CC Capsule: 1981 Toyota Corolla 3-Door Wagon – Too Beige, Or Not Too Beige?

The ‘80s are not my favourite decade of the last centrury, nor are Toyotas my number one automotive fantasy, but one should take a moment (and a few snaps) when faced with the last generation of RWD Corollas. This 1981 wagon is a particularly tasty example, as it is light beige, a colour that does more to date cars than virtually any other. And it’s a three-door wagon, a body style not offered in the US. The few chrome touches here and there are a nice reminder that this Corolla’s roots are still firmly planted in the ‘70s.

This car was at Lumphini Park in central Bangkok. Obviously, some youngster had found the well-kept Corolla too neat and cheap to resist and had enough change to get some flashier wheels and a crummy-looking tiny sports steering wheel. But other than that, this is a very original 36-year-old car (that could have used a left windshield wiper). This car was likely built in Thailand and kept the chrome bumpers that were by then fast disappearing on most cars.

Toyota really got rolling in the US in 1967, when it became the #3 import brand. The Corolla was an instant hit in the US, and became the #3 selling import model in 1969. And by 1975, Toyota was the #1 import brand in the US. But Toyota had already conquered much of Asia by 1970, and the Corolla was the 32 selling car globally in 1970.

Thailand is a classic example: Toyota set up a sales office in Bangkok in 1957. By 1964, they had an assembly plant going churning out CKD Tiaras. By 1969, they were also making Hino trucks and Corollas, and Toyota has the largest market share. I’m not 100% sure that they kept the largest share ever since, but it would not surprise me if they did. From 1978 on, Toyota of Thailand was producing its own bodies. Thailand became Toyota’s second non-domestic market in terms of volume behind the US for a good while.

This specific fourth generation of Corollas, the E70, was launched in 1979. These cars hold a place in my memory for having been our family’s ride in the late ‘80s. We had a second-hand 1980 Corolla five-door wagon, in the obligatory beige (plus plastic wood), which had the same tail as our feature Capsule but quad headlamps like the sedan above.

Then came the 1981-only square lamps as on our feature car, followed by a more extensive facelift for 1982-83. Apparently, this generation of Corollas were given a completely new rear suspension, complete with coil springs and Panhard rod. In spite of this, I distinctly recall my mother describing the handling as terrible, especially on snow. The E70 wagon outlasted the other body styles by four years, soldiering on until 1987. Also, the millionth Corolla was an E70 built in February 1983.

I also vividly recall the cheap yet relatively durable interior, the crank windows and five-speed manual gearbox, which our feature car had too. I completely screwed up the interior pics on this one though, so here’s one from David Saunder’s CC of one (this one obviously an automatic and LHD, unlike the feature car).

The three-door wagon (as distinct from the shooting brake) was a fairly uncommon body style by the time the E70 came out, and had not been available in the US since two generations earlier. Nissan, Mitsubishi, Alfa Romeo, Opel, Austin, Ford and several others stuck to this body style for many years. But by the late ‘70s, the five-door variant was becoming the very definition of a “station wagon”. The E70 Corolla was the last of the Corolla three-door wagons, a tradition that went all the way back to 1966 to the very first generation Corolla, which was only available as a three-door.

But the E70 Corolla went out with a flurry of three-door wagons, primarily in Asian markets. You could choose so many variations: blanked out windows, blanked out middle windows, blanked out rear windows, or all-windows as on today’s example. Plus you could order a raised roof version of these four – making eight versions in total, plus two flavours of the five-door (low or raised roof).

Added to that was the coupé-derived “Liftback”, which is more of a shooting brake and also therefore a three-door wagon. In total, there were 20 different body styles (sedan, two-door sedan, sports sedan, a US-only convertible, coupés, three- and five-door wagons) offered on the E70 Corolla, to be mated with seven different engines. Toyota obviously favoured an all-out blitzing strategy for both their competitors and clientele.

A beige, chrome bumper, manual transmission RWD three-door wagon – how many boxes does that tick? That is the question…