By on July 21, 2009

Curbside Classics takes you back to 1971 for a virtual comparison test of six small cars, based (and partly borrowed) from a C/D test.

Hail the conquering hero! Well, not of C/D‘s comparison test, but who cares, as long as the sales are there. And by 1971, the Corolla was well along in its conquest of the US small car market, despite being only three years fresh. In 1969, only its second year on the US market, the Corolla leapt to the number two import sales spot, and was nipping hard at the Beetle’s pointy tail. Try replicating that today! And by 1975, the “little crown” was lording over the defeated krabbeltier. So what exactly were the Corolla’s remarkable qualities that sent VW (and Opel) into such a deep and permanent retreat? And its shortcomings that kept it from winning this comparison?

Let’s start by looking at what it was up against. The Beetle’s well known qualities have already been covered in this comparison. In 1971, it was still hanging on stubbornly. But the number two import Opel Kadett was thoroughly pushed aside by the Japanese upstart. Or more accurately, fell aside. By 1971, the rising German currency and GM’s planned import killer Vega caused Opel to drop the aged Kadett and focus on the more upscale market with its 1900 Sports Sedan (Ascona) and Manta.

And the rest of the import competition in 1971? There were some seriously advanced Europeans knocking on the door. Think Fiat 128, Austin America (1100), Peugeot 304, Simca 1100/1204, Renault R16. Highly sophisticated FWD cars, but each with questionable durability and iffy dealer networks. At the hands of America’s abusive and maintenance-neglecting drivers, this was not exactly a recipe for success. The best hopes were with the other new Japanese small cars, such as the Datsun 1200. Japan’s sun(ny) was rising quickly over the US in 1971.

The ’71 Corolla encapsulated all the qualities that have made it a perennial top seller. Well, except one. Remember all our talk in prior episodes about Americans’ desire to roll stress-free down the freeway at seventy? The 1200 cc engine in this model just didn’t cut it for that: “with its 4.22 axle ratio and 12-inch wheels, the engine fairly screams at 70 mph…at low speeds and in traffic the car is fun to drive, however, and it feels the most like a sports car than the others.” I guess the Corolla has changed in some regards; the word “sports car” sure didn’t come to mind when I reviewed the current Corolla. Now it’s the consummate freeway isolation box.

But Toyota is (usually) a quick study. Within a year or so, it offered the legendarily-durable 1600 cc hemi-head 2T-C engine. Especially when combined with the slick new 5-speed stick, it alleviated any lingering freeway-compatibility questions for the Corolla. If C/D‘s tester had been a 1600, it might well have won outright.

Corollas have generally been appreciated for their interior qualities, although that is in regression now too. Back in ’71, it offered a remarkably pleasant place to be, considering how small and light (1785 lb!) it was. C/D praised the remarkably roomy back seat (surprising for a tiny RWD car): “usually in critical supply in cars of this size” and the interior generally: “carpeting is standard, high quality vinyl is used to cover the seats and door panels and the whole package is coordinated in pleasing colors…the instrument panel is attractive and highly functional.”

A good friend bought the exact same car as this tester, for which she traded in a ’69 big-block Fury. Well, that sure ended the high-speed dashes across the heartland. As the energy crisis set in we piled into the Corolla for shorter-distance summer fun: skinny-dipping at the quarries that dot eastern Iowa. If you look carefully, you can still see the seam lines of a hot black vinyl Corolla seatback etched into my backside.

The sensations of barreling the Corolla 1200 down gravel country roads are equally etched in my memory. It was a (relatively) fun drive, in the classic light, small underpowered RWD way that has long gone the way of other automotive dinosaurs (not all the dinos were big). Very quick and light unassisted steering, maybe a hair imprecise. Remarkably light and crisp shifting tranny. Hair-trigger clutch. Brakes were so-so, even for the times. It may have felt “sporty,” but the 1200 could never reach sporty speeds straight ahead or in (paved) corners, where the Corolla perpetually wanted to assume the dog-at-hydrant pose.

Taking gravel corners quickly was another story. That generally has more to do with the driver than the car. But the Corolla was a balanced and confidence-inspiring drifter, and gravel was the only way to drift the underpowered cars back then; Iowa’s Not-So-Fast and Furious.

