Curbside Classics: 1980 – 1983 Toyota Corolla – The Datsun 510 Doppelgänger

(first posted 11/10/2011)     My mother famously hates the Toyota Corolla. You see our family owned a lightly used example back in 1984 when we moved to Houston, Texas for just six months. I believe it was a 1981 four door sedan model and brown. I’m not exactly sure what its crime was, but she has always exclaimed that it was “awful, just awful” without any real explanation as to why. To this day she dismisses Corollas without a second thought from any potential car-shopping list. The car we left back at home was a 1978 Datsun 510 station wagon, so I can hardly imagine there would be much difference in the driving dynamics, but at least the Datsun did have a five speed manual. Was she the only person on the globe who hated the Corolla so much?

Oddly enough for me the fourth generation Corolla (E70) reminds me a lot of the first generation Datsun 510, in the looks department anyway. Both are styled with the traditional compact three box design but have a certain rightness about them. I can’t tell you why they look right but the balance of all the elements just works somehow. They even have similar trim behind the rear door. The 1980-1981 models with the four round sealed beam headlights looked most Datsun 510 like. It looked more 510 like than the 1977-1981 Datsun Violet based 510 we got.

Mechanically they started off quite different of course. The Datsun had a lusty overhead cam four cylinder engine with independent rear suspension on the sedans. The Datsun wagon might have been saddled with a live rear axle and leaf springs but so was the Corolla wagon. All other Corolla body styles got a live rear axle but with a five link set up and coil springs.

Engine wise North American bound Corollas started off with a pushrod T-series engine of 1.8 liters. The push rod engine featured hemispherical combustion chambers and put out 75hp breathing through a carburetor. While the stock 3-TC engine isn’t a powerhouse, it is incredibly robust and has been modified to produce a reliable 300hp. Starting in 1983 a 1.6L overhead cam A-series engine was offered and featured an aluminum head … just like a Datsun 510. As a nice bonus the 4-AC cars had rack and pinion steering too. Still using a carburetor, the 4-AC engine offered up 90hp (net) which is a bit more than the Datsun L-series 96 gross hp . I do have to admit that I owned a later front wheel drive Corolla with the same 4-AC engine and I’d have to say those would have to be ninety of the smallest horses I’d ever seen.

While the Datsun might have been more fun to drive, the Toyota offered a dizzying array of body styles. The Datsun offered two door sedan, four door sedan and five door wagon. The Toyota offered:

Two door sedan

Four door sedan

Five door station wagon




Please note there is a difference between the coupe, liftback and fastback models. Madness! I truly hope that owners of these models never need to replace any of the rear glass on them as I’ll bet it would tough to find.

Perhaps not to the same degree as the 510 but this generation of Corolla is popular for customizing. Given the chassis near the end of the production run is very, very similar to the more famous AE-86 Corolla GTS one could swap in the DOHC 4AGE engine easily (but steering box gets in the way on the 3-TC cars). All the same suspension tweaks would work just the same too. This particular example has the early hemi-head 1.8L 3-TC engine saddled with an automatic gearbox but sports a de-bumpered look and the Celica/Supra rims.

The interior is run of the mill 80’s economy car with central arm rests optional.

The sporty SR5 and GTS versions remained rear drive right to the 1987 model year but this was the last generation of the “regular” rear wheel drive Corolla. The next front wheel drive generation did reduce the body style count (four door sedan and five door hatchback) for 1984. Didn’t look anything like a 510 either. Maybe Mom would have liked that better.