The 1971 model year was momentous in many ways, not the least of which was Ford and Chevrolet’s vow to once again “kick the imports back across the ocean.” But their vision of “imports” was very narrow: the Pinto and Vega were very expensive bets from Detroit that they could successfully defeat one key competitor—Volkswagen. Meanwhile, the company that would turn out to be the real long-term threat to America’s car makers—Toyota—fielded not one, not two, but three new cars to capture the hearts of economy car buyers.
It’s almost comically tragic to see how myopic Detroit was when it came to the economy cars. Rather than imagining how they could better satisfy customers in that value conscious segment, they merely focused on crafting a more modern VW (even if they couldn’t dream of matching VW’s quality of manufacture). Talk about a low bar: “beating” the engineering of a car platform developed over 30 years before. Toyota of course had already done that starting in the mid-1960s, and they matched VW’s quality at the same time. The giant from Japan would be more than ready for this fight.
Toyota was well aware that the U.S. makers would be launching a major offensive to gain sales with small car buyers. To counter the onslaught, Toyota was ready with a completely revamped version of its bread-and-butter Corona. It was the start of a trend that would ultimately further disrupt other automakers; Toyota would comprehensively refresh its cars on regular and rather short timelines. Major redesigns would typically occur every 4 to 5 years, just at a time when Detroit cycles were starting to get longer. In a shot at VW as well as Detroit, the advertising copy noted that the new Corona led the wave of livable economy cars and that Toyota intended to keep it ahead of the pack.
Car and Driver notes in jest that Detroit was horrified to see Toyota building little Impalas. In reality, that’s exactly what Toyota was doing, and frankly far better than Chevrolet did with the Vega. I’d further argue that Toyota never let up on that quest: the Camry actually is today’s Impala—a competent, well-priced car in the heart of the new car market with broad based popular appeal.
The Corona’s new engine (the same as the one introduced in 1969 for the Mark II) offered overhead cams and extracted more performance from less displacement, thereby maintaining good fuel economy. C&D’s editors noted that the engine was both strong and quiet, and able to outperform even the optional engines in the Vega and Pinto.
Handling was another story, as the Corona was critiqued for too much understeer. However, ride comfort was good, and that was likely what average drivers could appreciate in daily use. Like most car enthusiast magazines, Car and Driver typically overestimated how many American drivers actually cared about handling. They were very correct to note, however, that with Toyota producing cars like the Corona, Detroit was “going to have a long hard fight on its hands.”
In the article, C&D felt the price of the Corona was almost too high for an “economy” car. In 2015 dollars, though, the Corona’s $2,713 as tested price would be just $15,899 adjusted—which would be an outstanding price for a small car today. Even in 1971 it really wasn’t bad relative to the competition. If you specified a Pinto to match the Corona’s equipment—OHC engine, automatic, tinted glass, full wheel covers, whitewalls, AM radio and AC—you’d have spent $2,674, so basically a wash. And the Corona had 4-doors with a roomier trunk and was much better built.
Road Test Magazine had been an early advocate for the Corona, showering ample praise on the original car right when it hit U.S. shores. The improvements for 1971 just made a great little car even better as far as RT’s editors were concerned.
Interestingly, Road Test praised the Corona’s handling while noting that the ride might be a bit firm for buyers used to bigger American cars, which was the opposite of Car and Driver’s assessment. Arguably, though, RT’s verdict was probably more in keeping with the driving sensibilities of the average U.S. motorist at the time. Otherwise, the verdicts between the two magazines were very similar: great engine, great quality, thoughtful design features: the newest Corona was hard to beat.
Consumer Guide also took a look at the new Corona and included it in the subcompact group tested, along with the AMC Gremlin, Chevrolet Vega, Ford Pinto and VW Super Beetle.
While the photo features a sedan, the car actually tested by Consumer Guide was the 2-door Hardtop, which the editors felt was a more appropriate comparison with the 2-door-only competitors. Just as the 4-door had been winning accolades, the 2-door Corona received the highest marks in the category as well, with Consumer Guide placing the Corona well ahead of the Gremlin and Super Beetle in particular. Consumer Guide noted they were impressed with the Corona Hardtop overall, especially its roominess, ample features and ride quality—again the details that likely mattered most to average drivers.
Toyota was also careful to feature the Corona 2-door Hardtop in its advertising, again to directly rebuke the 2-door economy entries. While Toyota did not offer a true hatchback body style at that point, they did start emphasizing the fold down rear seat and resulting expansive cargo area. Also note the features listed—like a lockable glove compartment at no extra cost. Hello, Vega?
However, the completely redone Corona was only the beginning of Toyota’s assault on the economy car segment. The Corolla, introduced to the U.S. just 3 years prior, was also thoroughly revamped for 1971. As before, the Corolla offered a less expensive smaller car to compete at lower price points in the economy segment. Road Test put together another Toyota Special issue for 1971 that included details on the newest version of Toyota’s least expensive car.
The 1971 Corolla offered all new styling inside and out, enhanced interior room, better handling, stronger brakes and improved engine output compared to its predecessor, and these features allowed it to compare very favorably with competitors as well. Plus, Toyota added a 4-door sedan to the Corolla line-up, seeing the potential for more body style choices, while VW and its American challengers saw fit to stick with just 2 doors.
