How Toyota came to revolutionize the automobile industry and become the world’s largest and most profitable automaker is a very big story, but arguably the most important single chapter is this Corona. It was the vehicle with which Toyota created a successful foothold in the US market, the world’s richest by far, and long the source of an outsize share of Toyota’s profits. Within just thee years if its introduction in 1965, this Corona vaulted Toyota from obscurity to the number three import brand. And that was just the beginning of Toyota’s huge impact on the American auto industry, which went through repeated convulsions thanks to this slightly goofy looking little car and its successors.
This Corona typifies all the qualities that Toyota came to be known for and made it successful. Although the name changed once along the way, when it transitioned to front wheel drive, the Corona and Camry are effectively one continuous evolution; fifty years of the same basic formula: reliable, economical, comfortable and trustworthy transportation. A very successful formula at that.
Toyota’s initial foray into the US market was decidedly not successful. In 1957 it showed its Toyopet Crown in the US, and in 1958, sales began on the West Coast. Toyota was proud of the fact that the Crown’s body was made of steel 50% thicker than American cars. Toyota’s quest for quality was there from the very beginning, but it would take more than a thick skin to succeed in the American market, although Toyota’s execs would need plenty of that to survive its first difficult years.
The thick steel made the Crown heavy, and its 1.5 L four made it underpowered for the freeways of California. It suffered from other issues too; it was just not designed and refined for American style use, as conditions in Japan then were very different. And the Crown was too expensive, costing as much as a full-size Chevrolet. It was the wrong car for the market.
Toyota had worked hard to establish a dealer network, but very weak Crown sales forced them to wind down car sales by 1962, and focus almost solely on the Land Cruiser while it re-grouped. Clearly a different strategy was needed, as well as more suitable cars.
The first generation Corona (T10) was introduced in Japan in 1957. It was partly a re-do of the previous Toyota Master, which slotted in below the Crown, and was powered by a 45 hp 997 cc ohv four. The T10 was not exported to the US.
The second generation (T20,T30) Corona appeared in 1960, and was called the Tiara in export markets. It was an all-new car and a big step forward, and addressed essentially all of the issues that had stalled the Crown. And in 1962, it was also sent to the US to augment or supplant the Crown. It was lighter and peppier, with a 75 hp 1.5 L four, and then even a 1.9 L four in 1964. And it was priced to be directly competitive with the VW, at $1613, despite having four doors, a much bigger engine, roomier interior and better appointments.
If it hadn’t been for Toyota’s near-death Crown experience in the US at the time, the Tiara might have gotten Toyota off to a good start. As it is, Toyota lost some $1.4 million in the US in these first few years, a large amount for them back then. Only 318 Tiaras were sold in the US, as Toyota mostly shut down car sales from 1963-1964. A vintage review of the Tiara is here.
But Toyota was not about to give up on the world’s richest market. For 1965, they stepped back in the ring, having healed their wounds and whipped themselves into serious fighting shape. The strategy was now based on the new T40 Corona. It sat on a 95.3″ wheelbase, was 162″ long, and a bit narrow at 61″, as Japanese cars were wont to be back then. To go along with the new car and sales effort, this time the cars were branded Toyota instead of Toyopet, and the Corona kept its Japanese-market name too.
The Corona was a very pragmatic and relatively conservative car, a reflection of the company’s corporate personality and traditions. And unlike many of the other Japanese manufacturers, who were contracting with the top Italian designers to make their cars look internationally competitive, Toyota went it alone. The Corona clearly was not styled by Pininfarina or Giugiaro. But its looks were inoffensive, and some reviewers back then thought it to be quite a well-styled little sedan.
Although quite small by today’s standards, at the time the Corona was unusually roomy and exceptionally powerful for its class, what with its 1.9 L R-Series ohv four making 90hp, about twice as much as the VW Beetle. The rest of the imports in its class all had substantially smaller and weaker engines; in 1965, the #2 selling Opel Kadett had 993 cc and 40 hp; the more expensive Ford Cortina had 1498 cc and 64 hp. The Corona instigated a hp race in the import class, and within a few years, all the competitors had to increase their engine size and power. But the Corona kept its displacement and hp lead almost throughout its run through 1970.
The R-Series four had been around for some years, and developed a reputation for being rugged and well-built. It was 1950s in terms of its design, with three main bearings, siamesed ports, and cast-iron block and head. True to Toyota’s roots in building licensed Chevrolet engines in the pre-war era, it looked rather like a smaller, four-cylinder version of a Chevy six from the pre-1963 era. The Toyota Iron Duke.
