How the Toyota Corolla Changed American Motoring

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Fifty years is a very long time. If you think about America 50 years ago, the synthesizer had just begun to find its way into mainstream music, a ’32 T-Bucket was as commonly street raced as a EF/EG/EK Civic in the 90s, and Japanese cars were about as popular in America as a Chinese-made car is today. A car enthusiast in 1968 would have to defend their choice of a Japanese car much like how a car enthusiast today has to defend not having a Japanese car. 50 years ago this year the Toyota Corolla was also introduced to the world. Although it would not reach US shores for another two years, we are going to look at how it revolutionized the American motoring experience. 

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Prior to the Corolla, this was the standard of America cars. Massive size, close to the size of a large SUV today, usually powered by a slant-six or V8 with displacements hovering around 5.0 liters. The handling was appalling with suspension that hadn’t seen any major upgrades since the early 1950s. As far as a commuter car goes the Volkswagen Beetle was leaps and bounds ahead of anything else offered by competitors and that was designed in the 1930s.

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There was however, a small but growing market for Japanese cars, which had recently begun receive a huge boost in credibility by Datsun and Yutaka Katayama’s racing exploits. Toyota was not yet a house hold name but that was soon to change with the importation of their new Corolla chassis, which had become a very popular car in their home market of Japan. The Japanese had known this was a cheap car of market-breaking reliability already but in America they had to over come the stigma of imported cars being shoddy.

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The stigma originated with countless brands trying to enter the American market with little understanding of the American consumer. Cars like the Citroen DS offered groundbreaking innovation but were so complicated that the local mechanic wouldn’t be equipped to properly maintain the car until it inevitably fell into disrepair. Other cars such as Alfa Romeo, Mini and Triumph offered immense performance for their size but would in fact have issues with reliability.

By the time the Japanese came to the scene, it was expected that they would fail or offer something so bare-bones they would have to compete with the untouchable and proven VW Beetle. Toyota, however, offered something different. They offered the KE10 Corolla, something with construction so simple a caveman could service it and enough performance to shatter that stigma of a poorly built, boring car.

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The timing couldn’t have been better, with the fuel crisis of 1973 combined with the environmental and road safety movements of the era causing market-dominating American V8s to struggle as they tried to keep up with new emissions and safety laws. Suddenly, having a 440 cubic inch V8 with fuel economy south of 15 mpg wasn’t worth the effort, and the market was handed to Toyota, whom had recently made a more powerful and refined TE27 Corolla.

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Families were beginning to buy Japanese cars as their first choice, no longer “settling” for an “oriental” car. The American car makes were struggling to keep up with lousy attempts to replicate these cars with offerings like the Chevy Vega or Ford Pinto (ask your mom about how well those were received). The Corolla was suddenly becoming the cool car to get for those in the know, especially with performance variants like the Corolla SR-5, which were more fun than the malaise era muscle cars like the Mustang II and Dodge Magnum. By the end of the 1970s, perennially mismanaged Chrysler had even worked themselves into a bailout from not being able to keep up.

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By the dawn of the 1980s, it was an accepted fact that the Japanese were here to stay, anyone who doubted that was in denial. While Bruce Springsteen was singing about his Pink Cadillac, the V8 behemoths of old began to hit rock bottom pricing, you couldn’t give a muscle car away half the time. Older Corollas were even beginning to make their way into the hands of younger owners who had a need for speed. During this era California was beginning to see kids, often nisei children of Japanese immigrants, take their TE27 Corollas to the street races, previously dominated by V8s, while their mom’s were down the street filling Ralph’s parking lots, previously dominated by L6 Novas, with their TE72 Corollas.

In the mid 80s Toyota released what is arguably the sexiest car of the 80s. The AE82 Corolla. I’m kidding, it was the AE86 Corolla. Proving that not only was the Corolla an economical car capable of power but could also pick up the babe from the fitness club for a night of Phil Collins and chill. Little did anyone know, in 20 years it would be the darling of the burgeoning drifting community.

