Curbside Classic: 1963 Toyopet Corona 1500 Deluxe (T20) – Strike Two

What do you call a Toyopet found in the wild? A Toyoferal? This 2nd generation Corona, which looks like a mini imitation-crab American mid-‘50s design, is the first Toyopet I’ve encountered on the street. I got close, prudently, and took a few photos. It didn’t seem too ferocious, so I smiled and even muttered a few kind words. But I didn’t go as far as Toyopetting it.

It’s almost impossible not to see other cars in one you see for the first time in the metal. That’s especially true of older Japanese cars. The rear lights on this Corona reminded me of the Renault Floride / Caravelle, for instance. The profile had a Fiat feel to it, the front end was giving me some Ford vibes… or Opel… or perhaps even Simca? Something that wants to look American but doesn’t quite manage it, like many European (and most Japanese) cars of the era.

It was really difficult to get decent picture of this wild-caught example, but as luck would have it, I encountered a domesticated one at the Toyota Megaweb Museum that was almost exactly identical and quite happy to be photographed. Same colour inside and out, same trim level – how lucky can a CC writer get?

The only minor discrepancies that I could see were a couple of slightly different badges and the museum car’s front wing turn signal repeaters. The latter looked non-standard – bad job there, Megaweb. But I’ll forgive you because the rest of the exhibits were so great. Must write that up sometime…

Some carmakers managed to find a sort of magic formula very quickly and establish themselves in a matter of a few years. Others had to work real hard for a long time to achieve success. The former could include the likes of Jaguar, Citroën or Porsche – they worked out the secret sauce and quickly found a customer base. For Japanese carmakers, I’d nominate Honda. The more I find old Toyotas, the more I put them in the latter category – they really slogged for many, many years before they got it right.

Take something as seemingly simple as a marque’s name. It’s not always easy to get it right the first time (hello SS-Jaguar), but Toyota seemingly could never make up their mind. They started as Toyoda – the founder’s name. For partially esthetic and esoteric reasons, this was soon switched to “Toyota” in the mid-‘30s, even as the firm started making their first automobiles. Inexplicably, the firm decided to switch to “Toyopet” in 1947. They released a new Beetle-like car, the SA, which they felt needed a diminutive name to go with its diminutive size. But then the name stuck and infected Toyota’s products for years.

And it really isn’t a great name in at least two major foreign languages. In English, the conjunction of “Toy-” and “-pet” make it difficult to take the brand seriously. It sounds like a made-up marque from a children’s book, something so cutesy and cuddly that it might get eaten by your neighbour’s Buick.

In French, the main issue is that “pet” translates as “fart.” Contemporary francophone publications routinely sniggered at the “unfortunately-named Toyofart” and you can see their point. Datsun, Mazda or Subaru never had to overcome such issues. They were made-up brand names as well (respectively for Nissan Motor Corp., Toyo Kogyo Co. and Fuji Heavy Industries), but they didn’t sound ridiculous to dozens of major potential export markets. Putting the marque name to one side, there is also the question of the actual cars themselves. And here too, Toyota’s learning curve was a long and steep one.

By the late ‘50s, as Toyota’s confidence grew and Japan’s economic boom progressed, exports were high on the agenda. The Toyopet Crown, a fully grown 1.5 litre car, went to Australia and the US, just to see if it might be welcome there. It wasn’t. Neither market was very impressed by it – it was slow, not particularly well designed and ill-suited to highway conditions. But that’s all Toyota had to offer the world, at that point in time. The T10 Corona (above), launched in 1957, though a new 1-litre compact family car, still looked pretty rough around the edges. Toyota deemed it not yet export-worthy.

Above: Plexiglas version at the 1960 Tokyo Motor Show; below: 1960 brochure

Yet because the Crown didn’t do all that well out in the non-JDM world, the Corona was re-engineered (perhaps a bit hastily) and given a chance to shine. Launched in April 1960, the T20 Corona looked more like a modern car than its predecessor. Once it got the Crown’s engine under its bonnet in 1961, it was peddled to several foreign markets. For whatever reason, they decided to keep “Toyopet” but ditch the “Corona” bit; it was known as the Toyopet Tiara in most export markets, including the US.

