With the prices of the most popular models entering unattainable status for a lot of younger JNCers, we felt it necessary to highlight some painfully overlooked yet still affordable (for now) nostalgics. Welcome to another Consider the Following installment, in which we consider the RT40 Toyota Corona.
Normally we talk about cars that are almost completely forgotten here on CtF, either because the generation before or after overshadowed them, or because they just got lost in the fray. Today, were actually going to talk about a car that’s pretty well known here at JNC, the shovelnose RT40 Corona, also known as the Barikan Corona. The reason being, it’s actually one of the most important classic Toyotas, and relative to its Corolla and Celica peers, it is criminally undervalued.
The previous generation RT20 Corona had styling that looked like it had been designed 10 years prior and was barely above the minimum standard of a car that was acceptable to western buyers. The car was largely marketed to women, and Toyota as a whole was considered as much of a lesser brand relative to other cars of the era. The engine that Toyota utilized in the T20 was shared with the larger S30 Crown, which was a complete flop in American markets. However, “acceptable” was not going to cut it for any respectable Japanese brand with the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics on the horizon.
The 1964 Olympics were a watershed moment for the Japanese automotive industry, and for Japan as a whole. Just 19 years prior, much of the country was left in ruins after World War II. For the Olympics, Japan held the world’s attention and they wanted to show how much they had advanced after the Second World War. Throughout the 1950s and early 60s, Japan’s products had been considered quaint and sub-par as the country rebuilt.
The RT40 arrived on the heels of Toyota’s largest competitor, Nissan, who had just released the Nissan Bluebird 411. The Bluebird was clad in a Pininfarina designed body and featured a minimum output of 60 horsepower. Following suit a year later, when Toyota released their new RT40 body style, they employed a lineup of new engine designs that proved both more powerful and more reliable than the previous P and R engines of the T20 era.
The result was a strikingly beautiful sporty body featuring a modest arch from bow to stern, a tall glass house and a recessed grille. The grille and front fender design was called an “arrowline” by Toyota and is without a doubt the most defining feature of the car. With seemingly the entire front of the car clad in either stainless steel or chrome, the car garnered the nickname Barikan, the Japanese word for an electric razor.
The RT40 debuted in September of 1964, right before the Summer Olympics, and event that prompted engineering feats like the first trans-Pacific television broadcast, the bullet train, and the newly completed Meishin Expressway. Toyota seized on the public’s fascination with the new expressway system as an opportunity to prove the dependability of the Corona’s powerful engines. They ran the cars for 100,000 trouble-free kilometers at a speed of 87 mph, a speed previously not possible on Japan’s network of rural roads. The publicity stunt paid off, and the Corona soon became the crowning jewel of the Toyota lineup.
“It’s performance, economy, luxury and handling made it a top choice. MOTOR TREND staffers loved it.” — Motor Trend, August 1965
Once the Corona got into the hands of the automotive press around the world and reviews began to come back, there was nothing but the highest of praise. It is particularly noteworthy because earlier Japanese car reviews were pretty brutal, describing them as too small, crude or underpowered for the western consumer. It is also worth noting that there was still a strong racist or nationalist fervor in the public regarding imported cars, especially ones from Japan.
The Corona was the first crack in the armor of that sentiment as it became known for punching far above their weight in all aspects, not only in reviews for the general public but also in motorsport. When Toyota sent three Coronas to run at Bathurst in the 1965 Armstrong 500. The goal was simply to have each of them cross the finish line. In Australia, Bathurst was considered the end all be all of motorsport.
When the plucky Coronas arrived, not only did they finish as Toyota wanted, but they had stacked the podium. Losing out only to a questionably powerful factory-backed Ford Cortina 240 meant that the Australian public was positively blown away. Even the seemingly untouchable Mini Coopers that dominated the class ended up completely absent from the podium. With that, the following Monday Toyota opened their dealership doors as a renewed brand. By the end of 1965, the Toyota Corona was the top Japanese automotive export at over 80,000 units.
