Curbside Classic: ’75-’77 Toyota Carina – Carina Caring

You’ll be excused if the existence of the Toyota Carina has slipped through the cracks of your memory. The model generally sold poorly outside of its native Japan and was pretty much a footnote in the company’s history; to most. Even to those who followed Toyota’s rise, the Carina seemed a curious offering, and the reasons behind its existence were not altogether that clear.

One more compact sporty coupe in Toyota’s 1970s lineup? Didn’t buyers already have enough choices with the Corolla 1600, the Corona hardtop, the Mark II, and well, the Celica?

Of course, much of the reasoning behind the model had to do with forces in its native market. And while the Carina may be a footnote outside of Japan, it left enough of a legacy that a few survivors are found from time to time. Just a few weeks ago, this one showed up a few blocks from my home in San Salvador. Against all appearances, this barely running sample is getting some love and care. For real. And it’s a version that didn’t reach the States, a 4-door.

Coincidentally, a nice early Celica was featured on these pages just a couple of days ago; the Carina’s corporate sibling. On top of that, a Carina appeared in one of my Southern California vintage snapshots of last week. That’s one too many times in a short time, for a car that was rare in the American continent.

It’s like the little car was asking me to feature it. So, why not give a few minutes of CC attention to this lesser-known Celica sibling?

A previous CC contributor did remember the Carina and has already covered the model in detail. There’s also a good R&T vintage review of the vehicle here at CC, from its brief US foray between ’72-’74. Still, I’ll go over some of the vehicle’s background for those who aren’t into clicking old links.

So, why the Carina?

The Japanese private car market had grown exponentially throughout the ’60s, with a stream of new offerings appearing in multiple niches. The key to that growth resided in the success of the Toyota Corolla and Nissan Sunny, both launched in ’66 and finding a more than receptive market with the working middle-class.

Just a few years before, Japanese carmakers had tended mainly to luxury models, fleets, and low-cost kei cars. Now, the success of the Corolla and the Sunny had proven the Japanese middle class was more than ready for car ownership. Options multiplied across the spectrum, from sporty, to pseudo-luxury, to family haulers; all based on common underpinnings.

But there was more at play than plain market forces behind these model variations. Mostly regulations (taxation, etc.) and the curious way Japanese dealers were set up after WWII (a whole long story). Under the mix of all those factors, a bewildering number of market slices existed in the Japanese market. All having dimension and powerplant variations significant in Japan, but that oftentimes would seem barely relevant in the US/elsewhere.

Filling a rising need for sportier and more ‘personal’ offerings, the Carina and the Celica appeared in 1970 sharing the same platform. The Celica was the full-on sporty model; a lifestyle statement for the young professional. As said many times before, it was Toyota’s pony car.

Meanwhile, the Carina was the sporty family sedan, with distinctive styling for the discerning buyer. A car for those who found the Celica too flashy, but still wished for higher-than-average performance. As such, the model slotted above the sporty Corollas and was offered as an alternative to sporty Coronas.

For 1970, the Carina was offered with either a 1407cc or a 1588cc OHV pushrod engine powering the rear wheels. Available transmissions were a 4-speed manual or Toyoglides with 2 or 3 speeds. Stopping power was provided by discs up front and drums at the rear. Suspension was with McPhersons up front, aided by transverse arms and an antiroll bar. At the back, a live axle with coil springs was found.

Styling-wise, the car was as adventuresome as Toyota was at the time; meaning rather conservative. It featured slightly googly-eyed headlights upfront, with an insert grille that gave it a dual-face kind of look. At the back, rather distinctive taillights were the car’s most eye-grabbing feature.

As was often the norm, in Japan the Carina was its own line of vehicles. Depending on engines, trims, and body styles, a total of 10 models were offered. The most athletic one, a neat hardtop that arrived for 1971. That same year, a hot 1600 DOHC engine –shared with the Corona 1600GT– was offered. By ’75, a station wagon became available (Van, in Japanese-car speak). Around that date, the 1.4 mill was dropped and a 1.8 was added. Meanwhile, a 5-speed manual eventually appeared. Production of the first-gen. Carina lasted from 1970 to 1977.

