want to be seen in a negative light as irresponsible road users.” Valérian used to work for MSF, which has a global fleet of 4,000–5,000 vehicles. TGS is being used by the UN to spread road safety messages.

Jonathan shows me around the warehouse. The base cars are compellingly simple in a way we’re no longer familiar with: wind-down windows, clunking locks, austere switches. They fit solid and reliable kit. Most of the kit seems to have come from Australia. “We fit Codan radios, which is kind of going back to the Flying Doctors type thing, but the UN and NGOs still use it because it’s got great range. People here will say it’s dead because we’ve got mobile phones and satellite phones. Well yeah, but if there’s a coup the first thing they take down is the cellular network. Your phones are now gone. Whereas if you’ve got your own high frequency network, you’re still talking.”

Technology is not obsolete, it all depends on what your perspective is. They’ve heard endless stories of people exporting Euro VI emissions compliant cars to Africa that then detonate on the local fuel. “We can do cutting edge tech,” Gourlay insists. “Geofencing cars, remote immobilisers – the Land Cruiser you’ve been driving is fitted with a panic alarm and we know it works because it gets pressed accidentally every time the car is cleaned.”

The White Company

It’s not sophisticated to drive by the way. It needs a lot of lock to steer, and the ride is rough and the diesel noisy. “Agencies are more aware of this now – we’re seeing a move to Corollas and RAV4s in some use cases, a desire to be seen to tread lightly.” What matters is not the relative luxury of those models by the way, but that despite the added complication they still have the same dependability. Toyota – with TGS as its outlet – has this market sewn up.

Don’t think about logistics or numbers. Think about what a white Toyota is when it rolls into your city. While we see a car, other people see a white Toyota as a sign of hope, healing, medicine, communication and aid. It signifies help. A white Toyota – paint code 058 – is a sign that things will get better. And if that’s not a worthy role for a car to play, I don’t know what is.

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