Vintage Review: 1968 – 1970 Toyota Corolla – Smaller Bug Killer

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In the late 1960s, the VW Beetle was the 800-pound gorilla in the sub-$2,000 economy car segment. Toyota had achieved some good success in the segment starting in 1966 with the introduction of the Corona, though the company’s sales were still miniscule compared to the giant from Wolfsburg. But with U.S. Baby Boomers coming of age in increasing numbers and seeking their first cars, Toyota wanted a bigger piece of the pie, and decided to expand their lineup with another car even more specifically tailored for the budget-minded first time buyer. So for 1968, the Toyota Corolla arrived on our shores as yet another alternative to the Bug. How would it fare when the Buff Books took it for a spin?

In the July 1968 issue, Motor Trend took a quick look at the Corolla, noting right out of the gate that its intended target was the potential Beetle buyer.

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Motor Trend chided the Corolla for its difficult cold starts and relative lack of performance, they did note that Toyota had managed to squeeze a respectable amount of power from such a tiny engine. In other areas, the Corolla fared better with Motor Trend’s editors, who liked the car’s styling, general handling and relative comfort for the car’s size. In a swipe at VW, Motor Trend also noted that the Corolla had a very effective heater…

Road Test was even more direct in pitting the Corolla against the Beetle: their review of the new Toyota in July 1968 was a comparison test.

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Road Test gave a great summary of the market conditions leading to the surge in sales for economy imports, noting that Detroit products were losing their appeal in the surging segment due to increasing size and decreasing build quality. Road Test also noted that due to VW’s huge popularity, what had once been a quirky and unique product was now ubiquitous. Without the allure of being seen “driving something different,” some buyers were starting to look beyond VW for the next big thing.

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Right off the bat, the Corolla offered some obvious advantages compared to the Beetle. It undercut the Bug on price (not easy to do), and a “loaded” Corolla (with radio) was $1,714 ($11,689 adjusted), which was right where the Beetle started before options.

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The Corolla’s other advantage was design. Though smaller on the outside, the Corolla’s more contemporary shape allowed it to be roomier and more comfortable inside. While Disney’s 1968 hit children’s movie Herbie The Love Bug immortalized the Beetle’s looks as “cute,” undoubtedly many buyers in 1968 would likely have found the Corolla’s clean modern design far more attractive.

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Beating the Bug in handling and performance was actually not much of an accomplishment, as the VW was never praised in either area. However, the fact that the Corolla outperformed the Beetle using a smaller 65.8 cubic inch engine (just 1.1 liters!) compared to VW’s 91.1 cubic inches (1.5L), was pretty impressive. No radical technology was used to accomplish that feat either—the Corolla’s engine was a very basic OHV inline 4-cylinder, it’s most dramatic feature being the 20-degree tilt designed to facilitate servicing. Well-chosen gear ratios and lighter weight also gave the Corolla an advantage. Getting that power to the ground was also easier in the Corolla, since its 4-speed manual had a more conventional shift pattern than VW’s.

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For day-to-day livability the Toyota was tops. The Beetle had too many issues inside, with an odd seating position for the driver, raucous cabin, and of course, the classic bugaboo of a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine: terrible heater performance.

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VW had built a great reputation for product quality and durability. It was arguably the brand’s biggest strength, and no other small car maker had been able to even come close, especially for the price. The Corolla changed all that, as it was the equal to VW when it came to craftsmanship, finish and overall build quality. Suddenly, consumers seeking the highest quality car for the lowest price possible had a new and much more user-friendly choice.

As it did with the Corona, Toyota quickly added models to expand the Corolla’s appeal. First up, with an eye on the “youth market,” was a semi-fastback model with a lower roofline and sleeker backlight. To separate it from the “plain” Corolla and potentially justify its $130 ($887 adjusted) higher price tag, the new coupe was called the Corolla Sprinter.

Car and Driver was finally coming around to the notion that perhaps the Japanese were onto something, so they deigned to test the new Sprinter.

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C&D couldn’t resist poking fun at the Corolla’s Lilliputian size with their rather comical shot leading into the article. But the editors had to admit that the Corolla Sprinter made the most of its small size, and that its lightness and trim dimensions contributed to sprightly handling and excellent maneuverability.

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When describing the Corolla’s engine, Car and Driver referred to it as “fashionable” meaning it was thoroughly up-to-date with plentiful aluminum components like the cylinder head and intake manifold, along with a traditional iron block. It wasn’t revolutionary, but it worked well, and was certainly as modern as any engine in the market for anywhere near the Corolla Sprinter’s low price point.

C&D picked on the shifting feel and the uptake of the clutch. They were also critical of the Corolla’s drum brakes, which were adequate at best—not much fade, but stopping distances that were longer than they should have been, especially for such a lightweight car.

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Edgy Car and Driver was just brimming with attitude, as this picture of the groovy hipster will attest. Oh yeah, the Corolla Sprinter was in the shot too. Don Draper surely would have hired this Art Director if he could have…

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Car and Driver correctly acknowledged that even though it sported a fastback roofline, the Corolla Sprinter couldn’t be called a sports car. Take that, Barracuda! But as a fashion statement, assuming you didn’t need the extra headroom, C&D felt that the Corolla Sprinter offered a nice package and was a good buy.

Having covered the price conscious fashion shopper with the Corolla Sprinter, and the pragmatic bargain hunter with the regular Corolla 2-door, Toyota also figured that a more utilitarian Corolla could be useful too. Dutifully, they also brought over the Corolla 2-door wagon.

Road Test took the opportunity to drive the newest Corolla body style, and interestingly, they looked at it from a woman’s perspective, taking into account how well the Corolla wagon could serve a small family going about its daily routine.

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Just as the regular Corolla was smaller than a Beetle, so too was the Corolla Wagon when compared to the VW Squareback. But, given its conventional front-engine layout, the Corolla wagon offered handling characteristics that would be very familiar to U.S. buyers.

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Inside, the Corolla wagon excelled when it came to everyday livability. The cargo area was praised for its roominess and easy access. The interior finish, replete with thoughtful features and excellent craftsmanship, was pleasing as well. Just like Car and Driver’s editors, the Road Test writers felt that the Corolla’s instrument panel resembled a mini-Camaro’s—pretty nice compliment for a small economy car!

While I am unable to locate specific U.S. sales breakdowns for the Corolla, there’s little doubt the newest, smallest Toyota was very popular. During the three years that the first generation Corolla was sold in the U.S., sales jumped from 71,463 in 1968 to 208,315 for 1970. There’s little doubt, however, that a nice chunk of that 300% increase was due to the success of the new Corolla.

Granted, VW sales during this period stayed strong as well—averaging around 580,000 units per year during that same 1968 through 1970 time period, but there was no growth. Toyota had seemingly tapped a new market, and it wouldn’t be long before the world order in economy imports would shift dramatically. Within ten years, the tables would be turned, and for 1980 Toyota would sell 582,204 units in the U.S., while VW eked out a mere 90,952 sales.

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The success continues even today. The Corolla ranks as the 5th best selling vehicle in the U.S. for 2015, car or truck. In terms of car sales, the Corolla only trails its big sister the Camry (#4). In fact, if the top selling list was restricted to just passenger cars, then Toyota would hold the #1 and #2 best selling positions in America. Plus, the Corolla has also gone down in history as the world’s best selling car of all time, placing ahead of the Beetle, which is now ranked #4. Bug killer indeed!