Curbside Classics takes you back to 1971 for a virtual comparison test of six small cars, based (and partly borrowed) from a C/D test. This is actually a 1974 with the big bumpers, but it’s the last survivor of this generation to be found. First posted here in 2011.
Hail the conquering hero! Well, not of C/D‘s comparison test, but who cares, as long as the sales are there. And by 1971, the Corolla was well along in its conquest of the US small car market, despite being only three years fresh. In 1969, only its second year on the US market, the Corolla leapt to the number two import sales spot, and was nipping hard at the Beetle’s pointy tail. Try replicating that today! And by 1975, the “little crown” was lording over the defeated krabbeltier. So what exactly were the Corolla’s remarkable qualities that sent VW (and Opel) into such a deep and permanent retreat? And its shortcomings (only one, actually) that kept it from winning this comparison?
Let’s start by looking at what it was up against. The Beetle’s well known qualities have already been covered in this comparison. In 1971, it was still hanging on stubbornly. But the number two import Opel Kadett was thoroughly pushed aside by the Japanese upstart. Or more accurately, fell aside. By 1971, the rising German currency and GM’s planned import killer Vega caused Opel to drop the aged Kadett and focus on the more upscale market with its 1900 Sports Sedan (Ascona) and Manta.
And the rest of the import competition in 1971? There were some seriously advanced Europeans knocking on the door. Think Fiat 128, Austin America (1100), Peugeot 304, Simca 1100/1204, Renault R16. Highly sophisticated FWD cars, but each with questionable durability and iffy dealer networks. At the hands of America’s abusive and maintenance-neglecting drivers, this was not exactly a recipe for success. The best hopes were with the other new Japanese small cars, such as the Datsun 1200. Japan’s sun(ny) was rising quickly over the US in 1971.
The ’71 Corolla encapsulated all the qualities that have made it a perennial top seller. Well, except one. Remember all our talk in prior episodes about Americans’ desire to roll stress-free down the freeway at seventy? The 1200 cc engine in this model just didn’t cut it for that: “with its 4.22 axle ratio and 12-inch wheels, the engine fairly screams at 70 mph…at low speeds and in traffic the car is fun to drive, however, and it feels the most like a sports car than the others.” I guess the Corolla has changed in some regards; the word “sports car” sure didn’t come to mind when I reviewed the current Corolla. Now it’s the consummate freeway isolation box.
But Toyota is (usually) a quick study. Within a year or so, it offered the legendarily durable 1600 cc hemi-head 2T-C engine. Especially when combined with the slick new 5-speed stick, it alleviated any lingering freeway-compatibility questions for the Corolla. If C/D‘s tester had been a 1600, it might well have won outright.
Corollas have generally been appreciated for their interior qualities, although that is in regression now too. Back in ’71, it offered a remarkably pleasant place to be, considering how small and light (1785 lb!) it was. C/D praised the remarkably roomy back seat (surprising for a tiny RWD car): “usually in critical supply in cars of this size” and the interior generally: “carpeting is standard, high quality vinyl is used to cover the seats and door panels and the whole package is coordinated in pleasing colors…the instrument panel is attractive and highly functional.”
A good friend bought the exact same car as this tester, for which she traded in a ’69 big-block Fury. Well, that sure ended the high-speed dashes across the heartland. As the energy crisis set in we piled into the Corolla for shorter-distance summer fun: skinny-dipping at the quarries that dot eastern Iowa. If you look carefully, you can still see the seam lines of a hot black vinyl Corolla seatback etched into my backside.
The sensations of barreling the Corolla 1200 down gravel country roads are equally etched in my memory. It was a (relatively) fun drive, in the classic light, small underpowered RWD way that has long gone the way of other automotive dinosaurs (not all the dinos were big). Very quick and light unassisted steering, maybe a hair imprecise. Remarkably light and crisp shifting tranny. Hair-trigger clutch. Brakes were so-so, even for the times. It may have felt “sporty,” but the 1200 could never reach sporty speeds straight ahead or in (paved) corners, where the Corolla perpetually wanted to assume the dog-at-hydrant pose.
Taking gravel corners quickly was another story. That generally has more to do with the driver than the car. But the Corolla was a balanced and confidence-inspiring drifter, and gravel was the only way to drift the underpowered cars back then; Iowa’s Not-So-Fast and Furious.
No doubt about the Corolla 1200 being pokey. It’s pretty obvious that Car and Driver‘s test Corolla wasn’t a “ringer.” Theirs clocked a pathetic 15.5 seconds 0-60, and even worse, tied the Beetle with a 19.8 second quarter mile. But it would get about 30 mpg, no matter how hard you flogged it (perpetually, out of necessity).
