By on March 5, 2008

70corollawagon2.jpgForty 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.

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36 Comments on “TTAC Celebrates the Toyota Corolla’s 40th Birthday...”

  • avatar

    Nice history of a car that is often overlooked by the enthusiast crowd because it simply does what a car is supposed to do – provide comfortable, safe, reliable transportation for drivers everywhere.

    But wasn’t Scion supposed to attract the buyers who want style and practicality in small cars?

    It’s also interesting that Toyota has been able to keep the Toyota relevant in the American market. Thus, Toyota continues to grow and prosper. VW never really recovered in the U.S. after the original Beetle fell from grace.

  • avatar

    Toyota clearly has always built the kind of car detroit could not, sold to people detroit said did not want to buy small cars, and lasted longer than detroit said they would. It’s OK for Toyota to win this battle, they earned it.

  • avatar

    Toyota cars are neither good looking or interesting, but the Corolla epitomises what Toyota are about. Taking a formula and refining it over generations.

    As far as I’m concerned it is a landmark car.

  • avatar

    VW kind of recovered most recently in the late 90s into the early 2000s. But every time they start to recover, nagging quality problems appear. Since VW is so slow to respond to problems, it just makes more people want to buy a Toyota or Honda once they swear off VW. But just you wait, by 2018 VW is going to sell as many cars as Toyota in the US. hehehe. Toyota’s are great transportation appliances if nothing else. I don’t personally like them, but they definitely fill a need for reasonably priced, reliable transportation. Ask someone you know who drives one! (if they’re not asleep at the wheel)

  • avatar

    The sedan is still called Corolla in Europe, and looking at the pictures it seems to be the same car sold in the US. It only seems to be available in some countries though.

  • avatar

    My first car was a well used ’69 Corolla bought in ’78 for $300. The leprous-looking body was filled with body filler, and six months after I bought it, the battery tray dissolved and I had through the floor air conditioning. It was a simple vehicle to fix and I learned a lot just keeping it running. Toyota has certainly come a long way since then.

  • avatar

    There’s a huge market for an updated version of the AE86 Corolla. Especially if a couple doors could be added to the formula.

    I’m still waiting for the first manufacturer to realize this.

  • avatar

    KatiePuckrik, “Toyota cars are neither good looking or interesting”

    I disagree. They may not be good looking or interesting to you and many others on this forum but I honestly feel that everyone (myself included) makes a common mistake of assuming that our own individual tastes are some how universal and all defining.

    I personally found the previous Camry two generations ago to be frankly offensive looking, kind of like a Ford from the 70s but evidently other people did not share my taste either.

  • avatar

    The Model T, the Beetle, and the Corolla are three of the most successful car models ever built.

    None of them are pistonhead passion-fruit. They’re transportation appliances–but very good ones. They do what they’re intended to do, competently, reliably, at a price the consumer can afford.

    Nothing wrong with that.

  • avatar

    Nice article. I had no idea the Corolla accounted for such a large percentage of Toyota’s global sales, over 15% last year.

  • avatar
    Ken Strumpf

    KatiePuckrik, “Toyota cars are neither good looking or interesting”

    My 76 Corolla SR5, bought brand new, was both good looking and interesting. It was fun to drive, turned on a dime, got great gas mileage and looked terrific. I drove it all over the mountains and deserts of Mexico (talk about interesting driving) and I never worried about a breakdown. I wish they still made ’em like that.

  • avatar

    “The Corolla was launched with a defining statement: “that quality, reliability and durability could be affordable.” …..…..Toyota committed itself to a rigorous self-renewal program with the Corolla”

    You nailed Toyota’s keys to success. Quality, durability, affordable and renewal (reinvestment)

    “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”

    The Mini is a game changer by proving that there is a market for premium small cars but that will not affect the Corolla. I don’t think the buyers of Mini’s were ever in the market for a Corolla.

  • avatar

    Toyota are no more ugly than just about any other car on the road today. If folks will find a new 5 series BMW attractive then they will most likely find the new Corolla attractive. They do have many of the same flame surface styling.

