I was elated to find this little gem on the dark side of a Tokyo street recently. You don’t run into a 1st generation Corolla everyday, even in Japan. But it led me to thinking about why Toyota took so long to field a capable small family car – a Beetle-fighter, if you will – and conquer the world with it.
Toyota really did things a little ass-backwards. If you look at the way they developed their ranges in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Japanese carmakers usually followed a similar pattern: start with a small economy car – or a kei, or even a trike – then aim higher with each successive new model. That’s pretty much how Daihatsu, Hino, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Subaru did it. Toyota did the opposite. Worked out pretty well for them, too. (Certainly better than it did for the other two that bucked the trend – Isuzu and Prince.)
The first modern Toyota was the 1955 Crown, a 1.5 litre “big” car. They followed it with the 1957 Corona, initially a 1-litre. But it moved up to the 1.5 litre mid-range spot when the Crown went up to 2 litres in 1960. In 1962, the Publica was launched as the small economy model, with a 700cc twin. They then followed that up with a range-topping V8, the 1964 Crown Eight. So in the mid-60s, there was a big compact family car-sized gap in the middle of Toyota’s range. Almost everyone else was at it, from Datsun to Subaru, but Toyota took their time – it was important to get it right. And then they hit with the E10 Corolla in late 1966.
The two-door sedans arrived first, soon followed by the Sprinter coupé. The engine was an all-new OHV 4-cyl. with a displacement of either 1.1 or 1.2 litres – slightly larger than initially planned to give the model an edge over the competition. By mid-1967, the four-door had arrived, as did the two-door wagon.
Sure, the Corolla was a conservative little car with drum brakes, a live rear axle and cart springs, but it also had modern MacPherson struts up front, a peppy 60 hp engine and a 4-speed manual on the floor. That last feature was something of a gamble by Toyota: Japanese customers associated floor shifters with trucks and three speeds were still thought to be sufficient – might the presence of a 4th gear belie the fact that the engine lacked torque? The gamble paid off. Highway driving was just becoming a thing and the 4th gear proved nicely suited to it, and the floor change’s sportier feel gave the Corolla a edgier vibe. The optional 2-speed Toyoglide was also floor-mounted, but that was more for US exports anyway. This was all packaged within a nicely designed body that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a contemporary European car.
The E10 Corolla’s modern and neutral look was probably the key to its success. One could mentally replace the Toyota badges with Ford or Opel ones, and most people wouldn’t have known any better. You couldn’t really do that with the Publica or the early Coronas, or indeed with most of the Corolla’s rivals. The Corolla was a sign that Toyota had become a true global player, with enough confidence to take on the likes of BMC, Fiat, Renault or VW on emerging markets and soon on their domestic ones, competing in every segment.
It all started with this. Well, not this one exactly, as it has had more than a few modifications. Thankfully, the lack of lighting prevented me from seeing their full extent. At least, the polished brightwork and general shape looked legit enough. Few 50-year old Corollas would still be on the street without a few ameliorations, anyway.
I have vivid memories of my mother’s 1980 Corolla wagon, which she bought second hand in 1987 and drove my brother and me to school with for three years. It had five gears, quad headlamps, rubber bumpers, rear doors and plastic wood on the sides, but still was pretty closely related to this original version. The older car looks better of course, with all those ‘60s chrome touches, but three-door wagons are just plain impractical. That Sprinter coupé, on the other hand…