No doubt about the Corolla 1200 being pokey. It’s pretty obvious that Car and Driver‘s test Corolla wasn’t a “ringer.” Theirs clocked a pathetic 15.5 seconds 0-60, and even worse, tied the Beetle with a 19.8 second quarter mile. But it would get about 30 mpg, no matter how hard you flogged it (perpetually, out of necessity).

Elinor’s 1200 Corolla was totaled when she lent it to a friend. Doesn’t it always happen like that? But the replacement had the 1600, and the difference was very palpable: 100 horsepower for 1800 lb. That’s a better power-to-weight ratio than a new Corolla. Now, high-speed dashes across the desert in the Corolla were once again the order of the day.

So to answer the question we posed at the beginning, the Corolla was essentially what it is today: an efficient, economical, relatively comfortable appliance. But what really burnished the Corolla reputation over the years was its legendary reliability and durability. 1971 was a bit early to fully see that one coming, although Toyota ads of the time already crowed about their attention to materials and details. And the Corolla was already running reliability rings around the broken-down European competition (VW excepted).

So I assumed that I wouldn’t have any trouble finding a suitable Corolla to pose for me. Seems like just yesterday that these were everywhere. And serious rust is not an issue here. I started to get antsy after a few weeks of keeping my eyes peeled. Finally, on a bike ride, I gave a whoop when I saw this one a block down the street. You’d think I’d just found a Dino sitting at the curb.

This ’74 (with the add-on cow-catcher bumpers) has been owned by its loving owner since 1976. And her Land Cruiser creates a nice commentary on Toyota’s “growth.” Yes, folks do tend to come out and see what’s going on when someone is taking pictures of their beloved old car. But wariness quickly turns to appreciation, when they find out their car is going to have its fifteen minutes of fame. Or, in the Corolla’s case, forty years, which we celebrated here. The world’s best selling car for decades; who would have guessed that in 1971? Can Toyota keep it that way?

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51 Comments on “Curbside Classics: 1971 Small Cars Comparison: Number 3 — Toyota Corolla...”

  • avatar

    My brother had a Toyota Corona Mark II – early 70’s. Rust was a big problem. The car was originally in Wisconsin and then migrated to Illinois. Before the rust cancer took over, the car was quite satisfactory. Corona Mark II’s were sort of upscale.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Very nice review. If I only had a first gen Celica near your neck of the woods I’d be happy to lend it out.

    What amazes me even more are folks who keep the same car as a daily driver for 20+ years. I’ve actually contacted folks who apparently had their long-time owned cars traded in and invariably sent to the auctions. There’s one family in Tennessee who took his Volvo 240 wagon through their kid’s nursery schools, elementary schools, cheerleading practices, football games, college days and beyond.

    The folks and I had an hour long conversation at one of my sales. The car is now being taken care of by a very nice young couple who is willing to spend the time and attention needed to keep it beautiful.

    I love old cars… and I love old car stories.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Steve Lang; I’ve got the gen1 Celica covered already; another daily driver too.

    In fact, since my cars are all curbside finds, when I talk to owners a very high percentage of these cars have been either one owner, or passed along in the family, from a grandparent, uncle, parent, etc.

  • avatar

    Steven Lang :
    July 21st, 2009 at 10:11 am

    Very nice review. If I only had a first gen Celica near your neck of the woods I’d be happy to lend it out.

    One of my room mates in college had a 1st gen Celica. It was battered and bruised, but boy was it a blast tearing around town. We actually managed to squeeze 6 people in it once, 3 in front and 3 in back. Thank God no police saw us. He leased a Legend after graduating in ’93 and landing a job in Silicon Valley.

  • avatar

    I had a 72 Corolla wagon that I bought wrecked from an insurance auction for 60 bucks. Drove it like I stole it for 4 years and sold it for parts for three hundred. Now that’s value. I miss those days…

  • avatar

    Great job Paul N. Thanks.

    If any readers ever find themselves nearby Aichi Prefecture outside Nagoya, the Toyota Museum is a fantastic way to spend a day.

    It has an amazing collection of perfectly presented cars that become self explanatory as to what was occurring during the early 1970s.

  • avatar

    Corollas then and now share one thing (among others): they’re fugly. Some generations less than others.

    We had an AE82 (first gen FWD) at home once. Damn thing was indestructible. Nice handling, if the rear struts were in good condition, and extremely treacherous if not. Brakes were so so. Engine (4A-C) made the car feel peppy.

