By on March 10, 2010

Despite the fact that I’m not superstitious or religious, I’ve learned to gracefully accept that certain things seem to happen as if a bigger hand were at work; as though some things were preordained. One year ago exactly, I stumbled on this old Cadillac (actually a ’72, it turns out), and it inspired my first Curbside Classic. It started out about the year I turned eighteen and left home, and hitched a ride in one just like it. But it ended up as a rambling reflection on the fall of Cadillac, the economic circumstances of 1971, and how they’ve changed since then. One year and a hundred Curbside Classics later, I decided to revisit the old DeVille, to see what it might have to say to me now, and to indulge in some more musings. And what has taken up residence with it? A 1976 Toyota Corolla. A mere coincidence, of course. But one that is mighty pregnant with symbolism.

Let’s get the personal story out of the way first. These two cars perfectly mark two significant transitions in my life. I hitched off into the sunset (a blizzard, actually) as an optimistic eighteen year old in the comforting bosom of the big Caddy. And I spent the next five years in the self-indulgent wilderness of callow youth, following every whim and scent of a pretty girl. In 1976, in an act that reflected the times on numerous levels, my then-GF’s Mom sold her house, traded in her big-block 1969 Plymouth Fury for a 1976 Corolla, and drove off to California. Duly inspired, I followed a few months later. Her Corolla became a symbol for shedding off the old, and for the bright future that Japanese-car-crazy California represented.

I’m not going to talk much about this actual Corolla, having mostly exhausted the subject in several chapters a few years back. And we’ll come back to revisit some of the innumerable vintage Corollas here. Let’s just say it was the finest shit box ever made, and the perfect yin to the Caddy’s yang. My heart-felt memories of the Corolla’s influential role in my life and its surprising ability to warp the time-space continuum can be found here. My celebration of the Corolla’s remarkable history on the occasion of its fortieth birthday is here. And my less than enthusiastic review of the current Corolla is here. So what more can this old Toyota get me to say?

Times stands still for no car. Or person. Or state, or country. It’s easy to fall back on the memories of how it used to be, when California and Toyota were the hot new thing, the trend makers, the bright promise for the future. In 1976, their star was on the rise. And there was no more greater moment in time when California seemed like it was truly above the fray, invincible to the powers of economic turmoil and destruction than in 1981, when the rest of the country was ravaged by the worst recession since the Depression.

That nasty event made the term “Rust Belt” ubiquitous. The traditional manufacturing heartland of upper mid-west America had its heart ripped out, and started a decline in Detroit that now has that city planning on razing hundreds of its acres of abandoned neighborhoods and turning them back to farm land.

But California was unfazed by that recession, fed by the aerospace and defense industries thanks to Reagan’s military spending boom and the growth of the entertainment industry and Silicon Valley. Moving to California and trading in your tired Detroit iron on a Toyota were the smart thing to do. And hundreds of thousands did just that, every year.

The old saying is, as goes California, so goes the rest of the country. And despite the protestations from many, it’s been all too true. Everyone sips lattes now, even if it is at MacDonalds. Gays were once a San Francisco thing. Organic fresh food was something hippies ate. And Toyotas were what those those wacky Californians drove. And now take a look at ourselves, in the vanity mirror of our Camry, Highlander or Tundra. We’re all Californians now, whether we like it or not.

Or should I say for better or for worse? California is in crisis, ungovernable and practically bankrupt. Does that sound a little too familiar? And how is Toyota faring these days? Well, at least they’re not in a total state of denial. But just as California will never again be the promised land and the last frontier, so will Toyota never again be the rising new star.

It’s a remarkable change in a few decades’ time. In the eighties, California and Japan were the Pacific Rim tigers, brimming with self confidence. I can’t fully explain California’s woes here, but what about Toyota’s? Did they become the new GM? Has this Corolla joined the old Caddy in the brotherhood of past faded glories? Are they the poster children of hubris and over-expansion? Is it the invisible hand that set up Toyota for the fall just after they succeeded GM as the world’s largest auto manufacturer? And what car will be there with them a year from now?

