TTAC Celebrates the Toyota Corolla's 40th Birthday

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

Forty years ago, Toyota’s invasion of America (and effectively, the world) began in earnest. In 1968, the newly-minted Corolla was sent stateside to do battle with the perennially best selling VW Beetle. Only two short years later, the Corolla was the second-best selling car globally. By 1975, Toyota surpassed Volkswagen as the top import brand. The Corolla has taken all the global production crowns (1.5 million sold in 2007; over 33 million total). It has been the engine powering Toyota’s rise to the world’s largest carmaker. Has the Corolla achieved immortality, or will it eventually lose its way like its spiritual predecessors, the Model T and VW Beetle?

Toyota’s “little crown” started out a bit under-armed to take on the world. More suitable for the crowded and slow streets of Japan, the first Corolla was tiny, narrow, lightweight (1637lbs), underpowered (60hp) and notoriously under-braked. But its $1660 sticker ($10k inflation adjusted) went a long way to compensate for any limitations.

Toyota’s ambitions were limitless, though. Tatsuo Hasegawa, Corolla’s chief engineer, expressed his lofty (and prophetic) goal: to build “a Corolla for the welfare and happiness around the world.” It’s certainly done wonders for the welfare and happiness of Toyota’s shareholders.

The Corolla was launched with a defining statement: “that quality, reliability and durability could be affordable.” That the statement is as true today as it was then can be credited to Toyota’s never-wavering focus. It is the key to the greatest automotive success story ever.

That defining statement would certainly be applicable to the previous global production record holders, the Model T (16.5 million) and the Beetle (21.5 million).

Yes, well, Henry Ford permanently destroyed his company’s market dominance by refusing to change his beloved T for twenty years. And VW experienced a deep crisis as a result of ten years of dithering about the Beetle’s replacement after its thirty year run. But Toyota committed itself to a rigorous self-renewal program with the Corolla, spitting out a substantially refreshed model every four or five years (ominously stretched to six for the latest U.S. generation).

The Gen2 Corolla (1971-1974) was the breakthrough success. It grew just enough to accommodate four adults in comfort (as it was defined then). In 1971, Car and Driver praised the Corolla for “its spacious and attractive interior, good overall quality and economy” as well as being “fun to drive… as it feels more like a sports car than the others.”

Given Toyota’s unwavering focus, if “fun to drive” had been part of the Corolla’s initial defining statement, we might still be grinning behind the wheel today. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because the Corolla was just hinting at fun when C/D tested that 73hp 1200cc four-speed sedan.

In 1971, Toyota introduced the legendary 2T-C engine, a 1600cc hemi-head that spit out 102hp. In the lightweight Corolla (1800lbs), it represented the best dollar/horsepower/weight/fun equation in the land. And when the five-speed SR5 coupe arrived (hand-in-hand with the 1973 energy crisis), the formula overwhelmed Detroit.

Confronted with bloated, emasculated, fuel-gulping 4,000lb “intermediate” coupes with opera-windowed padded tops and fake wire-wheel hubcaps, buyers voted with their feet and Toyota sales exploded. The Corolla SR-5 was the perfect antidote to seventies malaise.

Gen3 and Gen4 Corollas refined and consolidated the rear wheel-drive (RWD) era up until 1984. The Corolla’s durability became legendary; outside of the rust-belt, they’re still a common sight on the streets, earning their keep. But sportiness increasingly took a back seat, especially with the switch to front wheel-drive with the 1985 models.

The exceptional gifted exception to FWD dullness was the AE86 RWD GT-S coupe, with 124hp. It was the last of the old narrow, light RWD formula. Pistonheads still seek it today for its drifting potential.

U.S.-bound Corollas since 1985 have stayed true to the original concept, except that ride quality increasingly displaced any lingering hint of sportiness. But as the Corolla increasingly became a global commodity, it had to adapt, especially in Europe.

To compete against the class-leading Golf, the European Corolla took on Germanic attributes. (The current version has even dropped the Corolla moniker for Auris.) Its angular Golf-esque hatchback body doesn’t share a single panel with U.S. Corollas, and sports Toyota’s advanced diesel engines and a sophisticated multi-link rear suspension. It’s the equivalent of the euro Focus to our notoriously white-bread version.

The Auris clearly represents one point of departure from the old formula. The automobile market is becoming ever more stratified, in America. The Corolla-based Matrix is a reflection of the trend; Scion also provides in-house competition.

Undoubtedly, the Corolla formula still has legs, here and abroad. But the MINI’s effect on the small car market may turn out to be game-changing, where style and image trump dowdy practicality. The Corolla took the world by storm, but fashion is a fickle creature. Toyota’s fight for dominance must move in a different direction.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Yankinwaoz Yankinwaoz on Mar 07, 2008

    As a measure of the Corolla's reputation, in Australia the Corollas really hold their value. You can buy a Corolla and sell it for 80% of what you paid in 5 years. I've owned two Corollas in my life and they both were indestructible. I abused the hell out of them and they never failed. Amazing.

  • Supremebrougham Supremebrougham on Mar 08, 2008

    This makes the third time this week that I've commented about the Corolla! My parents leased me a '93 base Corolla to replace my dying '85 Skylark during my senior year of HS. Coming out of a Buick, I disliked that Corolla for it's plain-ness. Thankfully, I was able to get out of that lease and into a '95 DX Corolla. It was the mid range model and had the power goodies and the better stereo. That car changed my perception of Toyotas, well, that and the '92 Camry. Even though the Corolla gave me a bit of trouble with the brakes and it had a number of electrical problems pop up the week my lease was up, I remember the car fondly, and find myself seriously considering another one for my next car. 40 mpg is starting to sound really good right about now...

  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X I will be going towards an older vehicle when the time comes. My '19 Frontier is '05 technology, so I'm good for now.
  • Kristopher Tesla: the quality is appalling, but at least all the profit is going to a fascist eugenacist!
  • Sobhuza Trooper QUESTION: How Can We Claw Back Some Privacy? -ANSWER: Don't pair your phone with the car. Ever.
  • 2manyvettes I have a '16 Durango that when each time I start it, the anti-lawyer message that appears warns that none of the software features will work unless a 3G network is available. My car is invisible. I second a previous poster who predicted a booming business in late model used cars.
  • ToolGuy First picture: I wonder if Ford Motor Company has ever considered putting an electric powertrain into the Mustang. Could be interesting.