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Concurrently with the AE86, Toyota sold a front-wheel-drive Corolla, built for the first time in the US. Even more of a shocker, it was built at a joint-venture plant with the most American of automakers, General Motors. While we may long for the golden age of rear-drive ‘Rollas, it was these insanely affordable, front-drive models that really catapulted the Corolla into ubiquity. And with the Corolla sold through GM dealers rebadged with the name of a well-respected V8 muscle car, the Chevy Nova, the transformation of America’s car-buying tastes was complete.

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In 1988, all Corollas became front-wheel-drive. That didn’t mean that Toyota had given up on keeping everyone happy. They still had the SR5 and GT-S coupes and the phenomenal FX-16 hatchback, the latter of which seriously needs a comeback.

By the time the Corolla had reached the 90s, it had changed the automotive landscape and the AE101 Corolla became the best-selling car worldwide. The Corolla has proven over the last 50 years that you can have a fun, economical, and practical car all at the same time. Here’s to you Toyota Corolla, it will be fun to see what you can show us in the next 50 years when we’re perusing the greens at Concurs D’Elegance admiring the TE27 SR5 with cyborg Jay Leno announcing top honors to the last stock Corolla GT-S in existence.

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11 Responses to How the Toyota Corolla Changed American Motoring

  1. XRaider said:

    “Proving that not only was the Corolla an economical car capable of power but could also pick up the babe from the fitness club for a night of Phil Collins and chill” No Jacket Required in an AE86 Corolla? Sounds like a good track between car and music……

  2. Scotty G said:

    Nice work, sir. I literally dream about finding another ’71 wagon someday. The cable-pulley under the right side of the dash (for the clutch cable) used to bend and break every few months and I could take it off, weld it, and put it back on again in an hour. Like a time trial..
    I loved that car.

  3. Tim Mings said:

    “32 T- bucket”? I’ll have to keep my eyes open for one of those…….

  4. John McBeth said:

    Andrew Johnson was the first American president to face Articles of Impeachment. This was in 1868, one hundred years before the introduction of the Corolla. He did have a horse named “Corolla”, a white stallion with a speckled rump.

  5. Randy said:

    Misc thoughts:

    I think the biggest challenge for any import at the time was their country of origin… If you’re 18-20 years old in 1968, buying your first brand new imported car, almost certainly your father was trading fire with the very people who were building them – Japanese, German, or Italian… Of course, who wanted a little 4-banger, when they could have a GTO or Road Runner? 1973 changed all that with the end of 28 cents/gallon gas, and as the various regulations killed off the Muscle Car, the low-performance ones lost their edge over the little cars with the little engines.

    (Much like now: Gas is about $2.20/gallon, and SUVs are the thing. Let it get back up to $4/gal, and watch the change to seriously more economical vehicles.)

    Pintos were well received well enough, though… I don’t have to ask my mom; she HAD one – 1971 – special-order black inside and out. Sad thing is, the front fender tops rusted out right behind the headlights. Other than that, it actually remained solid. Not exciting, but it WAS reliable. It was built to a price; not more than 2,000 lbs, and must be profitable at a base price of not more than $2,000. NO EXCEPTIONS, which is why the fuel tank “shield” (?) wasn’t on there; would’ve added about $1.50 per car.

    I don’t think I ever read anything good about Vegas. Never knew anyone who had one, either… Underdeveloped design in an aluminum engine and rust.

    I know for a fact that you CAN get a 440 down to about 4mpg! 🙂

    A neighbor had the Geo Spectrum version (post-“Nova”) that survived teaching 2 kids to drive. Never had a problem outside of “incident” repairs.

    BTW, I could seriously do the little red wagon in the above picture.

  6. Bob said:

    “The handling was appalling with suspension that hadn’t seen any major upgrades since the early 1950s.”

    Uhhhh… have you ever worked on a ’50s American car and a late ’60s one? HUGE difference. Kingpins, bro. F***ing kingpins. Go look it up. Nothing but trucks had them past the early ’60s.