Cadillac earned the title “The Standard Of The World” because it pioneered precision manufacturing, allowing any component to be interchanged. That was radical and unheard of in 1903. But the real meaning of that slogan was long forgotten in 1971.This DeVille marked the final turning point in Cadillac’s and GM’s trajectory. By 1976,  Toyota was earning the title of the most reliable affordable little car in the world with the Corolla. By 2007 its double cab Tundra would cast quite a shadow even on the big Caddy. Is the Tundra Toyota’s 1971 DeVille?

Toyota and California have changed us beyond anything we might have imagined in 1971, when this DeVille was still the crowning glory of the land. Go ahead, those of you that want to be nostalgic for its reign. And you too, the carriers of the Toyota flame. But its not really a war anymore; cultural, automotive, economic or otherwise. It’s now well beyond winners or losers; everyone has already lost. Toyota has fallen from its pedestal, and perhaps in some ways for the better. And it started before the UA fad. And so has California; hell, they’ve even forgotten how to drive and control a car there. Not to mention their state. What’s that old saying about California again?

The recent NHTSA data dives have convinced me of one thing: GM’s consistently low UA rate is not a fluke. Nor is Toyota’s relatively high one. At the risk of sounding like a Congressman, why don’t the two of you exchange phone numbers and set up a little pow-wow on the subject? GM owes Toyota a favor anyway, having been invited into their secret house of just-in-time manufacturing via NUMMI twenty five years ago. And wouldn’t that make an awesome and symbolic photo-op?

Predicting the future is a folly. Perhaps Toyota and California will both figure out how what’s out of control, and fix it. A constitutional convention and a reboot button on the dash, perhaps. Or is UA just a societal symptom of our inability to manage our runaway government deficits? Or perhaps a handy distraction from them.

Here’s the scoop on these two Curbside Classics: the owner of both of them picked up the Corolla because the old Caddy isn’t that great for running errands. But he’s emotionally attached to it and keeps it going. But if the Toyota craps out, it’s history. And what will take its place? See you next March 10th.

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15 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1976 Toyota Corolla Liftback...”

  • avatar

    “Is the Tundra Toyota’s 1971 DeVille?”

    In my mind, the redesigned Sequoia is.

  • avatar

    Compare this ’76 Corolla to the ’76 Accord. I did. Honda wins and Toyota looks like an also-ran. Toyota was traditional with it’s engine layout and rear transmission, and Honda looked revolutionary with transverse mounted engine and front wheel drive. The Corolla looked like the past, and the Accord looked like the future.

    It wasn’t until the Toyota Tercel that Toyota decided to catch up, and back then, the Tercel had front wheel drive with a longitudal engine combo. They still didn’t want to go full-tilt, even after Chrysler was doing it.

    Toyota, Datsun and Honda all fell into an image group of “Japanese cars” that had this halo over them, even as each struggled with their own design problems and mistakes. When one put out a POS, the others didn’t, and this halo remained – right up to today! The only failure of this era that damaged a Japanese brand was Mazda’s rotary engines. Even ugly Subarus got street cred although they used Boxer engines and looked like Martian turds. The Boomers fell in love with “Japanese cars”, and are still in love with them.

    • 0 avatar

      As a California college student in this era, I did compare the Corolla and the Accord – I bought my first new car, a 1977 Corolla SR-5 liftback. Its RWD and longitudinal engine placement wasn’t a negative, it delivered a ride, cornering and ability to repair most akin to what I was used to at that point. My friend’s CVCC Civic seemed most unusual by comparison.

      Wow, the stories I generated from owning this thing: driving to Ensenada from the Bay Area (getting pulled over three times en route; having my Spanish-fluent girlfriend yelling at the Mexican officer trying to cite us the third time until he slowly backed away); getting new gas shocks and pushing their abilities right in front of a parked police cruiser; eventually using this now-beater as a pickup truck, hauling all manner of home improvement crap for the first house; selling it 8 years later for about 2/3 what I paid for it.

      Not bad for a shit-box.

      Awesome trip in the way-back machine, Paul. For some time, my Corolla shared a driveway with my Dad’s 1972 heavily-optioned Chevy Impala, so the juxtaposition also rings familiar.

      Indeed, it could be time that the apprentice learns new lessons from the master. My 17-year-old just last night (who drives a well-used Cavalier) as we discussed Toyota’s current ills said, “I’ll never drive a Japanese car, it’s American all the way for me.”

