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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.