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.
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.
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
Looks like a Mustang II coupe with better proportions and a real hardtop, it even has 3 bar taillights, just turned 90 degrees. JDM cars from the 70s are a bewildering yet intriguing world I sometimes feel overwhelmed trying to grasp.
Bingo! I saw the same thing. Not my favorite era of Japanese styling, but you could do worse than stretch out a Mustang II notchback. And I think the Super Charger equipped 1.5 was clearly a prescient move, considering today’s trend for small forced-induction four cylinder power plants.
I see a gen 1 Celica roof transplanted.
I saw something of the downsized 1978 Malibu 2-door crossed with a Mustang II.
Change ’78 Malibu to ’78 Monte Carlo and that’s what I see.
Why do I like this?? I’ll say that I do prefer the U.S.-Cressida’s rear styling to this, but not by a lot. That interior upholstery is wild – and very cool. I’ve long been a fan of that generation of Nissan Laurel – when I lived abroad and first saw them, maybe they just reminded me of something from the U.S. Another great piece about yet another car I knew nothing about.
The Cressida’s appeal here with the Japanese Nostalgic Car people in the U.S. has always eluded me, but that first photo shows that Chaser with a real old-school Nissan Skyline Hakosuka vibe going on. The Hakosuka, never imported to the U.S., is one of those revered cars in Japan, something vaguely akin to the first Pontiac GTO here in the U.S. It looks like Toyota was really trying to fill a specific niche with a tribute car, a tribute to a fellow manufacturer, strangely enough.
I was hoping the author would bring the Skyline/Laurel into the conversation, and he did. But it looks to me like Toyota was not targeting the then-current Skyline/Laurel, but the 1970-ish iteration instead.
I’m glad you said something, Dutch…a first glance, I thought this was a Skyline. It wasn’t until I started reading that I realized it wasn’t!
I never saw the resemblance (in profile) of this Mk2/Chaser to the Hakosuka Skyline hardtop, but now that you mention it…..
Even so, to me this Chaser’s appeal is very slight compared to the original RT7X Mk2 hardtops, let alone a KPCG10 Skyline. Even the C210 Skyline hardtop, which Tats opines is not Nissan’s finest styling hour, is far better than this.
Normally Toyotas and hardtops are a match made in heaven for me, but for once Toyota Australia made the right decision in not importing this. I wasn’t an admirer of the previous generation RX/MX2x Mk2s, no matter what body configuration, and that follo with this generation. I’ve seen a couple of privately imported hardtops up close and was underwhelmed, so we didn’t miss much. At least the finer C210 hardtop was obtainable here.
The main points of interest of this car for me, I bring the car nerd that I am 🤓 are that it could be specified with an independent rear end and a rear window wiper.
I wonder why the hardtop coupe didn’t come stateside – in the U.S. these competed with the Datsun 810 which did offer a hardtop coupe here, and mid-sized coupes were hot. I thought this generation Cressida looked very dated even when new, with its coke-bottle shape that was out of style by 1975.
I’m always curious as to why Japanese brochures and advertisements have a few English words (like “Hardtop” here) mixed in with otherwise Japanese text. Also in that brochure, astonishingly little visual difference between all the trim levels, especially inside.
I’m with you on those trim levels. I’m glad it’s not just me. Seven trim levels of two-door hardtop, and not a poverty-pack among them, to judge from the photos. Maybe we need to be able to read the text to pick up some cues.
Some of these multi badge ideas of the same car with differing trim levels are pure BMC Rootes GM inspired they were the kings of badge engineering, each just adding bling to a base model and calling it something else to feed another dealer network, The Japanese copied lots of things and that is just another borrowed idea.
I think it’s called marketing big man. It’s been going on for a while in a bunch of different industries. Good, better, best is another way it’s described.
I wonder what kind of passive safety technology was available for the JDM. That front passenger three point seat belt is amazing.
My first car was a 1979 Mazda 626 Coupe in pretty much the same exact color. It was by far a more visually modern design, no surprise Toyota didn’t bring this coupe over to the US, the sedan and wagon looked dowdy enough (and I like them).
However that interior is fantastic, and not just the pattern. By 1985 (so at 6yrs old) the fabric of the Mazda was completely in tatters from the SoCal sun, especially the rear seatbacks, it was coming apart in strips, the front seats weren’t much better, dooming it to a life of cheap imitation sheepskins in front and a Mexican blanket on the back…
What a great find though!
Chaser sounds vaguely threatening, like an ex-spouse who just can’t let go. Uncharacteristic for Toyota. Not as threatening as, say, Marauder but to make amends it could be traded in on an Accord.
That rear bumper looks US legal.
Those bumpers. I thought I was scrolling past a late 70’s North American car until I actually took a closer look. It was like the brain registered the bumpers as American, but then after i had scrolled past the rest of my brain caught up and said go back and look, that’s not right.
Big “US” style bumpers were a thing on higher end trims on many Toyotas in the JDM market at this time, including the Celica…
Those white letters on the tyres on stock steel rims always looks awesome. And the rear end treatment is cool.
This may be the most American looking Japanese car I’ve seen. If it wasn’t for the fender mirrors, you could convince me it came straight from Detroit. (ok, the RHD would be a bit odd…)
That yellow brochure looks like the sick twisted love child of a monza and an aspen