After their much-ballyhooed push into the “small car” market for 1960, the U.S. Big Three rather quickly returned to their old ways as their “economy” offerings, never actually that petite to begin with, morphed into larger and pricier cars. However, the market segment itself never really changed, as a good percentage of buyers still wanted a smaller, nimbler and less expensive car. VW happily filled this void and became the dominant player among the economy imports, though many other small car brands, mostly European, jumped into the fray as well. Japanese makers also sought a piece of the action, though their early efforts pretty much missed the mark. However, that would change in 1965, when Toyota introduced the 1966 Corona. It was the car that sparked Toyota’s meteoric rise in the U.S. market, and right out of the gate it was well received by the automotive press.
While East Coast-based Car and Driver paid scant attention to the new arrival from Japan, the California-based buff books— Motor Trend and Road Test —took an immediate liking to the car.
Motor Trend was known for giving high praise to products from high paying advertisers, but in 1965 Toyota’s marketing budget was minuscule. So the praise seemed pretty genuine, though perhaps Motor Trend was angling for a piece of the pie down the road–after all, based on the Corona, it seemed like the newest Toyota would be a sure fire hit.
Road Test served up a very comprehensive look at the new Toyota sedan in their November 1965 issue.
One of the best aspects of the new Corona was its relatively powerful engine, which handily beat all of its imported challengers in performance. While the engine was totally conventional, it was effective in offering less of a trade-off between power and economy than was normally expected in that car class at the time.
The turn signal actuator on the horn ring was certainly an odd feature of the early Coronas. Imagine the number of beeps you’d hear at an intersection where a new Corona driver was figuring out how to signal his intentions…
Calling the Corona a sports sedan was certainly a stretch, though its small size and decent handling certainly would have made it feel nimble and easily controllable, especially compared to swing axle Beetles and larger domestic offerings.
Declaring it easy to use, easy to love and a great value to boot, Road Test was quite enthusiastic about the Corona. Today it is ironic to think that the Road Test editors would need to urge people to put Toyota on their shopping list, but at that time the fledgling brand was far from being an obvious choice. The accolades and word of mouth generated by the Corona would quickly start to change that…
In spite of the early praise, Toyota was not content to rest on their laurels with the Corona. Stung by their earlier failure in the U.S. market with the Tiara, Toyota was ready with rapid enhancements to the Corona to increase the car’s appeal to American buyers. For 1967, a new 2-door hardtop body style was introduced, offering sleeker styling than the 4-door sedan without sacrificing too much practicality.
Toyota saw fit to bring its 2-speed Toyoglide (much like Chevrolet’s Powerglide) to the market as well. While the transmission itself was nothing revolutionary, its application in the economy import market segment was. And best of all, according to Road Test, the automatic powertrain worked as intended, providing ease of use without completely decimating performance.
While some Americans were interested in automatics in their economy cars, the majority of the economy imports were sold with manual transmissions. So Toyota upped the ante by augmenting the 3-speed manual with a new 4-speed manual. Motor Trend tested the 4-speed Corona hardtop and found that the transmission did mate very nicely with the Corona’s powerful (for the class) 90 hp OHV 4-cylinder.
While fuel economy wasn’t quite up to Motor Trend’s expectations, it was still adequate for the class. Plus the details and solidity of the Corona really made a positive impression. Things like a fold-down rear seat to extend the cargo area and dome lights that could be switched on and off were novel for the time, and examples of little “surprise and delight” features that really improved the day-to-day enjoyment of the car.
Road Test once again took a look at both the Corona Sedan and Hardtop for 1968. Their initial favorable impression of the car had only grown stronger.
The real testament to the Corona’s reputation came after the car had been on the market for several years. Customers who had been attracted to the “Americanized” approach to a small economy car—nice looks, zippy performance, reasonable comfort, available automatic—were then pleased to discover that Toyota’s quality was more than skin deep. With the Corona, Toyota had served up a car that matched VW’s excellent build quality in a package that was much more suited to American driving conditions. The Corona delivered as promised right out of the gate, and the favorable word-of-mouth cemented Toyota’s reputation for everyday livability, as well as long-term durability and reliability. It also ensured strong resale value, which had been one of the keys to VW’s success in the U.S.
Based on all the positive owner feedback and real world proof of the Toyota’s lasting quality, Road Test awarded the Corona its “Imported Car of the Year” award in 1969. Unlike Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year,” which was awarded annually to a newly introduced design no matter what (even if the “all-new” cars in a given year weren’t impressive, the award was still given out anyway), Road Test took a more holistic view and only served up the award when they felt a vehicle truly warranted the commendation, and the Editors based their decision both on the product excellence as well as owner feedback. Utilizing those criteria, it is easy see why the Corona was their pick.
In 4 short years, the Corona had effectively built Toyota’s reputation for excellence and sales success. In its first full year on the U.S. market, the Corona was responsible for more than tripling Toyota’s sales. While the 20,908 Toyotas sold for 1966 paled in comparison to the 427,694 VWs sold that year, the results were not that far off from the 32,033 Opels that GM retailed or the 29,232 Datsuns that hit the U.S. market. Toyota also delivered a stronger performance than both Fiat (15,933) and Renault (12,106).
From there, the brand’s popularity just kept climbing, and by 1969, thanks in large part to the Corona, Toyota’s sales surged into 6 figures, with 130,044 units sold in the U.S. Those results allowed Toyota to push past Opel (93,520 units sold) to claim 2nd place in U.S. import sales (Datsun sold 91,208 units, and VW was still the undisputed King with 566,356). More tellingly, and foreshadowing things to come, in the all-important California market for the first half of 1969, Toyota was the 5th best selling nameplate, import or domestic! Those were spectacular results, particularly for a brand that had been quite obscure just a few years earlier. The Corona was the car that started it all, and based on the car’s myriad attributes and overall suitability for American tastes, the success was well deserved.