Curbside Classic: 1968 Toyota 1600GT-5 – Corona Con Tequila

This car was one of the nicer surprises I’ve had this year. The Fiat Abarth, the Renault Gordini and the Mini Cooper all had a Japanese cousin, and I never knew about it until I happened to meet one a couple weeks ago. One big difference is that Toyota did all their specials in-house, so unlike all these snooty European double-barreled sports cars, this Japanese one has a deceptively short moniker. Another difference is in size and prestige, which are both a bit bigger in the Toyota 1600GT’s case.

The basis for the 1600GT is the humble Corona hardtop coupé, launched in 1966. I snapped the one above at the Megaweb History Garage last year. Toyota already had a sports car in their range in the shape of the tiny (but sublime) S800 Targa, in production since 1965, but the mid-‘60s saw an unprecedented proliferation of new models take place. The year 1967 was slated to be Toyota’s most important of the decade: the Japanese firm launched the 2000GT and the Century, two superlative cars to celebrate the 100th birthday of the company’s founder. They also debuted the third generation of the famous Crown that year, but that was probably the marque’s least noteworthy novelty.

In August 1967, somewhat upstaged by all the other major additions in the Toyota range, came the 1600GT. Aside from anything else, this was to be Toyota’s main contender in Japanese stock car racing, against the likes of the Prince Skyline, the Isuzu Bellett GT and the Nissan Bluebird SSS. And as such, the 1600GT was very successful, earning Toyota several podium finishes in the late ‘60s. This is one seriously spiked Corona!

The bodyshell and most of the chassis were straight off the Corona, though the brakes and suspension were beefed up some. The real innovation was in the engine bay, which housed the completely new 9R block – essentially a 4-cyl. version of the 2000GT’s Yamaha-engineered DOHC 6-cyl. Two options were available for the transmission: a 4-speed or a 5-speed, both manual and on the floor. I realize that I already nicknamed the Isuzu Bellett GT “the Japanese Alfa Romeo,” but this is even more deserving of the name.

The car was so fast that the Corona scripts fell off – it’s known in Japan as the Toyota 1600GT plain and simple (or GT-5, if it’s a 5-speed), or by its internal model code, RT55, regardless of the gear count. To emphasize the kinship with the 2000GT, the 1600GT got triangular emblems, both on the grill and the C-pillar, with a checkered motif, along with other small distinguishing touches, such as a dummy air intake on the fenders and those peculiar alloy wheels.

It’s unclear to me how Toyota thought they were going to sell this car, though. It was mostly destined for domestic consumption, though there are rumours of a few having been sold new in Australia and New Zealand. If they did not want to export it more widely, then sales numbers would necessarily be small. And they were: only 2222 were made, the last ones being sold in January 1969. Some consider this car to be a dry run for the Celica, which appeared only two years later – and this time on all major markets.

Judging by my empirical browsing on Google Images (and the brochure), it seems this model-specific yellow was quite a popular choice for this exclusive model. One could also opt for red, white or silver. Not a very expansive (or interesting) colour choice, then. For once, yellow was the best available shade — the others were just too common.

Naturally, the interior of the one I found was impossible to photograph, so here’s what the 1967 brochure can provide. It’s about as different from the antiquated Toyoglide Corona coupé (bottom picture) as it can be – very sporty and very late ‘60s.

I’m still not convinced by the looks of these shovel-nosed Toyotas. They’re ungainly, even in two-door hardtop guise – especially compared to their JDM competitors from Nissan and Isuzu. But I have a lot of respect for them, especially now that I’ve seen one of the more exclusive versions of the breed.

The obvious solution is to look at the 1600GT from the back. Now that’s an attractive car! The rear lights are bigger than on the Corona coupé, which soon adopted them, but they were first seen on the 1600GT; the blacked out rear panel is also specific to this model.

Charismatic though they may be – and valuable, now that they have reached middle age, Renault Gordinis and Mini Coopers are not half as remarkable as this rare Toyota, with its jewel of an engine, its bespoke interior and its ugly mug of a face. Of course, it’s no 2000GT, but it was made for mere mortals, not the fortunate few. It hides its fancy pedigree behind a common Corona façade – the ultimate Z car, with salt and lemon.