Elinor’s 1200 Corolla was totaled when she lent it to a friend. Doesn’t it always happen like that? But the replacement had the 1600, and the difference was very palpable: 100 horsepower for 1800 lb. That’s a better power-to-weight ratio than a new Corolla. Now, high-speed dashes across the desert in the Corolla were once again the order of the day.
So to answer the question we posed at the beginning, the Corolla was essentially what it is today: an efficient, economical, relatively comfortable appliance. But what really burnished the Corolla reputation over the years was its legendary reliability and durability. 1971 was a bit early to fully see that one coming, although Toyota ads of the time already crowed about their attention to materials and details. And the Corolla was already running reliability rings around the broken-down European competition (VW excepted).
So I assumed that I wouldn’t have any trouble finding a suitable Corolla to pose for me. Seems like just yesterday that these were everywhere. And serious rust is not an issue here. I started to get antsy after a few weeks of keeping my eyes peeled. Finally, on a bike ride, I gave a whoop when I saw this one a block down the street. You’d think I’d just found a Dino sitting at the curb.
This ’74 (with the add-on cow-catcher bumpers) has been owned by its loving owner since 1976. And her Land Cruiser creates a nice commentary on Toyota’s “growth.” Yes, folks do tend to come out and see what’s going on when someone is taking pictures of their beloved old car. But wariness quickly turns to appreciation, when they find out their car is going to have its fifteen minutes of fame. Or, in the Corolla’s case, forty years, which we celebrated here. The world’s best selling car for decades; who would have guessed that in 1971? Can Toyota keep it that way?
1971 Comparison car #1 (winner)
Yes, the sales brochures did harp on the “high-quality American vinyls” and other details I remember so well. Toyota tried cooling the heat about being a “foreign car” by emphasizing, in addition to U.S.-made vinyl, other materials were sourced from other places than Japan, which is why they referring to these as “world cars”. A service buddy bought a Corolla wagon described in another post and his family had the same color blue Corona. I had to admit that while these cars had an interior smell unique to “foreign cars”, they ran and ran well, and ran rings around my Chevy, fuel economy-wise. Even I, in my immaturity could clearly see that Toyota was a coming force to be reckoned with. I think I might have been correct about that.
For a long time I thought Japanese-made cars had rather thin vinyl surfaces. Not a big deal, for I’d rather have Japanese Q/C & reliability than Ford vinyl.
I wish vinyl would come back, at least on high-contact surfaces like armrests and the headrest. I continually worry about staining the cloth on them.
It’s easier than you think to get vinyl upholstery on high-contact surfaces like armrests and the headrest.
Just buy a modern vehicle with “leather seating surfaces.”
i always liked the Corolla and the Celicas from the 70s. This was a good review. Paul, does anyone have a 1st gen Celica fastback GT you can do a CC on?
I already have one in my (big) virtual can. Coming…inevitably and eventually. Its a daily driver; I see it regularly.
I actually bought one of these new back in ’71. Bright red 4 speed. The dealer swapped me even for my ’69 Land Cruiser. I loved it because I looked at it as a bargain basement sports car. I painted some skunk stripes on it and punched holes in the muffler. I was ahead of the curve of the tuners by at least 20 years. Two years later, I traded it in on a new Buick Riviera. Go figure…..
Actually, Paul, the car in the picture is a 1974 with the Battleship Bumpers. I know since I learned to drive on the exact same car! Well, the one I learned on as a base model, not the deluxe pictured and without that classy roof.
That little Corolla 1600 was in the family for 12 years, until I, while driving it far too fast, while drunk, on a logging road to a fishing hole, lost control and crashed it, backwards, into a tree. Bent the thing all out of shape. My canoe was also totaled, having been on the roof!
I had a notice on the original version at TTAC to that effect, but forgot to add it here. It was as close as I could get; in fact its the only one of its generation still around.
I saw one on Vancouver Island last summer. What struck me was how tiny the car was by today’s standards.
The 2TC was a great motor, completely over-engineered. It looked a little like a Chrysler Hemi in a way, with the wide head and double rocker system, and pushrods. The car was very peppy to drive and was considered quite quick in its day. It never failed to start or run perfectly the whole time it was in the family. In an era when getting cars to actually start in cold weather took quite a bit of finesse, the Corolla fired up perfectly every time.
Good on Toyota for responding to the power shortage – for you guys. Wish we’d had the 2TC. Here in Australia we had to put up with the 1200 (and later 1300) for many years yet. Until the end of RWD Corolla production in the sedans, IIRC.
I had a 73 Corolla 1200 I bought used for $350 in 1980 and sold in 1986 for $300. In that time all it ever needed was a clutch cable and tires. I do not remember it having those beefy bumpers. That little beer can saw me through HS and college. What a great post. Thanks.
69-71 Corona Mark II please!