    Toyota styling can best be compared to a well dressed person, NOT an expensively dressed person but someone whose clothes fit them properly and are neat and clean. While they do not look like they shop at Saks or Barneys they do look like they spent a few more dollars than the guy/girl that buys their clothes from Old Navy (domestic cars).

    Just like clothing styles appeal to different folks and make statements about the person who choices that style of fashion, cars are the same way. Toyota have a image that conveys “smart consumer”, the individual that seeks out value and substance for their money.

    Like it or not MOST Toyotas appeal to the anti-car enthusiast. That type of guy/girl that will tell you; “I am too busy to waste my adult life dreaming about cars I will never be able to afford or would never be seen in anyway if I could afford them.”

  • avatar

    The only Toy I’ve owned was an ’82 Corolla w/ a top chop by Griffith.
    Wasn’t bad looking at all (many compliments), pleasant to drive, trusty (as expected) and rusted like crazy.

  • avatar

    Sherman Lin :
    March 5th, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    I disagree. They may not be good looking or interesting to you and many others on this forum but I honestly feel that everyone (myself included) makes a common mistake of assuming that our own individual tastes are some how universal and all defining.

    A poll of a bunch of people I know unanimously agreed that my tastes are all defining. The results will be posted on Wikipedia soon. ;)

    I owned an 83 Corolla. Loved it for the RWD, but it ate brakes every 30,000 km, rusted with enthusiasm, and did not like backing into concrete posts one bit.

  • avatar

    It is funny that just about any one you come across over the age of 35 in America can tell you about the iconic status of the Beetle. But I bet most will miss out on the importance of the Corolla. I also bet most Americans that claim to know about and/or care about cars in general do NOT know that the Corolla is the worlds best selling car and has been so for quite a long time.

    Toyota’s approach to business is so different from the American perspective that it sometimes blows the mind. Today I see folks starting to call Toyota an arrogant company. This is mainly due to the many years of great success Toyota has had in the USA and around the world yet refrained from bragging about it.

    I guess people hate it when someone actually beats them at their own game and manages to do so in a quiet unassuming manner.
    With all the “import bashing” and anti-Japanese retoric Toyota manages to keep its head down and quietly amass a enormous marketshare in the USA.

    The irony is that all of the anti-Toyota and anti-Japanese attitudes in the USA actually HELPED Toyota succeed here. It forced them to adopt a gameplan based on good products, goodwill, and customer satisfaction. Maybe if Detroit had welcomed Toyota will open arms Toyota would have adpoted the same piss-poor business practices of the big3.

    Yeap, slow and steady does win the race!

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    My first car was a 72 corolla wagon, my first year in college.

    Design wise, it suggested the end product of a drunk farmer with a double-bitted axe. The metal was so thin, you could easily press a dimple in it with light hand pressure. omygawd, off-road, it was amazing …. with good snow tires, it went places that stopped broncos and blazers.

    Just last week, I drove a client’s 2000 corolla for four days. The thing has 253,000 miles on it, and it still runs new. The “check engine” light has been on for reportedly 100,000 miles, and they change the oil every 50,000 – whether it needs it or not.

    Yeah, good cars. Plain, but good.

  • avatar

    I rather like the late 70s to early 80s Corolla. Smartly styled. I’m casually on the look out for one. Don’t tell the wife though.

    I’ve got the 4AGE twin cam motor from a rwd Corolla GTS in my Lotus Seven clone. People forget that the engine was amazing in such a car as the Corolla never mind one costing twice as much.

