Business Columns & Blogs

Where Tacoma pickups are made could affect Tacoma the city and the port of the same name

The relationship between the Toyota Tacoma and its namesake city was as curious as it was tenuous. Toyota doesn’t make vehicles within 2,000 miles of here, and there’s no other apparent connection between the company, the pickup and the city.

A feature on Toyota’s website explaining the derivation and meaning of the company’s car, SUV, minivan and truck names says Tacoma is “from the Salish Indian word for the mountain that provided water to their tribe (later changed to Mount Rainier). The name suggests images of strength and power.”

How exactly the name of the city, instead of the mountain, might inspire people to go out and plunk down $26,000 (the lowest manufacturer’s suggested retail price, although some versions are priced well above $30,000) for a pickup is left unclear. While potential buyers in other parts of the country may have heard of Mount Rainier (a name Buick actually slapped on a car model), or Tacoma, they’re not likely to make the linguistic connection between the two. A more likely explanation is that the name rolls alliteratively off the tongue (same number of syllables too), and at least the name is more distinctive than the jumble of letters and numbers that characterize most car and truck model names these days.

Unfortunately Tacoma the city hasn’t reaped much reward from the assembly and sales of Tacoma the truck. The city doesn’t get to collect a royalty every time a Toyota Tacoma rolls off the lot (too bad; the truck has been around since 1995 and last year nearly 249,000 of the model were sold in the United States alone). Other motorists seeing the nameplate on the road probably aren’t inspired to think, “Hmm, maybe my next vacation ought to be in …”

But there is some recent news about the Tacoma (the truck) that ties into some national, even global issues with which Tacoma (the city) is quite familiar with and interested in — trade.

Toyota recently announced a shuffling of model production among its North American assembly plants. Its San Antonio plant, which had been building Tacomas, will drop that model by late 2021. Its Guanajuato, Mexico, plant began building Tacomas in December 2019. A plant in Indiana, into which Toyota has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in modernization and retooling, is also involved.

Car-and-truck manufacturing employment and imports have been hot topics ever since Mexico became a major car production center and the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed. The recently signed Nafta successor, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, had as one of its major elements a focus on trade in passenger cars, light trucks and auto parts.

“This deal encourages United States manufacturing and regional economic growth by requiring that 75 percent of auto content be made in North America,” a release from the U.S. Trade Representative’s office says. It also requires 40 percent to 45 percent of auto content be made by workers earning at least $16 per hour to receive preferential benefits.

Those rules will “ensure that United States producers and workers are able to compete on an even playing field and incentivize new vehicle and parts investments in the United States,” the trade representative’s office adds.

Whether trade agreements ought to be used that way, and whether they accomplish what they purport to do, are hugely controversial topics in trade, economic, business, labor and political circles. Free-trade purists hate the tariffs, incentives, penalties and protectionist measures they say limit growth and penalize consumers with higher prices. Supporters of activist trade policies say the need to defend jobs and industries at home reflects economic reality, not theory.

There’s some anecdotal evidence such policies work. The presence of Japanese auto assembly plants in the U.S. was in large part a reaction to screams of protest over car imports into the United States.

Mexico’s auto production and imports have been highly controversial, too, as far back as Ross Perot’s characterization of the “giant sucking sound” of American jobs, as recently as criticism by the current administration of Ford’s plans for an auto plant there. Toyota says its moves of various models will result in no reduction of direct jobs at any of its North American plants, which may help dampen criticism of plans to move production of the Tacoma to Mexico for sale in the United States.

Meanwhile, a significant point of entry for auto imports is the Port of Tacoma. In the latest cargo-data report, the Northwest Seaport Alliance notes Tacoma handled 191,822 cars in 2019, up a whopping 31 percent from 2018. That’s also the best of any of the last eight years shown in the reports.

That number can move according to what the economy is doing to car buyers, but it can also be affected by what car makers decide about where to build cars, balancing factors such as labor rates in various countries, the cost advantages of building closer to market and tariff incentives and penalties like those in the USMCA that make it more attractive to produce cars in North America.

Trade deals have consequences, and one of them is where cars and trucks are built, shipped and sold. A Japanese company is building trucks in Mexico for sales in the U.S. The more of those there are, the fewer there might be of cars rolling off an auto carrier at the local port. The significance of the Toyota Tacoma is where it’s made, not what it’s called. Otherwise we’d be concerned about the lack on the road of Ford Fifes, Nissan Nisquallys and Hyundai … umm, Hoquiams?

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at