    I remember one night when I was coming back from the university, the bolt that held the alternator tensioner broke… dad and me found a stone, put below the alternator, checked belt tension, and off I continued to home.

    Dad’s Caprice was FAR more luxurious than the Toyota. Seeing it in retrospective, the car interior was crappy compared with the Chevy.

    Does the LC have the 4.5 DOHC 24V engine? or is the EFI 3F?

    Edit: Nice link. They even have 2 Isuzus at their museum. The 117 Coupe rocks.

  • avatar

    The Corolla is #3? I hope this doesn’t mean that the Vega is #1!

  • avatar

    Great article, but I must admit that I liked the “high-speed dashes across the heartland” link much more.

  • avatar

    I never had the pleasure of driving an early ’70s Corolla but I learned to drive in a 1972 Austin America. The speedometer cable broke the morning of my driving test and the examiner failed me because he said I was going too fast. I didn’t ask how he knew.
    The car died a rusty death in the driveway but the hydrolastic suspension had given out long before that. A great car plagued by the durability and dealer problems mentioned.
    It’s great to see old cars still being driven.

  • avatar

    Great article, and nice car. These have virtually disappeared from this area.

    Was the half-vinyl roof a factory option, or did the owner have it installed by the dealer?

  • avatar

    As a kid in 1973, people my parent’s age lamented on the Japanese imports’ cheapness and implied un-reliability because of so much plastic used in their construction, mainly the dash. I guess they got proved wrong!

  • avatar

    What I seem to remember about those early Toyautos
    was the choppy ride (one pundit described it as “oversprung and underdamped.”) and the Fiat-like early rusting in snow states. Hell, even in coastal California for that matter.
    But “constant improvement” eventually won the day.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    geeber: dealer-installed, for sure! It was 1974, and half-vinyl roofs were all the rage.

  • avatar

    After looking at a series of early 70s Japanese cars when I was a kid looking for my first vehicle, including a number of Corollas, I finally opted for a 1970 Datsun 510, which remains to this day my favorite car. A few modifications to the suspension and a new carb turned it into a quick little critter that was a real blast to drive.

    Sure, the electrics flummoxed me. At one point there was a fire in the dash for no apparent reason and sometimes I had to have a friend hold various wires together to make her start, but it was a riot nonetheless.

  • avatar

    It’s so funny to me to read about how ‘durable’ old Toyotas were. They sure weren’t durable in Maine! Sure, the motors would run forever, but after 5 years they would fail safety inspection due to the rust and off to the junkyard they went. All Japanese cars right up through the 80’s pretty much. My folks had a brand-new ’80 Subaru that had to have the sills welded when it was 2.5 years old! You will be hard pressed to find even a 15yo Toyota or Subaru in Maine today, never mind anything from the 70’s or 80’s.

    This is why Saabs and Volvos were revered here – sure they cost more, and you had to fix them more, but they didn’t rot out in five years. The cost issue was usually solved by buying them used, and from down south somewhere. Like NJ. :-)

  • avatar

    Paul I’m curious do you know whats the mileage of this example?

    Personally i think that 1st generation Corolla was actually the best looking of the long running model.
    I had the second generation which I believe came out in 75 I had a 76.

    Although both the Gremlin which lived on through the Spirit moniker with improvements and the Pinto which also did get some nominal improvements, Toyota really shined by giving the 2nd generation a complete with new body after only 6 years. Something the domestic competition didn’t believe in until they were taught that by the likes of Toyota and Nissan.

    I survived a horrific crash in my 76 Corolla when I ran a red light and was smashed by a large truck. My roof looked like a church steeple bent in the middle sticking straight up with the passenger side of the car punched all the way into to the drivers side. I was covered in blood and knocked out but it turned out that I only had a small cut on my finger. Never figured out how all that blood came from that small cut and no I wasn’t wearing seat belts.

    With an automatic transmission I got all of 19 MPG real world between fillups. I miss that old car and if I had not wrecked it I wonder how long I would have kept it.

  • avatar

    I’d be interested to hear what market changes triggered auto manufactures to start making rust resistant cars.

  • avatar

    This was my first car! Bought it used in ’72 with 10k miles for 1400 bucks. I beat it to teenage death for six years with no maintenance save a clutch repair and infrequent oil changes. Traded it for an Accord hatchback, 5-speed for about 5k new. That little vinyl-box was a great car, and your piece is spot on accurate. 70 MPH jaunts on the interstate were north of 4000 rpms with the 4 speed tranny.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Sherman Lin, I seem to remember her saying it had either 160k or 180k miles. I don’t think it’s been gettin used much in recent years.