  • avatar

    A friend’s father purchased a new 76 Corolla. It seemed nearly as advanced as the 76 Accord at the time, except for the rear wheel drive.

    I remember being horrified at the complexity of the Corolla under the hood, thinking “I’d hate to work on that thing”. But it gave them many years of great service until it finally rusted out.

    • 0 avatar

      My ’75 Mustang II…that was a s***box.

      The ’78 Corolla SR-5 liftback that I bought new to replace it?

      Great car. 70,000 trouble free miles over 5 years.

      Only dumped it because I was bored. Traded it for a new ’84 Civic which gave me 144,000 trouble free miles over 14 years.

      But I’m betting the SR-5 would have, if I’d have kept it.

      Always liked how the lines were a not-quite ripoff of the Volvo ES1800 glass hatch.

  • avatar

    Another beauty from Toyota’s “Let’s copy the Mustang front end” era, which lasted through most of the 70s.

    Yup, the Japs did it before the Koreans and Chinese.

  • avatar
    Amendment X

    Brilliant writing Paul.

    I think it’s safe to say that Hyundai is poised to be the next top automaker. It will take maybe five more years, but it is pretty much inevitable. Companies reach the top, decay, and others move in and take their place as the leader. It happens with countries and empires, too.

    After Hyundai reigns from 2015-2020, Tata or a Chinese company will become #1. And on marches history…

  • avatar

    My friend had one of these in high school, a yellow SR5. I do not recall being impressed but I couldn’t claim to have a better car, a POS 1980 Mustang.

  • avatar

    These were great cars. My friend bought one, and I, trying to do the patriotic thing, bought a Ford F150 pickup. His car ran flawlessly, while I learned mechanical skills on my F150, as damn near every part on that thing had to be replaced. This is the era that taught me to never ever buy an American brand again. Ford basically told me to pound sand when I tried to get them to correct the problems.They may be making great cars now, but I will never be a customer. This, in a nutshell, is why the American auto industry is where they are today, and why Toyota is destined for the same fate if they don’t get their act together and learn how to properly treat their customers.

  • avatar

    GM’s low UA rate is somewhat surprising, since I don’t think they have a brake override system.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s because Brake-Overide does not prevent SUA, and absence of Brake-Overide does not guarantee SUA. The prevention and cause of SUA is due to other factors, some of which still seem to be poorly understood by Toyota.

  • avatar

    My first “new” car was a sales demo ’77 Corolla SR5 that replaced a ’65 VW Beetle. The car was a huge step up from the VW with actual heat in the passenger compartment and a real electrical system that could handle a stereo. It was eminently tossable with its great power/weight ratio and fine 5spd, and I had great fun with it on a couple of road trips. And then winter returned to the midwest, bringing massive snowfalls even by Lake Michigan area standards. That’s when the light weight and RWD showed me just how functional the VW had been with it’s engine weight properly placed above the drive wheels. Months of digging/pushing the Corolla out of even small amounts of snow left me so disillusioned that I replaced it that summer with my first Subaru.

  • avatar

    I don’t know if it is still true, but every GM car I’ve driven over the years had a gas pedal that sat noticeably further away from the driver than the brake pedal did, and the brake pedal was much wider (assuming an automatic here.)

    By comparison, the brake pedals on other cars I’ve driven have been narrower (although not as narrow as a standard transmission brake pedal) and the gas pedal was as close to the driver (more or less) as the brake pedal.

    Back when Audi’s UA problems surfaced, I remember two things that were assumed to be contributory: the gas and brake pedals being the same distance from the driver, and the driver being relatively unfamiliar with the car.

    If you assume UA is (under most conditions) driver error, then something about GMs products reduce driver error, and my bet’s on the gas/brake distance distance and the width of the brake pedal.

  • avatar

    Had a yellow 78 liftback with the 1.6L 2T-C and 4 on the floor.

    The car was a rusted out deathtrap filled with electrical problems…

    A deathtrap that never failed to start even if I had to push it but still a deathtrap.

    I had to leave the headlights on when it was running so it wouldn’t overcharge/explode the battery.

    I wuvved her soo much…

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