Meanwhile, back at home in the Japanese market, the Corona was also doing astonishingly well. It was holding its own in Toyota’s war against the Nissan Bluebird, called the “BC War” in Japanese automotive circles, and tit for tat met and bested each of the Nissan performance Bluebirds. Starting in 1965, to beat the Nissan Bluebird SS and Bluebird SSS models, Toyota unveiled the Corona 1600 S. It featured a 90-horsepower 4R engine sporting twin SU carburetors, disc brakes, bucket seats, a four-on-the–floor transmission and a tachometer. To add to Toyota’s list of firsts accomplished with this car, they added a 2-door Corona coupe to their lineup, the first post-war pillarless coupe to come from Japan.
The culmination of the generation was in 1967, when Toyota released the ultimate Corona called the 1600GT featuring a 9R engine derived from the holy grail of all JNCs, the 2000GT. Although only a 4-cylinder, the 9R engine boasted a aluminum alloy Yamaha developed DOHC cylinder head with twin side-draft carburetors and an output of 110 horsepower.
Marketed as the little brother to the 2000GT, it was the closest that most of the public could get to owning the first Japanese supercar. The car was distinguished aesthetically by it’s fender mounted intake vent, more pronounced fender flares, a 2000GT-esque grille and canary yellow paint. Sold in both 4-speed and 5-speed variants, all 2,222 models produced were sold out within 13 months of it’s release and to date is one of the most sought after Toyota models ever produced.
Once put into competition, the 1600 GT, or “Coro G” as it became known to the Japanese public, was an absolute hammer on the track. Out of the box, it won its first race, besting competition that included well-known cars such as the Isuzu Bellett GT, Bluebird SSS, and Fairlady 2000. It combined everything desirable into a single car: it was lightweight, nimble, and — with over 150 horsepower on tap in race guise — brutally fast.
Haruhisa Takahashi was even able to pilot a 1600 GT to a first place finish over the legendary Hakosuka GT-R in the 1969 Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway. Unfortunately, Nissan successfully protested this action and the final win went to the GT-R. For a 4-cylinder car to out-drive proto-Godzilla is still quite an accomplishment though.
One of the greatest signs of a car’s success is when another company will license the design, via captive importing or CKDs (Complete Knock Downs). A knock-down kit of the Corona was made by South Korea’s Shinjin Motors, who would eventually split into Daewoo and Ssangyong. The car was virtually identical, sans a few badges, to the Toyota Corona and had similar build quality. As a result, it did very well in the Korean market. Today these Shinjin Coronas are extremely rare and are considered very collectible to Korean automobile aficionados. Toyota only stopped their partnership with Shinjin because they were moving into the Chinese market and, in the early 1970s, the Chinese government refused to allow any businesses to import there if they were also importing to Taiwan or South Korea.
The Corona was nearly a brand in of itself in the late 60s. Toyota had seemingly endless variants. Need a ute? Get the Corona Pickup. Need a wagon? Corona Wagon. Sports car? Corona 1600 S. So what happened? In California in the 1960s, it was as common as the VW Beetle, and arguably saved Toyota USA from the sales flop of the S30 Crown. How did a car of the Corona’s historic significance end up selling consistently for $2-5,000 in America 50 years later?
It’s hard to say, exactly. Likely, it’s a combination of the later generations of Corolla eclipsing the car’s performance and the transformation of the Corona in subsequent generations in the US into a relatively dull sedan. While in Japan and Australia the Corona is known for being the first Toyota sports sedan, stateside it’s merely a well-built compact car. It broke the mold for Toyota in our country, but to the general public, the Corona name doesn’t have the same resonance as Corolla or Celica. In Japan the T40 Corona sells regularly in the range of $8,000-$11,000, and that’s before you get into the really rare stuff like the 1600GT.
It really is an oversight that the RT40 Corona is still worth pennies relative to its peers. For someone who’s looking for a collectible car that hasn’t hit the stratosphere yet, it would be foolish to not consider the Corona with all of it’s history and racing pedigree. Even the lower trim levels are one of the last attainable chrome bumper Toyotas. I’ve passed on two chances to pick up a Barikan, and as I write I ask myself, how many more chances do I have? I should probably invest in one soon before I kick myself over it.