The Carina appeared in the US for 1972, just as Toyota’s rising fortunes seemed almost unassailable. And while the company already offered plenty of sporty compacts in the American market, I guess Toyota execs thought it was time to test how far Americans truly loved the brand.

So the model arrived carrying the 1588cc engine and a 4-speed manual, plus the Toyoglides. The 4-speed manual’s performance was more than competitive for its market segment, with a 13.5 0-60 time similar to the Datsun 510. Gas mileage was a good 26.3 MPG. With the Celica chassis and its fairly powerful and lighter engine, the Carina was considered Toyota’s best handling model by R&T’s reviewers.

Not that such praise helped much the Carina’s lackluster sales. After a brief couple of years, the model disappeared from the US lineup.

Wikipedia hints that the Carina’s failure in the US market was due to recently adopted import duties. Kind of an odd assessment, considering that otherwise, the rest of the company’s lineup did more or less fine in the meantime. Rather, the car didn’t make much sense in the US lineup and just seemed redundant. Turns out, there were limits to Toyota-love after all. (Import duties did eventually drive Toyota to start US-production, starting in 1986 at the NUMMI plant.)

Leaving aside the Carina’s fate in the States, Toyota was well aware that their future models had to be better tailored to US needs. By 1973, their new Calty Design Research facility opened in Southern California.

1987 Toyota Carina brochure excerpt.


While the nameplate was shortlived in the States, the model was quite successful in its native Japan and had a long lineage that lasted all the way to 2001. Throughout all those years, the Carina remained related to the Celica/Supra line, although occasionally mixing genes with Coronas. (Above is the ’87 Carina, covered previously by Tatra87).

Elsewhere, the model’s presence seems to have been rather spotty. As far as I know, imports of the Carina to El Salvador ceased in ’77. The nameplate never showed up again, although the Carina-related Corona of ’84-’88 did reach Central America.

But even if the nameplate is obscure, Toyotas are certainly not. And there’s a good amount of the brand’s followers over here to keep these old models running.

As mentioned early on, I believe this Carina is getting a good deal of care, even if its derelict nature suggests otherwise. On my way home, I see the car moved from spot to spot on the same street, always parked near a repair shop. A sign that a mechanic is probably trying to bring it back to life.

And I may be wrong about this, but I believe this one’s grille belongs to the ’75-’77 period. While more plasticky, it gets rid of the googly-eye face and seems more of… well, a grille.

Now, whoever is trying to rescue this one, certainly has quite a task ahead. There’s a good number of soft bits and pieces that I doubt will ever be found in this nation. At all.

On the other hand, originality is usually not an impediment around here, and plain driveability –as in; it runs– is more the key. So, some of those soft bits I’m thinking about may be fixed otherwise, or dispensed with altogether. After all, a rattling window pane hasn’t bothered most taxi drivers that I have met in San Salvador.

I never cared much for these cars when I saw them as a kid, and until now, I had never paid much attention to their styling. In this profile shot, I can now see the work Toyota put into giving the Carina the long-hood short-deck proportions of its Celica sibling. The reason behind the short dashboard and up-close windshield of the car’s interior.

Staying with my childhood thoughts, I used to think of these as the “Toyota with the weird tail lights.” To be honest, I’m still not sold on their idea after all these years, even if they add distinction to the car.

Regardless, I’ll admit it was certainly a memorable feature, as it was the only thing I recalled about the car. Back when I started submitting pictures at the Cohort, I remembered thinking; “There was that one Toyota with the weird taillights… which one was it? ”

I eventually found a truly beaten one that I uploaded at the Cohort some years ago. That’s when I searched the model more deeply and found its name: Carina.

I then proceeded to register my memory banks: “Nope, doesn’t ring a bell… at all!”

So well, the Carina moniker failed to register with my childhood self, and overall, the model doesn’t seem to be one of Toyota’s better-remembered ones. Yet, while researching, its history proves that it’s more than a footnote. So even if I’m not a fan of the model and it had completely slipped my mind, I’m glad someone is giving some care to this surviving one. After all, I’m a completist, and I like to have these forgotten chapters preserved for posterity.


Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1973 Toyota Carina – My CC Holy Grail

Vintage R&T Review: 1972 Toyota Carina – Toyota’s First “Hybrid”