Curbside Classic: Toyota Corolla – 1971 Small Car Comparison #3

Curbside Classics takes you back to 1971 for a virtual comparison test of six small cars, based (and partly borrowed) from a C/D test. This is actually a 1974 with the big bumpers, but it’s the last survivor of this generation to be found.

Hail the conquering hero! Well, not of C/D‘s comparison test, but who cares, as long as the sales are there. And by 1971, the Corolla was well along in its conquest of the US small car market, despite being only three years fresh. In 1969, only its second year on the US market, the Corolla leapt to the number two import sales spot, and was nipping hard at the Beetle’s pointy tail. Try replicating that today! And by 1975, the “little crown” was lording over the defeated krabbeltier. So what exactly were the Corolla’s remarkable qualities that sent VW (and Opel) into such a deep and permanent retreat? And its shortcomings that kept it from winning this comparison?

Let’s start by looking at what it was up against. The Beetle’s well known qualities have already been covered in this comparison. In 1971, it was still hanging on stubbornly. But the number two import Opel Kadett was thoroughly pushed aside by the Japanese upstart. Or more accurately, fell aside. By 1971, the rising German currency and GM’s planned import killer Vega caused Opel to drop the aged Kadett and focus on the more upscale market with its 1900 Sports Sedan (Ascona) and Manta.

And the rest of the import competition in 1971? There were some seriously advanced Europeans knocking on the door. Think Fiat 128, Austin America (1100), Peugeot 304, Simca 1100/1204, Renault R16. Highly sophisticated FWD cars, but each with questionable durability and iffy dealer networks. At the hands of America’s abusive and maintenance-neglecting drivers, this was not exactly a recipe for success. The best hopes were with the other new Japanese small cars, such as the Datsun 1200. Japan’s sun(ny) was rising quickly over the US in 1971.

The ’71 Corolla encapsulated all the qualities that have made it a perennial top seller. Well, except one. Remember all our talk in prior episodes about Americans’ desire to roll stress-free down the freeway at seventy? The 1200 cc engine in this model just didn’t cut it for that: “with its 4.22 axle ratio and 12-inch wheels, the engine fairly screams at 70 mph…at low speeds and in traffic the car is fun to drive, however, and it feels the most like a sports car than the others.” I guess the Corolla has changed in some regards; the word “sports car” sure didn’t come to mind when I reviewed the current Corolla. Now it’s the consummate freeway isolation box.

But Toyota is (usually) a quick study. Within a year or so, it offered the legendarily-durable 1600 cc hemi-head 2T-C engine. Especially when combined with the slick new 5-speed stick, it alleviated any lingering freeway-compatibility questions for the Corolla. If C/D‘s tester had been a 1600, it might well have won outright.

Corollas have generally been appreciated for their interior qualities, although that is in regression now too. Back in ’71, it offered a remarkably pleasant place to be, considering how small and light (1785 lb!) it was. C/D praised the remarkably roomy back seat (surprising for a tiny RWD car): “usually in critical supply in cars of this size” and the interior generally: “carpeting is standard, high quality vinyl is used to cover the seats and door panels and the whole package is coordinated in pleasing colors…the instrument panel is attractive and highly functional.”

A good friend bought the exact same car as this tester, for which she traded in a ’69 big-block Fury. Well, that sure ended the high-speed dashes across the heartland. As the energy crisis set in we piled into the Corolla for shorter-distance summer fun: skinny-dipping at the quarries that dot eastern Iowa. If you look carefully, you can still see the seam lines of a hot black vinyl Corolla seatback etched into my backside.

The sensations of barreling the Corolla 1200 down gravel country roads are equally etched in my memory. It was a (relatively) fun drive, in the classic light, small underpowered RWD way that has long gone the way of other automotive dinosaurs (not all the dinos were big). Very quick and light unassisted steering, maybe a hair imprecise. Remarkably light and crisp shifting tranny. Hair-trigger clutch. Brakes were so-so, even for the times. It may have felt “sporty,” but the 1200 could never reach sporty speeds straight ahead or in (paved) corners, where the Corolla perpetually wanted to assume the dog-at-hydrant pose.

Taking gravel corners quickly was another story. That generally has more to do with the driver than the car. But the Corolla was a balanced and confidence-inspiring drifter, and gravel was the only way to drift the underpowered cars back then; Iowa’s Not-So-Fast and Furious.

No doubt about the Corolla 1200 being pokey. It’s pretty obvious that Car and Driver‘s test Corolla wasn’t a “ringer.” Theirs clocked a pathetic 15.5 seconds 0-60, and even worse, tied the Beetle with a 19.8 second quarter mile. But it would get about 30 mpg, no matter how hard you flogged it (perpetually, out of necessity).

Elinor’s 1200 Corolla was totaled when she lent it to a friend. Doesn’t it always happen like that? But the replacement had the 1600, and the difference was very palpable: 100 horsepower for 1800 lb. That’s a better power-to-weight ratio than a new Corolla. Now, high-speed dashes across the desert in the Corolla were once again the order of the day.

So to answer the question we posed at the beginning, the Corolla was essentially what it is today: an efficient, economical, relatively comfortable appliance. But what really burnished the Corolla reputation over the years was its legendary reliability and durability. 1971 was a bit early to fully see that one coming, although Toyota ads of the time already crowed about their attention to materials and details. And the Corolla was already running reliability rings around the broken-down European competition (VW excepted).

So I assumed that I wouldn’t have any trouble finding a suitable Corolla to pose for me. Seems like just yesterday that these were everywhere. And serious rust is not an issue here. I started to get antsy after a few weeks of keeping my eyes peeled. Finally, on a bike ride, I gave a whoop when I saw this one a block down the street. You’d think I’d just found a Dino sitting at the curb.

This ’74 (with the add-on cow-catcher bumpers) has been owned by its loving owner since 1976. And her Land Cruiser creates a nice commentary on Toyota’s “growth.” Yes, folks do tend to come out and see what’s going on when someone is taking pictures of their beloved old car. But wariness quickly turns to appreciation, when they find out their car is going to have its fifteen minutes of fame. Or, in the Corolla’s case, forty years, which we celebrated here. The world’s best selling car for decades; who would have guessed that in 1971? Can Toyota keep it that way?

1971 Comparison car #1 (winner)

1971 Comparison car #2

1971 Comparison car #3

1971 Comparison car #4

1971 Comparison car #5

1971 Comparison car #6