    BTW, this is a gen2 Corolla, which was built from 1971 through 1974. Gen1 came out in 1966 in Japan, and was imported to the US from ’69 through ’70:

    Haven’t seen a gen1 for quite a while, althought hey used to be quite common in So Cal.

  • avatar

    Growing up in Michigan, I always heard the common wisdom that Japanese cars rusted badly. Indeed, my 1981 Celica GT had some nasty cancer behind the rear wheels and a few other places like the suspension… but I never had any mechanical problems until I sold it in 1991.

    However, my family had a lot of GM cars and I recall how our 1978 Buick Electra Estate wagon melted away from tinworm in about 6 years and my Dad’s Regal wasn’t much better in this regard.

    Let’s not even go into how British cars like my ’67 MGB would flake away after a few years of midwest winters enabling one to adopt a feet-down Fred Flintstone stopping style due to perforated floorbloards… Even pre-galvinized Porsche 911s are no joy to restore these days.

    I guess my question is whether or not there is any truth to the idea that Japanese cars rusted more readily than other cars of their era?

    Here in California I see as many old Japanese cars as I do old VW Rabbits and early 1970s American cars…more than I do when I visit my folks back in Michigan but no so ubiquitous that they don’t catch my eye when they do appear.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    stevelovescars: I guess my question is whether or not there is any truth to the idea that Japanese cars rusted more readily than other cars of their era?

    No. But some folks just like to point out the one main chink in the armor of Japanese cars of that era. There may have been some variations in degree of vulnerability, just like with all cars.

    The Europeans led the way in advanced rust-proofing methods in the seventies and early eighties. And they were adopted universally thereafter.

  • avatar
    Kevin Kluttz

    All I can say is: AE86 FOREVER!! That would be the 1985 Corolla GT-S Twin Cam 16 RWD. Like NO Corolla before or after. It was my first, 6th one now (wife’s ’92 Corolla, 265000 miles & new head gasket & new paint) is kinda retro, but still the proverbial Corolla. Fun as hell to drive, but the AE86 had nor has any competition.

    Then a few years later the Sentra SE-R came along…

  • avatar

    I think the difference is that here in Maine, we have a reasonably good safety inspection system. In fact, until the mid-80’s cars had to be safety inspected TWICE a year! PITA. And THE #1 thing that will fail a car is rust. No holes, no rust in structural areas. Non-structural rust holes could be bondo’d, but structural rust was the end, period. American cars still had big heavy frames in the 70’s, so generally they would last longer, even as the non-structural bodies got patched up. They generally died of mechanical failure before rusting out completely, but it was a race. Good European (Swedish and German) cars hit the sweet spot. Rusted relatively slowly, and good mechnicals. Just a few issues along the way. Italian and British cars simply dissolved here – they never had a chance.

    In rustbelt states with no inspection, I could see those old Corollas and B210s soldiering on for a looong time. A friend who went to school in WI had a Toyota pickup, mid/late 80’s vintage, that had absolutely NO floors in it. Just a sheet of plywood on each side. Big holes in the frame too. Scary!! But no inspection in WI, so he drove the thing for all four years of college and sold it to another student!

  • avatar

    The Corolla is #3? I hope this doesn’t mean that the Vega is #1!

    Ah, there was an era, you see, when Chrysler of all companies, made this car. It was named the Valiant, and it was one of the most bulletproof compacts of all time.

    That’s what I have my money on for number 1.

  • avatar

    @ Sherman Lin: when the Pinto, Vega and Gremlin came out the objective was not to change for the sake of change and just make mechanical improvements.Like the VW Beetle;the point was to reject the idea of “planned obsolescence” and offer value by concentrating on the mechanical rather than the cosmetic.

    Ford’s VP and others promised that the Pinto wouldn’t be changed for 5 years as far as the styling went.

    This was a selling point at the time: rather than spending money on yearly facelifts and rearranging trim, a stable design would become easier to build,pose fewer build and quality problems on the line, retain resale value because the current model wouldn’t become “last year’s car” over night, and cost less to produce over time. To me it’s still a virtue.

    The problem was that Detroit was bench marking a design that had been around in one form or another since IIRC, the 30s,not modern small cars
    from even their own firms.

