Curbside Classic: 1978 Toyota Corona – Baseball, Apple Pie And A Corona

(first posted 6/12/2011)   In a parallel universe, this would be a 1978 Chevy III, Ford Dearborn, Plymouth Cranbrook or Studebaker Larkette. It’s more “American” than the American cars of its time, trying so hard to look like a miniature Oldsmobile or Dodge sedan from ten years earlier. Toyota has always been the most “American” of the Japanese car makers, as well as the most conservative. Of course, both of those concepts are part of an image Toyota was eager to cultivate here, since it seemed like the way to be acceptable.

But it also repeatedly threatened to leave it behind, in terms of the state of design and technology. There had been a time when the Corona was the brash new kid on the block. Some ten years later, it was already suffering from “Camry Syndrome”: dull, boring, out-of-date, conventional, and of course, dead reliable. Well, amidst a sea of self-destructing Vegas and Volares, that did have its charms. How un-American was that?

We’ll take a look at the earlier Coronas sometime, but this green 1978 with its vinyl roof so epitomizes the era when the Corona became an American household word. Look! It even has a bench seat and column-mounted shifter for its Toyoglide automatic transmission. Not that three corn-fed Iowans were ever going to sit there; all at the same time. The Corona was still a fairly narrow car, unable to belie its Japanese roots that way, despite the facade its all-American wheel covers.

Yes, the Corona initially made its inroads in California, and by 1967 or so, they started popping up in big East Coast cities. Perfect example: my high school art teacher in Baltimore drove on of the first ones I got a close look at that same year. But the Japanese invasion was unstoppable, and the first energy crisis was the biggest boon for them since the death of Studebaker. By the time of this Corona, there were few places in the country left where you got a weird look if you told them you drove a Corona. More likely they wanted to out and check it out for themselves.

Lots of former Studebaker dealers became Toyota dealers, to their heirs eternal gratefulness. And the highly conventional Corona certainly wasn’t going to challenge the sensibilities of mid westerners. If anybody was having their sensibilities challenged, it was Californians. Always ready to embrace the next big thing, the Audi Fox (80) and Saab 99 made the dowdy Corona look like Aunt Mildred’s old Dart. Would any of my cohort of up-and coming youthful Los Angelelanos in 1978 have even given the Corona a moment’s consideration? No way.

The parking lot at the tv station near Westwood was a tantalizing plate of sushi and pasta, along with a dollop of American ketchup. Hondas, Fiats, Datsuns, Alfa Romeo, a new downsized F-41 Caprice, my Peugeot 404, a stunning DS-21 even. Yes, a Toyota pickup and a Corolla or two, and an “old” gen 1 Corona that was getting its engine rebuilt in a corner of the set storage area. But a new Corona?

Maybe if you were one of the early adopters of the married lifestyle. Or maybe a Corona wagon if you were going to ditch the rat race and drive it to Alaska. Now that I’ve put myself back in that time frame, a Corona wagon would have been ok; it clearly identified you as working in the engineering or tech department, but ok. The sedan? With a vinyl roof, no less? If you were going to go down that road, it wouldn’t have been on a Corona. You’d stretch, and get a Seville, a used one, if need be.

Sure, everyone appreciated the Corona’s indestructible R-series engine and otherwise all-round solidity. Well, these cars (or some variation thereof) proved their mettle daily for decades as the taxicab of choice in Tokyo. As good a proving ground as it got. The Corona was a Toyota Hi-Lux pickup with a different body, at least as far as the running gear goes. Whoever bought this daily driver probably hasn’t regretted it, even if it was uncool at the time.

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And Toyota is still building what amounts to essentially the same car: the Comfort, and Crown Comfort, with extended wheelbase. Used mainly as taxis and driving school cars, they are powered by a 114 hp 2.0 L four, and have a solid rear axle. This is the functional equivalent of GM still building a version on the classic boxy B-Body from the late 70s or early eighties.

Toyota managed to keep the old RWD Corona hot-dish-alcohol-free Sunday after church get-together going for a while longer, but eventually the risk of being left too far behind compared to those bold European, American and Honda FWD cars had to be addressed. The Camry was quite the great leap forward, and one that took Toyota to the top before too long. Toyota lovers were relieved; the Corona was reminding too much of the Lark’s glacial evolution. Maybe all those former Studebaker dealers were exerting their influence?