In that market, the Tiara replaced the Crown in 1961 and promptly flopped, much to Toyota’s dismay. They pulled out of the US market for a couple of years as a result. The Tiara did a little better in Australia, where it was assembled in 1963-64 – the first Toyota put together abroad. However, things were not off to a great start anywhere, including on the home front.

The T20’s novel rear suspension, which combined a single leaf springs and coils, as well as the relatively fragile-looking greenhouse, meant the Corona struggled to appeal to JDM buyers. It was perceived as far less durable than its main rival, the Datsun Bluebird. Taxi companies shied away from it and sales were initially rather sluggish. The suspension was more comfortable, but it just couldn’t handle Japan’s then-rough road network.

The introduction of the 1500 Deluxe, in October 1961, gave private JDM sales a shot in the arm, especially since the complex “cantilevered” suspension was also replaced by a sturdier pair of semi-elliptical leafs already seen on the Coronaline pickups and wagon. The car’s reputation improved, but negative first impressions are always difficult to shake off.

Transmission-wise, the T20 came standard with a 3-speed manual, which is what our feature car seems to be equipped with. But the 1500 was available with either the Saxomat automatic clutch or the fully automatic 2-speed Toyoglide. Although I’m not overly fond of this car’s exterior looks, that interior is just wonderful. That row of big white switches under the beautiful radio set is just excellent, though I’m sure not exactly user-friendly.

I’m also a sucker for this kind of colour scheme. White steering wheel, turquoise and baby blue upholstery with checkers on the sides and generous amounts of brightwork… Nice to see something other than gray plastic and carbon fiber for a change. The legroom isn’t much to write home about, but given the average size of Japanese people 60 years ago, it was probably deemed quite sufficient.

The exterior of the car is more of an acquired taste. The more I look at it, the more I see a mid-‘50s Opel. Better than the T10 Corona’s 1949-Ford-that-shrank-in-the-wash look, but still a bit too derivative. The greenhouse and doors are a bit too slanted for their own good, too. The T20 and the Publica were the last Toyotas to be somewhat amateurish in their appearance, in my opinion. Later designs, which would include the S40 Crown, the 800 Sports, the T40 Corona and the Corolla, showed Toyota designers had fully mastered their art. And just to prove it, they also did the 2000 GT.

The Toyopet name also took a step back. It’s difficult to ascertain when it disappeared from each model exactly – it depends on the market. As far as I can tell, when Toyota re-entered the US market in late 1964, the Toyopet name was gone for good. The T40 Corona was always badged as a Toyota there, as far as I know. I’m not sure about other places, like Australia, New Zealand or Europe. On the JDM, though, the Toyopet marque was kept on some models, including the Corona, until the late ‘70s. And it’s still the name of one of the main Toyota dealer networks, so it hasn’t completely disappeared. But the Century, the Corolla and the 2000 GT were always badged as Toyotas, so it seems that even by the mid-‘60s, the Toyopet experiment was winding down.

The T30 Corona, also known as the Corona 1900, was added to the range for the 1964 model year. It had the Crown’s 1.9 litre 4-cyl., but by this point the body was really showing its age. The T20/T30 was not a bad car per se, but it seemed inferior to the Datsun Bluebird and the Prince Skyline. Toyota learned from their mistakes and made sure to hit the nail on the head for the next generation, the T40 Corona, which was unveiled in September 1964. It really proved to be a smash, both on the JDM and in export markets.

I’m not too keen on the T40 Corona myself, though having studied a coupé up close at the Megaweb Museum, I can see a certain charm to them. The T20 we have here is more interesting in many ways, as it is so ‘50s-looking and has that jukebox dash. It’s a bit goofy on the outside, though, with that silly name plastered on all corners. Wouldn’t kick it out of my driveway though.


Related post:


Vintage Review: 1961 Toyopet Tiara — From Small Things, Big Things One Day Come, by Eric703

CC 1969 Toyota Corona — At All Started Here   by PN