    The Japanese just kept improving with each generation, looking forward and not backward.That’s why you got a fresh product 6 years into Detroit’s product cycle.

    U.S. trucks used to go 20 between design overhauls.

  • avatar

    CommanderFish: The Plymouth Valiant wasn’t featured in this test. Chrysler was represented by one of its “captive imports,” if I recall correctly.

  • avatar

    Car in pic is a 73, reason that very yr Uncle Sam introduced the 5 MPH front impact bumper and 3 for rear or same 5.

    My bro has one like that, it was great until loaned to a fnd who went to pick up some finger lickin good Fried Chicken from Colonel Sanders. He sailed across the road dead onto a Hydro pole. The car was totalled, he was OK. Kind of shaken but not stirred.

    And I bought a 73 Plymouth Cricket, it is a Mtisubishi Galant 1600 OHC Hemi. It was Ok, u dont wanna to mention Hemi with anybody in a car conversation. People would mistaken that u were referring to the Almighty fire breathing Mopar 426.

    Another year was the Oel Embargo, the days of big Vee Eight were numbered. Late Trick Dicky Nixon was impeached subsequent yr.

    OT yesterday I saw a newer Dodge I dont know what model, it could be Charger. He won the drag light Grand Prix from a Lexus IS 300 the pint size one.
    The Lexy had a loud nice sounded muffler, which
    by sound would have been very impressed.

  • avatar

    I’m guessing Vega is #2 and Honda Civic is #1

  • avatar

    Regarding rust, supposedly Piech was instrumental in driving down the cost of galvanizing sheet steel when he was at Audi. Audi did this because of warranty claim costs in their Canadian market.

    My college room-mate had this Toyota car, in utility-truck yellow. He spun it in the rain and tail-ended himself. He bought a brick-red one with a really-seized engine and 5 of us did an engine swap one drizzly Saturday afternoon, using common gardening tools.

  • avatar

    I say Vega No 2 and Datsun 510 No 1.

    Still see a fair amount of 70s Datsuns in Mexico.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    ^^^ agree. Also, there was no Civic in 1971. It was still the Z600.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Paul, I think we must long lost brothers from a past life (and no, I’m not spiritual in that sense).

    Same taste. Same experiences. Same attitudes. I’ve got to head out to Oregon some time.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Steve, I agree. And better you come here than the other way around. Sorry, but I’ve developed allergies to big cities and humidity.

  • avatar
    Number 6

    My first car was a ’74 Corona, with a 3-speed automatic. Probably a perfect high school car as it topped out at 65, maybe 70 going downhill. The car never had any mechanical issues but rust eventually got it. It’s true that there just isn’t anything like that early 70’s small car RWD feel.

    In the second paragraph it is indicated that the Opel Kadett is the number two finisher, so I guess that means the Vega will clinch it. Of course it is still 1971, so the Vega has no history at the time of the comparison. I think at the time the Vega was probably the best looking model and had the GM PR machine behind it to announce all sorts of technological advances (even including how the cars were shipped across the country). I wasn’t there but I would guess the Vega came in with a lot of fanfare that quickly quelled once the complaints started rolling in.

    In theory the Vega wasn’t a bad concept it was just horribly executed, all the way around.

  • avatar

    I think C&D might have missed a few:Dodge (Mitubishi) Colt
    Fiat 128
    Plymouth Cricket (Hillman Avenger)
    Datsun 1200 (B110)
    Mazda 1200Maybe C&D couldn’t find samples since I believe the first year in the US for many of the above was 1971. It’s a shame because the Colt seemed to be as reliable as the Toyota (and it was better looking, too). While the same certainly can’t be said of the 128, when new (before they had a chance to start having problems), they were decent enough. In that group, the B110 was probably alright, as well.

    But the Plymouth Cricket? Well, I doubt whether that one would have finished very high up on the list. The Mazda 1200 isn’t on the list because, like the Datsun, it was probably only available in certain regions and was tough to come by in 1971.

    But then, as someone else pointed out, why would anyone put themselves through the misery of owning any of these crude, slow, shitboxes when they could easily get an infinitely more reliable (but less gas stingy) stripped Plymouth Valiant for close to the same money? Hell, even a Nova, Maverick, or Hornet would be better than anything in the test.

