(first posted 10/20/2017) One-box cars and minivans, especially the shorter ones, tend to be called “bread loaf” in several languages – including Mandarin, Russian, Burmese and doubtless plenty of others. It’s a pretty accurate description of the overall shape. This Toyota TownAce, however, pushes the verisimilitude up another notch by wearing a high roof and golden brown paint job that really makes it very loaf-like, in a nicely baked sort of way. Let’s have a slice while no one’s looking.
You have to hand it to Toyota: they may not have invented the minivan, but once they espoused the concept, they really ran with it. Most other carmakers had just one passenger van on offer in the ‘70s. Some engine options, maybe even an extended wheelbase, could be proposed, but that was usually it. One well-appointed van would suffice, lest they cannibalize station wagon sales. Toyota, on the other hand, took that segment, cut it up into sushi-grade pieces and served it bento-style: they had a complete range by the mid-‘70s.
In the ‘60s, Toyota had two vans – the HiAce and the MiniAce. The MiniAce was boxing in the kei car category, the HiAce in the circa 1.5 litre “big car” (for Japan) category. But then Toyota went and bought Daihatsu in 1967, who were the kings of kei with their Hijet, so the unnecessary MiniAce eventually disappeared. In 1971 the Toyota LiteAce / Daihatsu Delta were launched with a choice of 1.2 or 1.4 litre 4-cyl. engines for folks who didn’t fancy noisy 2-cyl. kei vans such as the Hijet or MiniAce. This left a gap between the LiteAce and the HiAce, which was inching towards the 2-litre category. Toyota filled the niche in 1976 with the TownAce (and its Daihatsu Delta Wide clone), essentially a stretched and widened LiteAce platform with a choice of 1.1 to 1.8 litre engines. So by the late ‘70s, Toyota/Daihatsu were fielding four sizes of vans, including two (LiteAce and TownAce) that were available under both marques.
All these were simple and rugged RWD vehicles with leaf-sprung live rear axles and bulletproof 4-cyl. engines – except the Daihatsu Hijet, which still had a twin. With the exception of the TownAce, which was more of a people-carrier, Toyota/Daihatsu proposed purely utilitarian and/or pick-up versions of their vans as well, but Toyota knew there was a huge market for passenger versions of these vans. The trick was that the markets were mainly in Asia and Africa, as opposed to Europe and North America. This is partly how Toyota became the number one global brand: they catered to markets that were largely untapped by European and American makers. Their only real non-Japanese competitor was the VW Transporter, which had its limitations and was getting on in years. The TownAce and its kin were the new vans in town, though they were ancient underneath – which was actually a real plus for these markets.
It didn’t hurt that vans like the TownAce were also selling quite well in Japan itself. The TownAce’s high roof, which came in two sizes (and a sunroof on range-toppers such as our CC), became available from late 1978 and proved quite a popular option. It is unfortunate that this became such a trend, though – particularly in Japan. It seems nearly all JDM models, from kei cars up to family saloons, have a boxy minivan version these days, with their driver’s head poking out of the lower third of these cars’ massive windows. They look positively horrible, like an aquarium with wheels. Back when these were nearly all RWD cab-over-engine affairs, the seats were higher and the high roof could be justified.
Our CC is a top-of-the-line “Super Extra” wagon, which replaced the previous “Custom Extra” trim level when the TownAce was given a mild makeover in the fall of 1979. The chromed fenders on our 1st generation mark two TownAce are a distinctly Japanese trait, still very common on big trucks and current minivans. Some trucks push it too far and have a blinding virtually all-chromed front end, but when it’s only a couple of panels, it’s not unattractive. The front of the car was given a more extensive facelift with rather ugly square headlamps for the 1981 model year, which makes this 1980 version all the more desirable, in my opinion. The next generation TownAce debuted in the fall of 1982, ushering in 4WD and coil springs all around – as well as being introduced to North American and European markets for the first time, with quite a bit of success.
The interior is as roomy as you’d expect. Surely many of you will recognize the trademark “three horn” Toyota steering wheel, also seen on contemporary Corollas. I’m not sure whether these were available with automatic transmission. This one has a manual “four on the tree” shift – still pretty common in Japanese cars of that era, but already very rare in Europe by then.
I also like the “cane handle” parking brake on this van – looks very similar to something one would find on European cars of the ‘50s. But the seat design and especially the fabric they are covered with are there to remind us that we are definitely in a car designed in the ‘70s. The 95 hp 1770cc engine (also found in contemporary Corollas, MkIIs, Celicas and Crestas) associated with the Super Extra package gets the middle seat.
What most impressed me when I saw this thing was how pristine it was. Not a mark on it, all badges, panels, paint and interior trim in perfect nick – the very definition of a mint condition vehicle. It looks like it rolled off the assembly line a few weeks ago. I don’t know whether someone spent a great deal of money painstakingly restoring it or whether it was just loved and cared for by a careful (and lucky) owner all this time. Personally, this is not the sort of vehicle I’d think of preserving for future generations, but I’m sure glad somebody did.
Cohort Sighting: Toyota Town Ace – Go West, Old Van, by Perry Shoar