Sprint to the Middle, Walk to the Start

This one is just a single photo. The car drove off before I could get more shots and plus also the driver sat inside and didn’t seem like the kind of person who would appreciate my interest.

1983 Toyota Corolla E80

I have blurred the driver’s face, just in case. Normally I don’t photograph people in cars or cars if there are people in them.

Now: In 1983 Toyota presented the E80, the fifth generation of their answer to the VW Golf and Ford Escort. That makes it mainstream in the extreme. A look back at the previous four generations of Corollas shows cars that are studiously nothing much to look at. Maybe the second generation (1970-1974) had a touch of the American about it, not unlike the Cortina. Even that faint whiff of personality faded away for version three which managed to

look different without being meaningfully different. I can’t imagine the brief for that version. Or I can: I think they may have taken the clay model of the Mk2 and simply changed the radii and altered the nose and tail.

1983 Toyota Corolla: source

Generic seems to sum up the Toyota Corolla design policy and yet, paradoxically, Toyota Corollas look like nothing else. If one thinks that the Corolla is a watered down mix of other cars’ shapes, you will look hard to certifiably pin down those references. To manage this balance of credible characterlessness requires tremendous control. You have to be able to see the faintest of resemblances and eliminate them. So, if it’s really anonymous and bland it must be a Corolla.

Is there a bit of Irv Rybicki’s GM in this car? And what was that but the least interesting period of GM’s entire history. The E80 is the watering down of a dilution then. I don’t even believe that the similarity is any more than that both the Corolla and the Rybicki cars are lacking the same things. That’s not much of a commonality.

The E80 would appear to be the generic 80s car. It has relatively flat panels, integrated plastic bumpers and a fairly formal roofline. Put it next to any other car from the same period and they are all screaming with character in comparison. What Toyota seem to do – and this takes quite some considerable talent– is to identify what constitutes mainstream design features and merge them into a homogenous form without adding anything new into the mix.

What you get is car which (like the Talbot Tagora) can’t be reduced to a caricature. If you change anything on this car it develops a personality. If you change anything on the car it immediately becomes something else. There is no underlying theme to the car as there is to, say, a Ritmo, XJ-6 or Citroen. Ford came close with the 1980-1986 Escort yet but that car has shades of the contemporary Granada. Even the tedious Mk2 Golf has its C-pillar and headlamps.

So, the paradox of this car is its strong lack of character. Can we say the current Ford Focus gets quite close to that state – it’s also a car I identify by the fact it’s not the other cars (though I do sometimes think they are big Fiestas).

These E80s are not keepers as nobody loves them. They are well-priced, perform decently and as soon as entropy begins to gnaw, they are dumped. Inevitably one or two survive because they freakishly have a careful owner with a garage and little inclination to drive. This car is one, about thirty years old and supernaturally well-preserved. I am pretty sure the driver bought it for not more than a thousand euros, the property of someone who recently ended their retirement. The current owner really would like a ten year old Beemer but this is a cheap and reliable car for not much money. It will do for a year or two.

For the record then, dear readers, the 1983-1987 Toyota Corolla saloon.

[NB: For convenience I have found some studio shots of the E80, above. They show an earlier – I think – version with slightly different headlamps and some black-out decals.] 

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

15 thoughts on “Sprint to the Middle, Walk to the Start”

  1. I wouldn’t call it generic, as it has its own very personal style. Though I would call it very deliberately and conservatively toned down, like a suit made to look good in a sea of other suits. It’s no coincidence Japan has a similar suit culture for their own clothing, this is a fashionably suited appliance for people that just want a dependable transport.

    But I would also call it deliberately conservative, like they saw themselves as a worthy successor to perhaps the Morris Marina. This car is very much a Morris Marina for the 80’s, if Morris had made cars that were actually good. Before this car Toyotas entire line up except for the Tercel had been rear wheel drive, this generaion of Corolla is only the second fwd car in Toyotas history.

    But yes, Japanese cars has always been surprisingly characterless to my eyes. Their puddings lacks a certain theme, and has always done so. And they seem to have felt so themselves, turning to others for inspiration. Mostly or almost entirely to either the US or Italy. And when they have not, their cars turn out very bland, generic, and characterless.