    As to the Opel Kadett, well, C&D had quite an infamous run-in with GM a few years earlier when they panned the car badly to the point of running a photo of a new, 1968 Kadett in a junkyard. GM pulled all their ads and I would imagine they didn’t supply many cars for tests (no Opel Kadetts anyway) for a long time afterwards.

  • avatar

    miso_hot: The Honda Civic hadn’t been introduced to the American market yet in 1971, when this comparison test took place.

    Number 6: I don’t think that the Opel Kadett was in that test. The article says that the Kadett was the number-two seller among imported cars, not the number-two finisher in the test.

  • avatar

    When I was a teenager, we had a 75 Corolla and a 75 Vette (with the hideous combination of an automatic and the 2 bbl) along with a Gran Torino. I had no problem getting permission to take the Vette or the Torino, but it was strictly hands off when it came to that Corolla. That was my dads baby.

  • avatar

    Well, that sure brings back memories! My dad had exactly the same car as the one pictured in the article, a 1974 Corolla 1600 two door sedan. He bought it in response to gas crisis #1. At the time the family was living in Montreal, famous for -20’C winters. The extended family all chuckled, “Hehe, that thing will never start in the winter!” But it did. It never failed to start when we were dumping cans of ether in mom’s Pontiac to get it going. Stomp on the gas once, push the clutch and away it went, even without a block heater. This was something no domestic could accomplish circa 1975, then cold starting was somewhat like witchcraft.

    I learned to drive in that car at the age of 11. Dad would take me to deserted roads and let me drive. I mastered the standard transmission in like a week. Even then it had a hydraulic clutch, so the clutch and shifter were excellent.

    It was noisy as heck, rode like a buckboard but it never failed to start and go. I took my driver’s licence test on it at age 16 and was given the car as my first driver. I had to slop out the barns in return for payment. By this time my family had moved to Vancouver Island and the Corolla was showing its age. It had seen too much road salt. I drove it to the Yukon, I drove it to Mexico. My my last year of my Bachelor’s degree in 1987 it was 13 years old and had 260,000 miles on it. Not a single major component was ever changed, nothing, not a starter, not a water pump. Nada, zilch!

    In that last year of school, my buddy and I were burning down a logging road with my canoe on top and 24 pack in the cooler in the back. I hit a deep chuck hole and the right strut flew right through the hood. I lost control but managed to slow it down enough that crashing backwards into a tree didn’t kill us. The car was a wreck and so was the canoe. At that point, we did the only thing we could under the circumstances: we sat down and drank the beer. About 20 beers later a Chevy truck came down the road and gave us a lift home. The Corolla is probably still there as a rabbit’s den.

    There has never been anything but Japanese cars in my family since the Corolla. That car was just so good we stayed with them and I can honestly say none of us has ever had a truly bad Honda or Toyota. All of them did exactly what they were supposed to do.

  • avatar

    @Canucknucklehead: And yet another story that pretty much explains how GM Ford and Chrysler lost a couple of generations of car buyers to the Japanese.

    Great insights.

    Similar to my Dad’s experience with his Subaru : never a problem, always started and ran in the ridiculous cold of an Iowa winter. Positive memories.

  • avatar

    I don’t know if you can find empirical data regarding the susceptibility of Japanese cars to rust, but here in Ohio, it was rare to see a decade-old Japanese car until about the year 2000 or thereabouts. “Japanese Metal Termites” were the cause.

    Even today, I see more Accords with rust on them than any other mid-sizer. The pro-Honda person in me thinks this is because they are less likely to be junked for mechanical reasons.

  • avatar

    It’s certainly true that the Japanese cars of the 70’s rusted like hell, but then, everything did, so while it was bad, the American iron wasn’t much better. I vividly remember seeing a Ford sedan in the mid 70’s that shook me because the trunk lid was completely rusted through above the bottom edge – the panel – not the edge.

    This greatly disturbed me because the Ford was less than 3 years old. I remember thinking that even if you dropped the car into a salt water pond and left it there for 3 years, it would be hard to get it to rust through that fast.

    So, yeah, if you bought a Japanese car you had it “Zeibarted” and prayed, but at least the damn things would start and run….. not so true with the American emission-controlled cars.

  • avatar

    The rust issue may be why Japanese cars became popular in California before the rest of the country-no rust problems here, and the rest of the cars were uber-solid.