I’ve actually considered buying this car. When I sold my 1974 Corolla SR5 http://www.oldparkedcars.com/2010/09/1974-toyota-corolla-sr5-te27-coupe.html to a friend in the Eugene area, he tried to get me to buy this exact car.
Sigh, if only the classic Rollas were safer for the kids.
I had a 1974 Corolla. Believe it or not, it was my first car. I brought it brand new for somewhere less than $2400. I think what really stood out with these cars were the reliability, which was beginning to show in the Consumer Reports surveys. The only problem area in this car was the automatic transmission. In the old days, CR used to count sample defects, and the Corolla had the fewest sample defects of any car made, a total of twelve. By comparison, my mom’s Datsun 1200 registered a total of 30 sample defects. Try getting away with that may defects today!
Rust in Piece, Toyota-san… (snapped in Laos in 2011)
Just bought a 1971 Corolla which had been fully restored some years ago its had an engine replacement but with original type engine. Just having the steering linkage changed and luckily have found the parts. Whats amazing is this is in Thailand!!!!!!!
One of my cousins had one of these. A 74 I think. 4 doors. I helped him install a radio when I visited him in Calgary. To make a hole for the antenna I was going to use a nail for a center punch to help drill a circle of holes. I tapped the nail with a hammer and the nail went right through the sheet metal. So I made a circle of holes with the nail and used side cutters to cut between the holes. When I had done the same with my Valiant previously, I had to use a drill and a hack saw blade.
When he moved to Edmonton a couple years later, he wanted to put his Kawasaki 175 into the back set. It almost fit. So we stretched the rear door opening with the jack from my Valiant. We got the bike in. Then we jacked the front door opening until the doors closed again properly. We were quite surprised how bendy the car was and how thin the sheet metal was.
His wife got the car in the 80s when they split up. Ans he got the Kawasaki.
I think the Corolla has somewhat improved since then.
I had a ’69 that I still wish I had. 1100 cc engine, 12″ tires, 8 gal gas tank and it was loads of fun. Open the door and put the palm of your hand on the road. A little 4 cylinder engine that you could rev to over 6,000rpm and still not get less than 28 mpg. Once managed to fit 7 people in the car and drive it although I don’t really think anyone wanted to make a long road trip out of it. Also it would fit on a city sidewalk when I drove on the sidewalk in order to get to a friend’s van to jump start it. I paid $775.00 for it, got rear ended and the insurance paid $450.00 and sold it for $325.00 after owning it for 4 years. A very economical car.
“The world’s best selling car for decades; who would have guessed that in 1971?”
Who would have ever guessed in 1971 that the aspirational Oldsmobile would someday be gone and they’d still be building Corolla’s today? Had you predicted this in 1971, people would have thought you were nuttier than squirrel shit. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Your description of dirt road driving in the Corolla bring up very fond memories of my own, riding in and driving old RWD Ladas and Moskvitches in rural Siberia on dirt and gravel roads. Same light weight, RWD, unassisted steering, low power stick shift fun. To me that is the most pure and distilled sensation of driving an automobile.
Most recently it was in 2015-2016, my late great uncle had an ’81 Lada 2101 as his family’s main mode of transportation (see pic), and my grandma’s neighbor is a retired cab driver who upgraded from a mid 90s 2105 to a fuel injected (!!!) 2107 that he gave us a few rides in to some nearby tourist areas.
In my upper midwestern area Toyotas didn’t start to become common until maybe 1975-76. I remember the early opinion being “sure they look good now but wait a couple of years until they start falling apart.”
But they didn’t fall apart and word spread. I remember the 2 year old Ford Cortina wagon that my scoutmaster owned in 1971. Failure after failure after failure (although admittedly he was not big into maintenance). Stupid things like a wiper arm that snapped off because the wiper was frozen to the windshield and a stick shift that snapped off, who knows how. Nearly every foreign car but VW had a tarnished reputation for durability. Toyota had a lot of work to do to overcome that. And it did.
They were reliable, but they sure rusted to pieces quickly! The early Japanese cars seemed to be particularly tasty to the tinworm.
I’m sure that I have discussed this here before but the very first new car I purchased was a 1973 VW Super Beetle. The final decision came down to the VW and a Corolla much like this one. I actually found the Toyota more enjoyable to drive, it was noticeably quicker than the VW, handled better and, in retrospect, was a much better car. The deciding factor was that I was much more familiar with Volkswagens, as family and friends had owned numerous editions through the years, and the perception then was that Japanese cars were cheaply made and wouldn’t hold up. I ended up selling the Super Beetle after a year or so, the first fuel crisis made any small car desirable. As it turned out I didn’t purchase a Japanese branded car until 1993, when we bought our first Camry. We have owned a half dozen Toyotas over the years since then and they have all been solid and reliable cars, if not the most thrilling vehicles on the road.