    What they had in the 80’s though is something I would call Hi-Tech Design, their cars oozed a certain time specific air of being in the technological forefront, with turbos, 4wd, 4ws, 4 valve technology, and so on. The Toyota Supra, Mitsubishi Starion, Honda Prelude, Nissan Skyline, etc. And the cars seemed to be made with a very high quality and precision.

    And though this Corolla perhaps doesn’t look that substantial, I think it is perhaps one of the best they ever made, it is simply top notch. And I wonder if anyone in the world except Mercedes made better cars during those years, they were really making better cars than almost the entire industry.

    1. There isn’t a word of that I’d take issue with and it was a delight to read. What is open to discussion is interestingly the nature of character. I suppose the concept of character must include null character: that’s this Toyota. That makes it worth examination.

  2. This version of the Corolla was always a pleasing looking thing. I liked the pared back simplicity of its lines, the lack of extraneous fat. It’s proportions are very good as well, which is difficult to pull off in a compact saloon. It was a rather anesthetised device to drive however, leaving no discernible mark or character trait. It drove like the utterly dependable appliance it (and most of its Japanese contemporaries) was. Nicer engine than it’s rival Nissan though. These cars bestrode the Irish landscape during the 1980s, although most met their (probably premature) end through scrappage.

    I never noticed this before, but this Corolla is really a contemporary Camry in miniature. A more athletic looking design perhaps, but in silhouette at least, cleaving to a very similar theme, which isn’t something I’d have necessarily expected from Toyota.

  3. One of my neighbours had a hatchback Corolla of this generation growing up. They were common as muck when I was developing an interest in cars. I have been around them for literally my entire life.

    I mention this as context in order to emphasise the significance of the fact that, even as someone who takes a fairly keen interest in automotive aesthetics, I could not begin to sketch the hatchback version of this car without looking at an image to remind me what its primary distinguishing features are. (The same would apply for the sedan, except I have just had the helpful image prompts above.) I know that reads like a cliche, but it is no less true for that. All of which is to say that I think this article is excellent and on-point.

    Interestingly, I rather like the liftback version discussed the other day. But that generation coincided with the bubble economy and a surfeit of of technical and aesthetic confidence. Peter Robinson once observed, I think astutely, that “the collective appearance [of Japanese metal] is so bland as to be virtually uniform.” And, indeed, I do find that for a given type of body style and time period, Japanese cars are more likely to ape each other extremely closely in certain elements than European or American cars are – see, for instance, a late-1970s Bluebird and Corona, or a mid-1990s Galant hatchback and a Mazda 626, or an early front-drive 323 and Colt. There is a political-economic argument to go with this, about the heavily-controlled stability of the domestic market and export-oriented initiatives, etc etc. But for that period, that confidence was really showing through in their capacity to both be technically innovative and forge ahead with a distinct aesthetic that was a fair way ahead of what Europe was generally producing at that point, and simply miles in front of Detroit.

    1. About Japanese cars aping each other: The N13 Nissan Sunny that came just a few years later than the Corolla here almost looks like a copy of it. This is true for the saloon as well as for the compact hatchback versions (not the longer liftback one, but the truncated, vertical back ones). The “long” Corolla liftback was rather unique and, for my eyes, quite distinctive with the low situated, horizontal lights and the rounded corner of the rear sideglass. On the other hand, the Sunny had the “Traveller”, which was somewhere halfway between liftback and estate.

  4. I think I must have had a ride in this and/or many another Corolla over the last four decades. All over the place because cheap. But I simply cannot remember, any more than I can recall what I had for brekkie on Wednesday Nov 14, 1985, or was that a Thursday? Oh yes, I didn’t have a ride in the liftback featured recently here on DTW, now when was that, hmm, oh yes, anyway they didn’t sell them here – too distinctive. Hondas of the period were just as well assembled as Toyotas, but since both makes literally rusted away in five years, my memory is of that and not the cars themselves.