For frugal shoppers, the best thing about the new Corolla was its price. Even with more standard power and more standard features, the Corolla’s base price of $1,848 ($10,830 adjusted) slotted in just below Vega ($2,090), Pinto ($1,919) and was but $3 more than the regular VW Beetle ($1,845).
So Toyota’s double whammy of the 1971 Corolla and Corona allowed the company to thoroughly cover both the “low” and the “premium” end of the small economy car segment. But the Gentlemen of Japan still weren’t done.
There was one more market segment where Toyota really caught Detroit with their proverbial pants down: small sporty/economy coupes. This segment had exploded in the 1960s, as buyers sought a bit of sporty style mixed with reasonable economy. While some people wanted more performance, a tremendous number of these cars were sold with basic (i.e. smallest available) powertrains. Stylish, affordable small cars were a proven goldmine, but Detroit was lured by the siren song of fatter profits and responded with fatter cars.
Ford had been the undisputed leader in the sporty 2-door segment in the mid-1960s with the original Mustang. But bloat crept in with subsequent redesigns, and for 1971 the once frisky filly had become a plodding Clydesdale. The Maverick was too much of an economy car to appeal to the “high style” crowd. Barracudas had become whales, the Camaro and Firebird were also bigger than ever.
European entries stayed true to the segment ideals of style and diminutive size, but dealer distribution was suboptimal and many of the cars, like the Fiat 124 Sports Coupe, were rather pricey and had dubious reputations for quality and reliability.
So once again, here was a lucrative segment with plenty of potential buyers that was underserved by existing entrants. What could be better for Toyota? So while GM and Ford were busy simply challenging the Beetle, Toyota zeroed in on this underserved market with yet another tempting offer for the small economy coupe shopper. The new Celica became the third prong in Toyota’s spear, aimed directly at the wallets of U.S. small car shoppers.
Motor Trend took an early look at the Celica and clearly saw its potential to woo young Americans.
The Celica nailed the original Mustang formula, using proven economy car components for the chassis and engine, combined with more expressive, sporty styling inside and out. The Celica was far from being a sports car, but it sure was a stylish and fun economy car, and a great way to get more first time car buyers into the Toyota fold. And it was a potent additional weapon against the Detroit economy car push, since even the Vega GT looked to most people like any old Vega, while the Celica looked nothing like the Corona with which it shared many components.
When the sales figures for 1971 were tallied up, GM and Ford hadn’t actually made much progress in fighting the import onslaught. First off, Detroit’s primary target remained relatively unscathed. “Beetlemania” managed to continue: while VW’s sales actually did drop 8% over 1970, they were still a very healthy 532,904. The newly introduced Super Beetle probably helped a bit, as it added some much needed luggage space and a revised front suspension for better handling.
In spite of GM’s enormous investment in the Vega, sales fell far short of the 500,000 unit target: some 269,900 Vegas found homes for 1971. These Vega units didn’t drive incremental brand growth either, as overall Chevrolet sales were down 16% versus 1970. No doubt some of this decline was due to a massive UAW strike that took the wind our of the General’s sales, especially for its reworked B- and C-body cars. But a careful look at the sales numbers of adjacent car lines (compact, sporty and midsize) shows that Vega sales weren’t necessarily all “plus” business. Nova sales dropped 38% (-120,244 units), Camaro sales dropped 9% (-10,108 units) and Chevelle sales dropped 26% (-113,100). So a big chunk of those Vega sales seemed to have just transferred from across the Chevy showrooms.
Though Ford came a bit closer to reaching their 500,000-unit goal for 1971 (352,402 Pintos were sold), the internal cannibalization was similar to Chevy’s. Overall Ford sales were up 4%, over 1970 (the GM UAW strike may have helped there) but the Maverick plunged 40% (-179,184 units), the newly designed Mustang dropped 24% (-47,417 units) and Torino (including one year wonder mid size Falcon) was down 20% (-170,051 units). The new economy upstarts, with their expensive development budgets, seemed to be taking a lot of sales from the more established and profitable nameplates as buyers showed a preference for economy offerings. It was enough to make a Detroit bean counter’s heart run cold…
Of course, the real damage Detroit’s import fighters would inflict was to their brand reputations. Initial impressions of the Vega and Pinto showed obvious cost cutting and sloppy build quality. Longer-term use didn’t do the cars any favors either. Within a year of its introduction, the Vega would become the subject of massive recalls, and the car suffered from horrific problems with the engine and rust protection. The Pinto fared better over time from a durability standpoint (Ford engines weren’t gulping oil at 30,000 miles and Pinto front fenders weren’t perforated with rust), but by the late 1970s Ford’s reputation would also be badly tarnished with the recalls and controversy surrounding the Pinto’s “exploding” gas tanks.
Contrast that with Toyota’s experience with its newly designed small cars for 1971. Thanks to cars like the Corona, Corolla and Celica, Toyota’s sales surged 48% to 309,363 units for 1971. Better still, these cars were seen as very up-to-date and thoughtfully engineered, offering outstanding value for the money. They were sized and priced right for first time buyers or people seeking a second car for the family fleet, and didn’t feel like penalty boxes even though they were inexpensive. Buyers were pleased with their Toyotas, and favorable word of mouth spread quickly. These new 1971-generation cars allowed Toyota to establish a very strong foothold in the U.S. and earned the company a stellar reputation for offering some of the best economy cars money could buy. Not a bad showing for a brand that had been virtually nonexistent in the U.S. less than 10 years before.