Curbside Classic: 1971 Toyota Corona Mark II – Some Things Never Change

(first posted 8/20/2013)    Forty (update: fifty) years is an instant, and an eternity; so many things change, but others hardly change at all. One minute, I’m with a girlfriend, bopping care-free down an Iowa country road in a baby-blue ’71 Mark II, with our long hair blowin’ in the warm wind. Today, we exchange e-mails halfway around the globe about our grown kids and frail parents. And although we’re obviously older (and hopefully, wiser), grayer, and no longer so nimble, our personalities are fundamentally the same. That’s the constant we instantly recognize and love when it comes to family and old friends, even if the packaging changes a bit over time. That also applies to some cars, and especially to this Toyota.

In car time, 40 years really is an eternity, unless you’re Morgan. So many brands have come and gone along with their position in the marketplace. One year, it’s performance. The next, fuel economy, or luxury, or…well, even Mercedes seems like a different company today. But there are a few exceptions, and it’s hard for me to think of a more consistent company than Toyota, especially with its mid-size cars like this Mark II, the spiritual predecessor of today’s Camry. And you wonder why folks my age so readily keep buying them? As with our old friends and family members, we recognize their enduring qualities, even if the packaging is now bigger and softer.

Even the advertising theme is familiar: Well, maybe not the part about the lighter being concealed behind a panel, although that is typical Toyota attention to detail. It’s all about the quietness of the engine, and the comfort of the cabin: “It’s roomy without being big. Luxurious without being expensive. And economical without being noisy. TOYOTA, we’re quality oriented.”  That pretty much sums up both the company and its bread-and-butter sedans.

Toyota conquered the U.S. market with those values and its sedans. Their first big seller was the Corona, which was from today’s vantage point quite a small car. The Corona started to really sell in the last years of the Sixties, and in 1968 was augmented by the then-tiny Corolla. The Corona Mark II, (later just Mark II), appeared hereabouts in ’68 or ’69 as a slightly longer, wider and more upscale version of the rather plain-Jane Corona. It signaled that Toyota was not just going to be an economy-car company forever.

It featured a brand new engine, the SOHC 1900 cc 8R, which was praised by the press for its even power delivery and smoothness. Rated at 108 (gross) hp, it supposedly was fast enough to push the Mark II up to 105 mph. My limited experience in the Mark II never allowed me to confirm that; her parents split up about then, and the Mark II went off with Daddy.

But the driving experience was classic Toyota: unexciting and uninspiring, yet exuding a self-assured air of quality and Japanese precision. The engine hummed, the manual transmission shifted perfectly, the interior was a very pleasant place to be and the steering and handling were both humdrum.

A Datsun 510 it was not, but within a few years Datsun was trying way too hard to turn their sedans into Toyota clones. The Mark II had established itself as Toyota’s first step-up car on a trajectory that would eventually lead to Lexus. Perhaps the Mark II was really the first ES; I’ll bet that more than one ES driver started out with a Mark II.

The gen-two Mark II (X10/X20 Series) were significantly bigger cars with six-cylinder engines. Since the second-generation Crown didn’t sell well here (when was the last time you saw a Crown?), the Mark II became Toyota’s top model (try finding one of those too). The gen-three Mark II was the first to wear the Cressida name in the U.S., so this car is a direct descendant of that storied Toyota.

I do have Cressidas, so sometime we’ll pick up that thread, as well as the Corona’s, of which I’ve had the good fortune to find some nice early versions. Although I’d pretty much given up on finding a Mark II, suddenly there it was, still looking for all the world like a daily driver right down to its original license-plate protector. It was like running into an old friend from 40 years ago who’s still wearing the very same clothes.

Well, don’t look at her skin too closely; time does take a bit of a toll. But the essence is all there, and the memories come flooding back.

That jutting chin,

and a few busy details trying to add a bit of pizazz to a pretty generic body. Toyota styling would neither sear nor seduce your eyeballs. While it might look a bit odd at first, it rather grows on you a bit–and at the least, it doesn’t age badly. Mostly, that still applies today, with some exceptions, one of which I consider to be the current Camry.

Well, its been a treat. Lots of old cars make you feel like it’s been a really long 40 years; everything about them seems so…different. But this Mark II, well, just exudes familiarity. And that’s what we want in old friends, no?