In a number of vintage reviews (here), the Corona’s engine comes in for lots of lavish praise. Although maximum power (90 gross hp) was made at 4600 rpm, testers found that it would happily rev to 6000 rpm. Given that the Corona initially came with a very US-style three-speed column shifted manual, the engine’s very wide powerband was not limited much by the lack of a fourth gear. 0-60 times in both reviews were the same: 16.7 seconds, a very decent result for the times (comparable to many six cylinder American cars), and outstanding in its field. A very highly-praised four speed stick shift was soon made available, and became standard after a few years. 0-60 times with it were between 14.8 and 15.5 seconds. Top speed with any of the transmissions was a solid 90 mph, and the Corona was praised for being able to cruise effortlessly at 80+ mph.
Speaking of Chevrolet, Toyota’s Toyoglide two-speed automatic was a well-done down-scaled imitation of the legendary Powerglide. Teamed with the wide power-band, high-torque 1.9 four, it worked better than might be expected, and made the Corona very user-friendly for Americans that might have been attracted to an import but were put off by the VW’s (and others) eccentricities.
What’s surprising in perusing the vintage reviews is that the Toyoglide seemed to have little impact on performance, as compared to the three-speed manual. 0-60 came in 17 seconds, and the Corona with Toyoglide was again praised, given that there wasn’t anything remotely comparable in its class, with automatics.
The Corona’s brakes also came in for praise, at least in its earlier years. Its front drums were 9″ in diameter, and made of finned aluminum with a steel insert, to dissipate heat better. Even after discs started to be seen in its class a few years after a few years, the Corona’s drums still gave better than average results, both in stopping distance and fade. Only the biggest Buicks used a similar finned aluminum/steel drum design.
Toyota’s advertising couldn’t resist playing up the Corona’s prodigious 90 hp in its class, although no one will ever accuse these Coronas of having genuine sports car handling to go along with the power. Nevertheless, in these period reviews, the Corona’s handling is generally held to be quite good to excellent, without the quirks that were common with the rear engine imports like VW, Renault and Simca. Given that the emphasis was on comfort, the Corona’s handling was predictable, safe, and better than the typical American car of the time.
The Corona clearly addressed a lingering concern Americans had with the lack of power in most imports, and VW and the rest all started boosting their engine sizes and outputs right about the time the Corona arrived. One could say that the Corona was a hybrid of sorts: import size and price, but American-style power and simplicity. A Chevy III, if you like, lacking GM’s design quality, but more than making up for it in build quality and other characteristics. Big finned aluminum brake drums on a Chevy II? You must be kidding.
The interior was decidedly more American than European too, with its bench front seat and American-style dashboard. It’s not hard to see why a whole lot of Americans went for this instead of a VW or a dreary stripper Chevy II or Valiant. The Corona only came in one trim level, and the standard equipment was surprisingly complete, at a time when the Big Three nickled and dimed Americans with endless extra-cost options. That was another key part of the Toyota strategy: no strippers, just a whole lot of car for the money.
The Corona and its marketing pitch resonated perfectly with American buyers, and as a result, by 1967 Toyota jumped to the number three spot among import cars (after VW and Opel). That was a phenomenal accomplishment in such a short time, especially after its terrible start. Toyota scrambled to expand its dealer network, which started on the West Coast, then focused on the larger metropolitan areas of the East Coast, and then worked its way into the heartland.
In 1968, the 1 liter Corolla (front) joined the US line-up. In only its second year (1969) the cheap Corolla ($1686, compared to the Corona’s now $1950), leaped to the number three import sales spot; an instant success. This is the full line-up of Toyota’s US offerings in 1968, which was the last year the brilliant but over-priced 2000GT was sold here. The Crown had rejoined the line a few years earlier, and the S50 sedan and wagon are here along with the Land Cruiser and Corona. Ten years after its failed start in the US, Toyota was hot. This picture almost perfectly encapsulates Toyota then, and now: popular, economical and reliable cars, and an ultra-high tech halo car (Lexus LFA, today) to let folks know that Toyota was (and is) capable of more than just bread and butter-mobiles.
The cute but stubby little Corona hardtop coupe joined the lineup in 1967, and became America’s lowest-cost hardtop. 0-60 in 16 seconds may sound like an eternity now, but that was comparable or better than most typical six-cylinder American cars. A Chevy Impala with a 283 V8 and Powerglide took just 2-3 seconds less. And today’s Camry V6 is virtually unbeatable in its class. Toyota understood from the beginning that Americans like a bit of ooomph in their cars. And that the great majority of them don’t expect world-class handling.
