Toyota experienced spectacular success in the US with its first two cars, the Corona and the Corolla. These were both highly affordable cars in the two lowest price sectors. It established Toyota as a purveyor of cheap cars whose combination of value, economy, performance and quality were unbeatable. But when it came to moving up into a higher price segment, things were not so easy. Their Crown, which had carved out a small foothold crashed when the new S60 generation’s styling was deemed unpalatable for Americans.
But Toyota did achieve some success with the Corona MK II. The first generation was really just a slightly enlarged and better trimmed Corona. But the second generation was a new and larger car, and came only with six cylinder engines in the US, in the hopes of offering something less controversial and a bit cheaper than the Crown. It did its job, but the kind of success Toyota enjoyed in the low price sector continued to elude it. Why?
In the late ’60s, the baby boomers were ready to start buying new cars, to replace the clapped out VW that had been their first. Toyota quickly became the most popular choice after a new Beetle, but that would change soon too. A growing number of them were happy to plunk down a couple hundred more to get a real car with 90 hp instead of 53, four doors, more interior room, a real heater and an available automatic. Yes, it wasn’t just boomers, as there were folks in their 30s and 40s with a progressive mindset that also went for Toyotas; teachers, professors, engineers, etc.. But America’s “Greatest Generation” largely looked with suspicion at them.
The Corolla, which arrived in 1968, was the ultimate young person’s first new car, and vaulted into the #2 import slot in only its second year; an instant hit. And it would leapfrog the VW in just a couple more years.
In 1969, Toyota expanded its range upwards for the first time, with the Corona Mark II. It was a questionable name, as undoubtedly some assumed it was meant to replace the Corona. In reality, it was largely a Corona under the skin, enlarged a bit, and for North America, it came only with the new R series SOHC four, in 1.9 and 2.0 L versions.
As it turns out, the first Toyota I ever drove was a blue MkII sedan like this one Dave Skinner found and wrote up here. It belonged to a girlfriend’s dad, who was a violin professor at the UI. I drove it once or twice when we went to a local quarry for a bit of au naturel swimming. 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.
Toyota did also sell their top model, the Crown, in the US, but the first generation (S40, 1962-1967), which Don Andreina wrote up here, was a rare sight outside of California, as Toyota’s distribution was still mostly West Coast, and Toyota didn’t really advertise it much.
Its successor, the S50 (1967-1971) sold significantly better, but never in large numbers. Its price in 1969 was $2785 for the sedan, a couple hundred dollars less than a Volvo 144S. And it had a smooth 2.3L six to boot. But Toyota just wasn’t yet a brand that inspired the up-and-coming Yuppie set. And in terms of size and features, it couldn’t compete with Detroit’s offerings, which invariably offered more pounds for the dollar.
But when the newly-styled S60 generation Crown appeared in 1971, its unusual front end styling destroyed whatever inroads Toyota was making with the S50. The S50 was innocuous and conservative, which was exactly what its buyers were like. The S60 jumped the shark, and was rejected, and Toyota had to pull it off the market after just two years.
But Toyota had a fallback: the new 1973 (X10) Mark II, which was bigger all-round, and now sported the same 2.3 L M-Series six as the Crown had. And within six months, it got the larger 2.6 L version. This would be Toyota’s new top of the line in the US, including a hardtop coupe, sedan and wagon.
Its styling was very much a la mode Japan early ’70s, undoubtedly inspired a bit American cars like the ’71 Mopar coupes and such, along with a healthy dollop from Europe in certain details. Japan was finding its own design language, sometimes controversial, but unlike the more extreme examples of that, the new Mark II was not exactly outside the comfort zone of Americans.
What seemed like a fairly large Toyota at the time is now a quite small car in modern standards. And it doesn’t exactly exude the same gravitas as did the timeless box of a Volvo 144/240, or a low-end (relatively) Mercedes. This was the problem with the Mark II: it was still just an oversized Corolla in the minds of most Americans. At least the Crown had tried to look like a genuine upscale car; not so the Mark II.
And although it was called the Mark II in advertisements, it was still badged as the Corona Mark II, which did little to enhance its status. Kind of a dumb move, actually. It just reinforced the idea that this was more a high-trim Corona than a standard bearer for the top end of the Toyota line. Not the crowning glory of the brand, in other words.
The interior did little to change that impression. Well, the dash was more complex, as was the console, but in terms of general ambiance or quality of the materials, it was no…Volvo.
The back seat was encumbered by the intruding rear wheel well, a bit archaic and the result of a…whoa; I just checked and the wagon oddly had a shorter (101.8″) wheelbase than the sedan and coupe (104.1″). Now that’s exactly the reverse of what Peugeot was doing with its wagons. What gives? No wonder that seat looks crunched by those wheel wells. Unfortunately Google is not dishing up any pictures of sedan rear seats.
The cargo area of this wagon, which appeared in my neighborhood’s most prolific old car collector recently, is being put to good use.
This one is obviously a ’74 or later version, with the mandatory 5-mile bumpers. This generation Mark II was sold through the 1976 model year. How many? I can’t find any stats, but it was not very many. But the dad of my GF who had that earlier Mark II did upgrade to this generation, so there were some loyal followers.
It was replaced for 1977 by the Cressida. It was still the Mark II in Japan, but for export markets, Toyota decided to rename it. Good call, as the Cressida in its several generations slowly but steadily increased its sales and image in the US. This woody wagon was a long-time fixture in Eugene, but finally disappeared.
The Cressida steadily improved its quality and image rep, and became something of a proto-Lexus towards the end of its run. The boomers that started with Corollas were now more ready, willing and able to plunk down Volvo money for a Toyota.
French-style yellow high beams grace this one’s front end.
And this little detail confirms this is from the Japanese version of the Brougham Era. Or just the…ah…exceptional era.
Thanks to its custom license plate surround, we know this is a 1974. Thank you!
And thank you for showing up and gracing our neighborhood. You’re a most welcome addition, given the increasingly boring streetscape.