Curbside Classic: 1979 Toyota Chaser SXL Hardtop Coupé (X40) – Is It A Bird? Is It A Plane? No, It’s Superfluous!

Toyota had a very simple range, once upon a time. Circa 1970, the hierarchy was clear. Between the tiny Publica and the exclusive Century lay five lines — Corolla, Carina, Corona, Mark II and Crown. That would have been plenty already for most carmakers, but not for Toyota.

Japan’s top carmaker had a different vision, a vision whereby the Toyota family name would be spread across a multitude of nameplates by splicing the lines. It was just like what they did with the Corona Mark II, only with pure badge-engineering. Double the Corolla with a Sprinter, make a Supra from that Celica, squeeze a Corolla II out of that Tercel and so on. The lack of a true corporate logo also meant that each model and sub-model would be assigned their own emblem, forcing Toyota designers to come up with endless and confusing variations on the letter “C” or on crown- or star-shaped trinkets.

But with the Mark II, Toyota outdid themselves. From this seemingly modest “Corona plus” that hatched in 1968, in just over a decade three other nameplates were born. Something of an achievement at the time, in the world of Japanese automotive marketing. The Mark II name was perhaps thought to be a bit vague outside Japan, so it became Cressida for export by 1976. In 1977, the Chaser was launched – the sporty Spice of the bunch, only available as a saloon or a hardtop coupe. And when the next generation Mark II / Chaser / Cressida ticked over in 1980, the Cresta happened, because it just had to, clearly.

Seeing it from Toyota’s perspective, the Mark II was the keystone of their JDM range. It sat in the crucial 2-litre family car segment at a time, the ‘70s and ‘80s, when the domestic economy was booming and international appetite for Toyota’s products was on a steep rise. The Cressida name was perhaps justified, but were the Chaser and the Cresta all that necessary?

I can foresee the usual “Well, Toyota had three different sales channels in Japan” explanation is about to rear its ugly head again. Fair enough, but one might counter that there was only one Century, one Crown and one Corona, and that didn’t seem to harm those models’ lifespan. And as I pointed out earlier, only the Mark II was serially cloned like this.

The Nissan opposition might be something to consider. The Mark II fought with the C210 Skyline and the C230 Laurel, two cars that were related under the skin by the mid ‘70s, but had distinct personalities and sheetmetal. Neither of these were Nissan’s finest hour design-wise – they were having a bit of an episode on that score at the time – but the oily bits underneath were just as good as (if not better than) Toyota. The Skyline was the sporty jack-of-all-trades and the Laurel was the plush family car, so Toyota aimed the Chaser at the Skyline and the Cresta at the Laurel while keeping the Mark II as the overall showrunner. And the Cressida went off to bring back foreign market shares.

Our feature car, though it has seen better days, is still a rather fine example of a 1st generation Chaser (1977-80). The bumpers got beefed up in mid-’78, but other than that, few things changed between the Chaser’s launch and its replacement four years later.

Above: 1977 brochure cover; below: Mark IIs on the left, Cressidas on the right

The X30 / X40 Chaser’s main identifying mark, compared to the Mark II / Cressida, is the lack of those in-board square headlamps and a consequently wider grille. The Chaser also has wider taillight clusters. Furthermore, the Chaser only existed as a saloon and a hardtop: wagons were strictly the provision of the Mark II / Cressida. The Cressida was available in all three flavours, but not on every market – North America missed out on the coupés, for instance.

Although the Chaser moniker stuck around for six generations, right through to 2001, this first generation was the only one to feature a 2-door body. All subsequent generations were saloons, with varying amounts of hardtopness thrown in for good measure. In the ‘80s, Toyota’s 2-doors helped in furthering the proliferation of nameplates: the Mark II / Chaser / Cressida line lost their coupés, just like the Crown did around the same time. Concurrently, the Soarer was born and the Supra came into its own.

There are a few too many badges and emblems one our feature car’s tail. The “Supercharger” one is very dodgy, but at least it’s in keeping with the spirit of the nameplate, I guess.

The “1.5” notation underneath, for its part, is straight-up puzzling. This generation of Chasers never got anything smaller than a 1.8 4-cyl., and the SXL should be propelled by the 2-litre straight-6 that was also found in contemporary Crowns. EFI was part of the package, so that script looks kosher.

This is the full Chaser hardtop lineup for 1977. The SXL is the upper-mid-level trim, nothing more and nothing less. At least our featured Chaser is an appropriately appointed PLC, as all who bear that name ought to be.

Interior pics were a challenge, not least due to the sunlight and the rather copious amount of dust that covered the whole vehicle, so here’s all I could manage of the front seats. We do see that the steering wheel is of the newer type – just as ugly as the three-spoke item that came before it.

The rear quarters would have been perfect to fit one’s Japanese in-laws back in the late ‘70s, when folks of the older generation rarely topped 160cm. Joshing aside, it’s not nearly as bad as some other RWD coupés of the time. That fifty shades of beige interior is so typical of the period it almost gives you a dose of malaise just looking at it.

Did Toyota need the Chaser to plug a gap in their JDM range? Absolutely not. It was a pure sizzle car, not unlike what GM or BL were doing at the time in their respective kingdoms with, say, the Buick Skyhawk and the Princess VandenPlas 1500. Only difference is BL died and GM went bust, whereas Toyota managed to make their past mistakes look like mere peccadillos, or even like deeply prescient and eminently justified moves. History is written by the winners.


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Curbside Classic: 1978 Toyota Cressida Wagon – I Love What You Do For Me, Mini-Cordoba Wagon, by Tom Klockau

CC Outtake: 1976 Toyota Cressida – Juvenile Sophistication, by Perry Shoar