  • avatar

    There have been two Corolla’s in our family. First up was a new 1981 2 door in metallic orange (bronze?). We flogged that car through Germany, brought it to the US, and then back to Germany over a 12 year period. I forget what the mileage was on it, but from a mechanical standpoint, we couldn’t kill it. Yeah, rust was an issue…but when you got in, you KNEW it would start. My mom moved up to a Camry in 1993 and that one made it 10 years before she got nervous one day when it overheated (she has a low stress-level threshold on these types of things!). She immediately went out and bought (never test drove it, mind you) a fully loaded 2003 Corolla LE (leather, sunroof, etc)…five years on, other than a few self-inflicted blemishes, you get in and it just goes. No issues to date. Which is more than likely the reason why when she goes to buy her next (and most likely last car), guess what? It’ll be a Toyota. It’s hard to argue with the success of the Corolla. Is it fancy? Well, the top-end LE sure is nice, I gotta admit…but no, you won’t mistake the ‘Rolla for a Lexus. Is it sporty? Not particularly…but for thousands of owners, they simply understand that when they buy a Corolla, it’s going to give them years of trouble-free service. Period. There is obviously a market for that, hence the insane number of Corollas that Toyota has sold. They got the formula, and have constantly revised it over the decades to continue giving customers what they want in reliable and (usually) unassuming transportation.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    “Toyota cars are neither good looking or interesting”

    My 76 1981 Corolla SR5 hardtop, bought brand new, was both good looking and interesting. It was fun to drive, turned on a dime, got great gas mileage and looked terrific.

    What time (10 years) and distance (210k) couldn’t kill, a chop shop did. I’m tearing up already.

  • avatar

    Has the Corolla achieved immortality, or will it eventually lose its way like its spiritual predecessors, the Model T and VW Beetle?

    The Corolla really isn’t in the icon league, like the Model T or VW Beetle, which, though they evolved over the years, were manufactured using the same basic design for more than 20 years each.

    The Corolla is more like the Chevrolet Impala, a variety of different cars built over the years on different chassis and using different engines, but sharing the same name.

    How many nameplates have other manufacturers used on the Corolla’s competitors over the years that Toyota built the Corolla?

    Ford (Cortina, Pinto, Escort, Focus)
    Chevrolet (Vega, Chevette, Monza S, Spectrum, Nova, Prizm, Cavalier, Cobalt)
    Dodge (Colt, Omni, Shadow, Neon, Caliber)
    Volkswagen (1500/Beetle, Superbeetle, Rabbit, Golf, Jetta, Rabbit)
    Datsun/Nissan (1200, B-210, F-10, 210, 310, Sentra, Pulsar)

    The Corolla name has been come to consistently stand for reliable and economical transportation, a known quantity that people have come to recognize and depend on, even if they are rather uninspiring as anything more than fairly basic transportation.

  • avatar

    For Toyota, the Corolla is the automotive equivalent of an appliance. And a very well conceived one at that.

  • avatar

    Cars that achieve immortality do so because they have an iconic quality in popular culture. The Model T has the birth of American mass car culture. The Beetle has the 60s and an unmistakeable shape. There is nothing iconic about the Corolla. It’s a toaster. And it’s a very good toaster, but toasters don’t become icons.

  • avatar

    Icon is perhaps the wrong word. The word has a definite connotation of being visual, and as has been pointed out, there’s nothing particularly recognizable about Corollas.

    You might well argue that they’re an “anti-icon” — they’re pretty much always the epitome of car design at the time. Toyota wouldn’t have made the ’86 Taurus, but they ripped it off and made it better.

    There’s definitely something there, though, if not an icon. The name carries something that’s as close as you’ll find to prestige in a compact car.

  • avatar


    I think you unintentionally hit on something – the Corolla name has survived while others have died over and over (though give Nissan some credit – the Sentra name is now over 20 years old). Why is this? Because the Corolla never built a bad reputation like the Pinto and Vega. Other manufacturers, especially American ones, have to change their names to try to cover their mistakes (and also out of pure stupidity – the Escort was building up a good history, at least in Europe).

    The Corolla has long since ceased to be exciting, but it’s still a good car for basic needs. It may not be an icon in the traditional sense, but everyone knows what the Corolla stands for and what it is (this is also why VW brought back the Rabbit name – people knew what it meant).

  • avatar

    TTAC celebrating the Corolla?

    I must admit I am surprised.