I shot this coupe in Portland several years ago, and I’ve just been assuming a sedan would come my way, but no luck so far. What a shape; who would have thought that Toyota would climb to the top in the fashion-conscious US with something as short, tall, narrow and frumpy as this (Actually, in its time, the Corona hardtop coupe was considered to be rather attractive, in a clean and unassuming way) ?
Certainly not GM, which showed Americans how stylish a small car could be. And how disastrously unreliable, rough-running, poorly built, and with mediocre space utilization. These two cars epitomize the different approach Toyota and GM took. And the results are…old history.
CC Cohort Foden Alpha found this immaculate sedan on the street in British Columbia; most likely in the Vancouver area. Someone obviously pampered this one, as it’s hard to imagine anyone restoring one. But then why not?
And this original blue sedan was shot by son Ed in Portland. It looks more like the huge numbers of old Coronas that plied the streets and freeways of LA back in the day.
I’ve had a bit of experience with these Coronas. My first ride in one was in 1967, when our bearded art teacher at Loyola High bought one, the first in Towson at the time. That was just about the time when these became more readily available in places like Baltimore, and I rode with him in it once when a couple of us in the class actually interested in art went on a field trip with him after school. It made a very favorable impression on me; it certainly felt like more car than the VW. No wonder folks were snapping them up. I would have heartily recommended one to my dad when he bought a replacement for his 1965 Kadett; the Corona would have been perfect for him. But he was not ready to buy a Japanese car then, or ever. Instead he bought a dour stripper ’68 Dart.
Toyota’s growth in the US was explosive; by the end of 1975, Toyota surpassed VW to become the leading import brand, a position it’s certainly never relinquished, and undoubtedly has no intention on doing so.
When I moved to Iowa City in 1971, the former Studebaker dealer wisely had picked up the Toyota line a few years earlier, and was doing a brisk business in this university town. Coronas and Corollas were already common there by then, and one of my girl friend’s dad, a violin professor, was already driving one of the first Corona Mk II’s, in this same baby blue. I drove that car some, and it was a nice ride; a bit more refined than the Corona, and had Toyota’s new OHC 19R-Series engine, which was smoother and more willing to rev. The four speed manual shifted in that typical Toyota way: like a hot knife through butter.
I can’t verify it, but my impression at the time was that the next generation of Corona (T80/90) was not quite as solidly built as its predecessor. Was the 1965-1970 Corona also built of thicker steel? And one saw the older ones more commonly in late years than its successor (above), which arrived in 1970. I remember seeing one of these already very badly rusted before I left Iowa City in 1976. But maybe it’s just a coincidence, or my imagination, but in my mind, these first Coronas were exceptionally solid and well built.
When I arrived in Southern California that year, old Coronas were everywhere, and could be had for a song. They were a great cheap used car, and obviously rust was not a factor outside of the Rust Belt. A buddy of mine picked one up for peanuts, and I later helped him yank the tired engine, which he rebuilt in the shop in the back of the tv studio. That gave me a good look at the inside of the old R ohv engine; looked rather a lot like an old Stovebolt Chevy. And it was about as equally easy to rebuild. He wanted the Corona for the long haul, and it served him well for years to come. It was a simple and easy car to work on, and all of it exuded solidity.
And I drove it afterwards too. By then, these were getting to be a bit out of date, and its steering and handling were…a lot like a miniature Chevy from the early 60s. Well; not really, as its trim size and light weight did make it feel like a sports car in comparison to a big 1964 Chevy, but it just had no genuine aspirations other than plodding along happily; year-in, year-out. No wonder Datsun decided the way to attack Toyota was with the very ambitious 510. Now that was a sports car in a sedan body, with its smaller but lusty 96 hp 1600 cc OHC engine and independent rear suspension.
The Europeans worked hard to sell Americans on their idea of how cars should be, based on European conditions and driving style, and their influence was certainly a positive one. But it also made their cars less palatable to the great majority of Americans back then, who were used to American-style low-end power, comfort and convenience, as well as the absolute bare minimum in maintenance and repairs.
Toyota didn’t come to the US with its own preconceived ideas about what Americans should drive; instead, they learned from their early mistakes, studied the market and gave Americans what they wanted in a compact car, and then some. It’s a wholly different approach, and the key to understanding Toyota’s success in the US.
And now, Toyota’s profits are greater than GM, Ford and FCA’s combined, although the yen’s weakness is a partial factor in that. Nevertheless, Toyota has disrupted the US and global auto industry more than any maker since Ford with its Model T. Everyone had to learn the business all over again, and not without a lot of pain (and bankruptcies). Will Toyota be able to maintain their lead in efficient production and reliability? And will buyers continue to feel that Toyota knows what they want? Let’s check back in fifty years.