  • avatar

    “And the Corolla was already running reliability rings around the broken-down European competition (VW excepted).”
    Having spent a lot of time bailing out girls who bought their 4th hand bug because it was cute, I never caught on to the vaunted reliablity of the VW. It always appeared to me to be a cheap car with a lot of design quirks that eventually became liabilities when reliable Toyotas, Datsuns and Hondas came along. Maybe people chose the Toyota because they liked luxuries like defrosters that actually defrosted your windsheild and heaters that didn’t roast your feet. Or as I told a co worker who owned a veritable fleet of bugs and vans and spoke of them with cultlike reverence; “why own that cantankerous POS when you could actually drive a good car?” A week later he bought a Toyota pickup truck and sold his VW’s.

    As for the sophisticated front wheel drive imports of the time; I owned a Fiat 128 coupe. It was a kick to drive, when it drove. Near as I could tell the men who installed the wiring were paid by the meters of wire and numbers of relays used. And don’t get me started on the epic level of body rot. As most American owners learned FIAT stood for ‘fix it again Tony,” and 128 was the number things going wrong with the car at any given time, a masterpiece of crisis management in motion. I learned a lot about auto mechanics with that little car, most of all I learned to never buy a car made in Italy unless I’ve reached critical mass and the car has a cavalino on its flanks.
    What a joy (in a freudenschade sort of way) it is to know after all these years FIATs will once again make their way across the sea to the US and be found on my local Chrysler dealer’s showroom floor. I might even take one out for a test drive, but I’ll drive home in my Mustang.

  • avatar
    Anna Mac

    My first husband became a millionaire in San Francisco repairing these little rice grinders. People used to climb in and drive them like the family Electra only to have the pistons crack and assorted other small issues that impeded forward momentum.

    And, AND, in the SF Bay Area, everything rusted eventually. But NOTHING rusted faster than Datsuns and Toyotas, except possibly Jaguars and Fiats. My cousin’s Corolla started showing surface rust when it was just two years old and she lived inland at San Jose. Her dealer said it was the malathion spraying. Right.

  • avatar

    It’s a shame that the Fiat 128 was such an unmitigated POS (as all Fiats were). Those little 3-box sedans were the most practical (and infinitely better looking) than anything else produced during the era (including Corollas and Civics).

    If Fiat could have gotten their quality act together in the seventies, there’s no doubt that it would be the Italians (and not the Japanese) who would be the largest auto manufacturers in the world today.

  • avatar

    fiats get a bad rap in the us. my dad had a ’74 124 that was a total blast. 5 speed, great clutch, fuel injected, 4 wheel disks and a wooden dash! rusted away… fast. replaced it with a ’79, this time ziebarted. the real problem was the crappy dealer network. it was just criminal what those morons did to the aluminum block…

  • avatar

    1785 lb!!! Geez, those were the days…

  • avatar

    “My first husband became a millionaire in San Francisco repairing these little rice grinders. People used to climb in and drive them like the family Electra only to have the pistons crack and assorted other small issues that impeded forward momentum.”

    Pistons Crack?

    I love when people rip on Toyota’s(esp one’s from 1971-1992-ish) calling them “crap”, when their American Counterparts usually needed engine rebuilds every 4 days.

    I would drive this Corolla over that miserable Electra anyday, anytime. It would actually start in the morning.

  • avatar

    My only new-bought car was a 1974 Corolla, bought at Hampshire Toyota in Northampton MA for $2367. The salesman was named Joel Leavitt. A new car was a big deal for a 19-yr-old kid in April 1974 and I remember every detail like it was yesterday. I also remember when the mighty 1200cc engine had a connecting rod come loose and stop the engine dead on I-84 in May 1977, two months after I made the last payment, but that’s a whole new batch of swear words. I do remember buying a set of Semperit radials (155SR12) for this car in 1975 which improved the handling no end. Not having to slow down for curves to hold traction really made going from point A to point B a faster proposition.

    Excellent car for a college kid during the 1970s. Cheap to fill up, easy to work on but do I wish I’d sprung for the 1600cc engine! One other bit of fun was to pull up to a filling station and let the attendant spend five minutes looking for the gas cap. (It’s under the dummy exhaust vent on the left-side C-pillar.)

  • avatar

    This car might have changed the world, but it does absolutely nothing for me. Boring, bland, ugly, no style whatsoever. Much like modern Toyotas. I would rather have a stylish imperfect car than a bland car that runs perfectly. Give me a Yank tank over this tin can any day.

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