The first Japanese car I ever road in was a new Corolla 1200, perhaps the 1971 model as I was in grade 11 at the time. Sitting in the back seat was okay even with my long legs. I remember being impressed with the rear seat room but also how quiet it drove in the city and the quality of the interior. Up to this point my few automotive experiences had been in North American cars.
We had these Corollas as office runabouts, the NZ govt bought boatloads of them, all in an unremarkable pale green colour it seemed, tough little cars they withstood the thrashing they were given at the hands of many drivers and were usually still going fine when auctioned off and end of service, yeah good cars not sporty but quite durable.
Only thing remarkable about that pale green colour was it’s popularity. It seemed to be the default Toyota colour back then!
The body intents for the old small bumpers being clearly visible well past the new big bumpers may make this the worst of the 5mph bumper executions.
Yours really should be the comment of the day!
When I got the new Pinto in ’72 what I really wanted was a Corolla SR5 coupe with the five speed, like the ’74 shown here. But my WWII vet Dad was footing the down payment and co-signing the loan, and he did not like Japanese cars. The war was not such a distant memory in those days. So a Pinto it was for me.
In a similar vein, a half-generation earlier —
My late uncle returned from Air Force duty in 1958, with a little German car he’d driven all over Europe. The VW Beetle horrified my Jewish family.
In a similar vein, two decades later, my aunt was horrified to find out the Ford Laser that nice man had sold her was actually a Japanese Mazda. Whether emotionally or geographically, memories were long when the war hit close to home.
My father was pretty much the same way back in the 60’s just 20 years removed from the jungles of the Pacific. Yet when he took a job with a company that dealt with growers in the Central Valley, many of whom were Japanese, he mellowed. Enough so that he traveled to Japan a couple of times later on business.
One thing I learned that did stick with him to this day, he is 92 and I learned it yesterday, is that he is very much against the killing of wildlife. Seems all he saw after naval bombardments were dead animals all over the islands while there were very few dead Japanese after such a bombardment.
Fun fact, the fuel filler is behind that metal decor up on the side of the car near the rear window. If I remember correctly it flips up. My dad had a ’71 and then a ’73.
The latest E170 Corolla’s back seat is still reasonable for a car in its class although it’s grown overall from the original. Its 106″ wheelbase now matches the Civic’s
My wife, many moons ago, bought a first generation Corolla. 1200 and two speed auto. Hardly inspiring. She loved the car, and we had a rebuilt 1600 engine fitted to it. It then proceeded to go like stink, but continued transmission woes forced a sale. We later found out the mechanics that did the swap fitted an engine that was originally mated to a manual gearbox. It seems that there was a clearance issue, and the auto box was put under enormous strain internally when it was all bolted together. A lesson learned. A simple remedy was found, and last we heard, the daughter of the guy we sold it to was having a love affair with the car.
My younger brother had one of the first year Corollas… required a valve job every 15k miles per my recollection. But many other small cars of the day were no different.
And my best friend’s wife bought a new ’73 Corolla and, yes, I do remember being quite impressed with the roomy back seat. In this case, most if not all, other small cars of the day were quite different in that respect.
This story hits home, as my second car (and only newly-purchased one) was a 1974 Corolla 1200. Dad was assisting, so I had little choice – I’d have taken the 1600 any day – but the payments through my savings bank were $67/month for 36 months so I went with the deal.
Parenthetically, the car shown in this article’s photos is a 1600 – note the padded dash underside (the 1200 was bare painted steel, body color); three-spoke steering wheel (the 1200 had a spartan two-spoker); and the tires obviously are 13″ issue (the 1200 came with 12″ wheels, a point of amusement given due attention by the family mechanic who installed my mail-order Semperit M401 HiLife radials which replaced the wimpy Bridgestone bias-plies, allowing the car at least the option of not slowing down too much once it built up a head of steam). My $2267 stripper didn’t even have a radio, which I installed aftermarket.
Most interesting memory of this car was the heater system. The Toyota people must have sold cars to the Ainu in far north Japan, because the heater was up to any weather that western New England could toss one’s way, as good as the Nash WeatherEye. I learned to make ham-and-cheese sandwiches on buttered bread, then to put them into the heater for 15 minutes (the heater just had a cable-operated door beneath the dash; opened, for heat and closed, for vent/defrost. Insert sandwich, set on DEFROST for 7 minutes; open and turn your foil-wrapped sandwich over; DEFROST for 7 more minutes. Toasted bread, melted cheese, and toasty ham. Nice.
Car’s life ended two months after I paid off the three-year loan. Driving home on I-84 one day the engine started a horrible clatter which was caused by a broken connecting-rod cap bolt. That led to the other bolt breaking, followed by the connecting rod jamming itself into the inside of the block. I resurrected this car with an engine from a Mazda RX4 but’s a story for another day….