    My friend and his pal from work both bought 1984 Accords in that summer – neither made it to calendar year 1990 when our firm relocated our division’s HQ. The engine fell out of one onto the ground, the other had a factory-authorized bodywork and re-paint job – after 14 months the roof paint was bubbling, the rest of the car a complete giggle and scrapped. That owner then bought a Hyundai Scoupe with his credit card and no trade-in naturally, and it lasted longer, seven years he says. Yawn. Anonymous well-assembled forged from mediocre materials automotive nebulism. Mazda stood out for making the world’s thinnest vinyl, my brother ripped the vinyl in the back of his RX-3 wagon when a loose box of cornflakes hit the side as he cornered. And that was where the vinyl was glued to the tin. Lasted less than four years, but that was due to croaked Wankel.

    Those were the years I owned Audis. Rust was not their problem, everything else was and you had plenty of time to contemplate their faults. The Japanese vehicles worked well until the body died, like humans in Brave New World on Soma. By 1996, Honda, the last holdout, finally discovered galvanized tin, after a frenzy of typically Japanese R&D, proving what everyone else already knew. And their foreign outpost here in Dartmouth Nova Scotia set up to study rust, employing housewives to drive the same route every weekday of the year, was closed down. RIP. Here endeth the lesson.

    PS The Toyota Cressida was actually good rustwise, the exception proving the point. The world’s best 1953 Chevy to drive. Numb.

    1. I wonder what the Danes do to stop the rust? These cars aren’t freaky rare here. Irish ones dissolved to the same efficient schedule you describe. Donegal in the Atlantic northwest is, for me, associated with majestic mountains, fly-tipping and rusted 80s Toyotas. To be fair, the VWs rusted too.

    2. I guess when Danes think about the taxes they have to pay when buying their next car, they become very much inclined to protect their current ones as good as they can…

      Swiss were notorious for applying aftermarket cavity wax back in the 70s and 80s when cars weren’t protected well by the factories yet. Maybe in Denmark there was a similar culture.

  5. Simon: that explanation goes a long way towards explaining the difference. And I ought to have suggested it myself. Were taxes low or high on cars in CH in the 70s?

    1. Compared to most other European countries, taxes are rather low in CH. For example the VAT is 8%, compared to something around 20% for most EU countries. No luxury taxes either for big cars or the like. This was probably not so much different 30 or 40 years ago. Switzerland did not have exactly a VAT at that time, but a different tax on sold goods. It must have been around 5% at that time.

    2. There aren’t any new US cars on the market there now, are there. What has changed? I had imagined that spending the rest of my life in 1979 Germany (Koeln) might be a fun thing to do if I had a time-machine. If I made that Basel 1979 with a Cadillac it’d be even more appealing.

  6. The E80 was a legendary car here in New Zealand, launching Corolla to the top of the sales charts – a position it would hold for 27 years or so. Ours differed slightly from rest-of-world, being assembled from locally from CKD kits, and featuring some local content – seat fabrics for example. We had two in our family. They handled beautifully for such a simple car, but their main claim to fame would be utter dependability. They didn’t even rust particularly badly. I’m certain that 5,000 years from now, the aliens who discover this planet will at some point dig up an E80 Corolla, and it’ll start first pop…

  7. It was an enormous success here in South Africa, there are literally thousands of them still running around, from mint ones to rust patches with engines and duct tape holding them together. The reliability, in a country which still had many gravel roads at the time, with vast distances between major centres, was a major selling point. The slogan at the time was, “Everything keeps going right, Toyota”

    It built up quite a cult following with the 4AGE engine’d variants, the hatchback Corolla Conquest RSi, the sedan Corolla GLi Twincam and the fastback Corolla Avante Twincam. The Conquest hatch and Corolla sedan excelled on the race track as well as the rally courses. The local CAR magazine even tested the rip snorting 4wd 2.0 turbocharged rally car driven by local rally legend Serge Damseaux, who bested the Audi Quattros rally cars of the time.

    Mint examples of the performance orientated versions still sell for the price of a new base Yaris.

  8. Here’s a fun fact about the E80 Corolla: there were actually two different five-door versions, a liftback and a hatchback:

    Referring back to the recent discussion about the Escort Mk2, do these two variants occupy different segments, because of the difference in overall length? Discuss.

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