    Paul Niedermeyer:
    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.

    I beg to differ. For decades now, with popular small cars practicality has *always* won out over style and image. I don’t see that changing. Small cars that place style and image over practicality end up as niche models and low sellers.

    Corolla sales have been pretty much rock solid over the past 30 years, with sales gradually climbing. Fashion does not affect a car like the Corolla.

  • avatar

    I had a late 90’s Corolla in high school. It was ugly, bland, boring and surprisingly unreliable despite regular service. (The third time it left me on the side of the road, it had to go.)

    I’ve had 3 Land Rovers since, all without any issues whatsoever. (Brand) Perception vs Reality?

  • avatar

    No. Just anecdotal evidence.

  • avatar

    My high school car was a ’77 SR5 Liftback, in 83. Had 75K on it when I bought it, had 175K on it when I sold it in ’87. I abused the heck out of that car and it didn’t complain at all. Can’t complain.

  • avatar

    Call me crazy but I’m an enthusiast and I like the Corolla a lot. It’s classy and serene, unlike the ricey, ultra-Japanese-looking Honda Fit I drive. Like a reliable Jetta. I definitely regret not test driving an older Corolla XRS, although I leave the other trims to less passionate drivers.

  • avatar

    I currently own a 2005 Corolla CE (Classic Edition – a stripper) and owned a 1989 Corolla SR5 2 door 5-speed stick. Not the most masculine of cars but at least the ’89 was somewhat fun to drive back east in the lower elevations.

    When I moved to AZ in ’94, the ’89s little 1.6 (90 hp) was overwhelmed. That was my excuse to replace the ’89, the last model year Corolla with a carb, with what was then over 5 years old and had 135k miles on it (just getting broken in) along with my copy-cat attitude for SUVs. I bought a ’94 Mazda Navajo (badge engineered Ford Explorer) because the ’94 Explorers were sold out and the ’95s were still a month away. I was 28 and impatient.

    My 05′ Corolla CE can’t really be called a car so much as an appliance on 4 wheels. I needed a vehicle ASAP to replace the totaled Navajo – that’s another story – and the Corolla seemed a safe choice for the high reliability, low hassle factor.

    Although the ’05 is soul numbingly boring to drive it does everything by the book without fail. Like the high school geek, it may be personality challenged but always gets the job done well. But do I have to feel so dead every time I get behind the wheel of that thing?

    As stated in the editorial, Toyota needs to check itself and realize that the price/value factor and brand recognition that’s allowed the Corolla to sell itself in the past may be slipping.

    I bought the ’05 based on my ownership experience with the ’89. I may not buy another Corolla based on my experiences with the ’05.

  • avatar

    I have never owned a Corolla but several times over the past 20 years have shopped compact cars. When comparing the Corolla and the Civic at those times I was always struck with what IMO were significant differences in material (and perhaps build) quality between these two similarly priced cars. I am not talking mechanicals but rather when you sat in them the Civic always seemed a couple of steps above the Civic in ergonomics and interior material quality. Is there some basis for that or was it just my perception? Corollas have appeal because they sell a lot of them. At least more than Civics.

  • avatar

    When I was a kid my parents bought a new Corolla (’71 I think…their first “new” car purchase). Maybe they just got a bad one, but they had numerous problems with it. Left us stranded several times.

    They (and as soon as my brother and I could drive) switched to Honda’s (’77 Civic CVCC was their first) and have never looked back. To my eye Honda’s are (in general) just nicer all around. Nicer finish and materials, more fun to drive, and pretty much dead reliable with a little care and maintenance.

  • avatar
    Edward Niedermeyer

    The old SR5 hatch checked all my boxes when I was looking for a first car. RWD, reliability, fuel efficiency, hatchback storage, manual transmission, hoon potential… too bad I couldn’t find anyone who would part with one. I would never consider a late-model Corolla, but if I were 18 again and in the market, a clean RWD hatch would definitely catch my eye.

    All in all, I think the anti-icon badge fits nicely.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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…

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