1970 Toyota Corolla
1970 Toyota Corolla. Click image to enlarge

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Article and Photo by Bill Vance

The Toyoda Spinning & Weaving Company, established in 1918 by Sakachi Toyoda, which became the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works Ltd., in 1926, was a successful Japanese textile machine manufacturer. Sakichi Toyoda was brilliant with looms, but when the company decided to enter the car business in 1933, eldest son Kiichiro took it on.

By the 1930s, General Motors and Ford had established production plants in Japan. Japan had virtually no indigenous car production, and believing that Toyota should produce a homegrown automobile, Kiichiro set up the Automobile Department within the loom works. Also, Japanese government restrictions in the 1930s gradually forced American manufacturers to close, paving the way for domestic firms.

Toyota produced its first prototype car, the A-1, in 1935. Since Toyota didn’t have much automotive expertise it’s not surprising that the first prototype looked remarkably like an American car, in this case the Chrysler Airflow, considered an advanced design. Power came from a 3.4-litre inline six-cylinder engine, and three A-1s were built.

The Toyota Motor Company was established in 1937, and the first production Toyota (the name was changed slightly, it was said, to de-emphasize the family background and emphasize the social value of the business), the model AA, appeared that year, bearing a strong resemblance to the original prototype. But the emphasis was on trucks, not cars, so from 1937 to 1943 only 1,404 AAs were built, along with 353 AB convertibles and 115 ACs, an improved version of the AA.

After the Second World War, Toyota returned to building cars in 1947. Unlike some other Japanese automakers, it didn’t build replicas of cars like English Austins and French Renaults, but developed its own models.

1966 Toyota Corolla
1966 Toyota Corolla. Click image to enlarge.
(source: Wikimedia)

Toyota began exporting to the U.S. and in August 1957 the first two Toyopet Crowns landed in Los Angeles. It soon became apparent that their cars were only marginally suitable for North America. The best that Road & Track (3/’58) could conclude was that the Toyopet was “ordinary,” and “average.” Toyota began importing cars into Canada in 1965.

To better appeal to North Americans, Toyota established Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., gradually improving its cars and increasing market share. Its Corona model was quite successful, and late in 1966 it introduced the Corolla, which would prove to be one of Toyota’s most popular and enduring models.

The Corolla had a traditional layout with an overhead valve, 1077-cc four-cylinder engine located longitudinally between the front wheels. It drove the rear wheels through a four-speed, all-synchromesh manual transmission, with a two-speed “Toyoglide” automatic available.

The camshaft was located high in the cylinder block, allowing short pushrods. Although not as sophisticated as overhead cams, it facilitated free revving; its 60 horsepower came at an energetic 6,000 r.p.m. The crankshaft was a sturdy five-main-bearing design.

The chassis layout of the Corolla was pretty straightforward, although with a novel twist in the front suspension. It used the popular (for small cars) MacPherson struts but added a lower transverse leaf spring to reduce load on the struts and decrease the friction inherent in this type of suspension.

While the Japanese were beginning to demonstrate their engineering prowess, no such imagination appeared in the rear suspension, a solid axle suspended on longitudinal leaf springs.

The styling of the Corolla was trim with nicely integrated grille, headlamps and bumper. The side profile, especially on the sportier fastback Sprinter model, was not unlike a smaller version of some American designs of the period.

Although fitted with an engine of just over a litre, the Corolla’s performance was sprightly. Road & Track (6/’68) recorded zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 17 seconds for the 748 kg (1,640 lb) two-door. It reached a respectable top speed of 134 km/h (83 mph).

To put these figures in perspective, the popular Volkswagen Beetle 1500 reached 96 (60) in 22.5 seconds, and had a top speed of only 125 km/h (78 mph).

The Corolla suffered from the usual small-car (except VW) malady of high engine r.p.m. at highway speeds. Its four was spinning over at almost 4000 r.p.m. at 96 km/h (60 mph), while the Beetle’s was turning just over 3000.

Toyota had developed the Corolla primarily as an export model, a goal it met successfully, but to Toyota’s surprise it also demonstrated unexpectedly strong sales in Japan.

The Corolla moved with the times, adopting the latest technology such as double overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and independent rear suspension. Regular models became front-wheel drive in 1984, while the sports edition retained rear-wheel drive for a couple of years.

What started as a somewhat modest little sedan over 40 years ago became one of Toyota’s most popular models around the world, and helped propel Toyota to the top of the industry.

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