    No, the real issue with American car handling was the idea that Americans had been sold on soft riding cars. Everyone sprung their cars for soft ride, and stiffness/swaybars were an afterthought, something to upsell customers. Early Corollas were coil springs in front and leafs in the rear… honestly, that means your average Ford or GM product of the era had more modern suspension, they were at least coils all the way around. They handled poorly from soft springs, crappy shocks, rarely being equipped with swaybars, etc.

    The Beetle was not a technologically superior car. It was a cheap car built with cheap technology and it wasn’t a great handler. It delivered what was promised. They required frequent valve adjustment, had no heat (besides hot air ducted through the rockers), didn’t get as phenomenal of gas mileage as people seem to think they did/do, and rusted.
    They were tough cars, thanks a lot to their simplicity, and they had their benefits for sure.

    T-bucket= Model T. Model T production ended in 1927. The ’32 was the first year of the Ford flathead V8, and was a one year bodystyle. But point made, early Fords.

    Pintos were actually very popular, and sold really well. They’re not awful cars either, they’re bigger than a Corolla and the earliest 2.0 ones are underpowered for sure, but the bad rap is mostly undeserved, IMO.

    The Vega is the real problem child out of the two you mentioned. Aluminum cylinder walls…

    • Ryan Senensky said:

      To be honest the Pinto wagon is one of my top 20 favorite cars ever (that list also includes the Dodge Omni and the Citroen DS) but the Pinto is one of the poster cars of the malaise so that’s why I included it.

      And yeah, the Vega was really problematic. I think my mother will have “My Vega… I hate that **** car” on her grave.

      • Bob said:

        https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1955&dat=19710913&id=ncctAAAAIBAJ&sjid=1JcFAAAAIBAJ&pg=4044,1944403&hl=en

        This is a fun tidbit. Everyone remembers Nader went after GM for the Corvair, nobody remembers he went after VW as well. He probably could/should have gone after VW first, but going after GM was more sensational… and GM’s mishandling of the situation blew up in their face (hiring people to try and blackmail Nader did not go over well).

        While we’re here, Nader pressed the newly formed NHTSA into investigating the Corvair’s “handling issues” to prove he was right, years after he won his suit and 2 years after the final Corvairs had rolled off the assembly line. To his chagrin, in a barrage of testing with comparable sized compact cars of the early ’60s, including a Beetle, even the worst-handling Corvair outhandled everything else, and they tried and were unable to roll it over. The results were vetted by two different panels of independent engineers, Nader wrote a pathetic 2 paragraph “oops, sorry I wasted everyone’s time” letter, and that was all you heard.

        If you can find a copy, the NHTSA report is entertaining.

        • Randy said:

          Part of the thing with the Corvair was that the tire pressures had to be correct. I think they were higher pressure in the back. Of course, who ever checks air pressure?

          Betcha I can wreck anything if the tire pressures are screwed up, or down, as the case may be.

          Look for the videos of Corvair testing. As I recall, they actually slid the thing sideways, off a highway, and it – did – not – roll. Early ones had this tendency for the wheels to tuck under, though, which – could – contribute to issues . . . but who gets airborne with those things?

          From what I read, they just couldn’t compete with the Mustang, which is why we have Camaro/Firebird.

          Comparing Beetles’ impact results with the “standard”-size (4400lb.) American cars of the period is silly. That’s like pitting a Civic against a Suburban today.

          Ya pays yo’ money an’ ya takes yo’ chances.

          A former neighbor put a V-6 in his Pinto wagon – with a 4-speed. Man, what a ride! Too bad he blew up most of the cars he ever owned…

    • Edmond said:

      I’m agree with you. The 1960’s american car suspension was more modern than the Corolla’s suspension, very close to both ford europe and opel, gm’s european subdivision. Just for GM, you could find several patents on the rear-independant suspensions but it was considered like too costly to market these technologies. For me, The true game-changer was the honda civic: a reliable FWD small car well-adapted for the global market. If BMC had developped the Mini with a good reliability, maybe today, BMC still would be a great world carmaker!

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