Weekend Reissue : Desio via Toyota City

Another toe in the water exercise from a not so different automotive monolith.

(c) wheelsage

Despite the differences in culture and in product ethos, there really wasn’t a tremendous difference between Fiat Auto and Toyota – apart that is from the minor matter of the two companies’ relative governance and latterday fortunes. But certainly, before Fiat completely lost the run of itself, the two entities probably had more in common than we might have first realised.

Like the storied Italian carmaker, Toyota was a conservative company, having built its business building conventionally engineered, some might say technically regressive automobiles to a standard of quality and durability unheard of amongst their European and US rivals – its success at this entailing a somewhat risk-averse culture.

Of course, unlike the Turin-based carmaker, the Japanese automotive colossus wasn’t really one for acquisitions either, but that doesn’t mean that within brand-Toyota, there wasn’t a number of subsidiary nameplates to facilitate the occasional brand-related excursion.

Having made its name with rear wheel drive products, Toyota management, like their Turin counterparts a decade before, viewed front-wheel-drive with a degree of circumspection. Nice to have, but not perhaps, for us. But by the mid-’70s, the majority of the industry had already adapted and by then it looked more like Toyota was lagging behind.

The 1978 Tercel (1979 in Europe incidentally) therefore marked Toyota City’s highly considered maiden voyage into the realms of front-drive powertrains. And while its technical layout could be said to have been reminiscent of something a little closer to home (after all there’s little new in the world), it also may have been inspired, conceptually speaking and to some extent stylistically, by Desio’s 1964 Primula.

It’s interesting how time alters perceptions- what appeared bland and fairly nondescript at the tail end of the seventies now seems neat, functional and well ordered. An amalgam of Starlet and Corolla styling cues, the Tercel not only proved a technical success – pioneering generations of front-driven Toyotas, but also a success in sales and reputational terms. And unlike their Italian counterparts, Toyota had the courage of their convictions. No sub-brands here. (Not outside the home market at least).

And like most Toyotas, it’s also remembered fondly, primarily for its dependability and fitness for purpose rather than for any outstanding dynamic or stylistic prowess – but that has always been the Toyota way.

Today then, we celebrate one of Toyota’s more prescient efforts, by way of this fine piece from 2016 from DTW’s Sean Patrick. The Tercel may well have been something of a Triumph then, but could it also have been a little of an Autobianchi as well?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

30 thoughts on “Weekend Reissue : Desio via Toyota City”

  1. The Tercel was unusual because it had a longitudinally mounted engine with the differential and parts of the gearbox underneath the engine like a K70 or Saab 99 but with the engine in conventional orientation.
    Other FWD Toyotas had transverse engines.

  2. This is an attractive little beast, with an elegant name too although I needed to Google it to find out that a Tercel is a male hawk.
    The two door coupe has the feel of a miniature Maserati Biturbo about it.
    I wonder if the in-line engine was used to offer a tight turning circle, which is what I believe Triumph were looking for on the 1300? The car looks to have a relatively long wheelbase and unless the maximum wheel angle was very tight it would presumably have had a large turning circle.
    The long wheelbase might have been chosen to settle the suspension better over rough roads although I believe bad roads are rare in Japan. I think the wheelbase is intriguing as it gives the car a certain stance, from some angles the rear axle looks too “Pushed out” as though it’s almost beyond the C-pillar, something that the Peugeot 405 suffered visually from. However in sideway’s on photo’s it has a much more conventional position: the whole thing is an optical illusion.

    1. Hi Richard, you’re right about the optical illusion: from the front three-quarter view, the rear wheel looks unusually far back, an effect exacerbated by the really short rear overhang:

      From the rear three-quarter view, the effect is much less noticeable:

      An interesting and slightly unusual looking car, representing a time when Toyota was transitioning from its rather Baroque 1970’s detailing to a cleaner, more European 1980’s style.

    2. This is a notchback design much to my liking – short boot, short rear overhang, long wheelbase. For me, also the 405 is perfect in this respect, but many others appear too back-heavy for my taste.
      As far as I remember, the Tercel was mostly sold as the three-door hatchback here, the two saloons must have been a rare sight.

  3. “It’s interesting how time alters perceptions- what appeared bland and fairly nondescript at the tail end of the seventies now seems neat, functional and well ordered.” That’s a very interesting observation. Would love to see more examples of this.

    There’s a blue two door Tercel not to far from where my parents’ live. It has a sticker on the back saying : “Lexus in training” or something similar. Usually stickers on cars are not to my liking, but I’ll make an exception for this one.

    1. I^d actually say that this holds true for the majority of standard car designs of this time. With all of today’s aggression, exaggerated wheel sizes, armies of fake or true air scoops and chrome ulcers, the predominant rationalism, balanced proportions and lightness of 70s Fiats, Peugeots, Audis (to name just a few) looks just refreshing. The same can be said of many Japanese designs, once they overcame the American-inspired baroque of the 60s and early 60s.

    2. Absolutely agree, Simon. There were some really good 1980’s Japanese designs. Some might accuse them of being derivative, and with justification, but the famed Japanese attention to detail meant that they were often really nicely resolved designs, unlike some of their (admittedly more innovative) European competitors. Here’s a typical example, the E80 generation Corolla:

      A colleague of mine bought one of these in 1985, replacing a four-year old Mk3 Escort that was already showing its age and feeling rather baggy. The difference in the quality of finish was extraordinary and it was easy to see why Japanese cars were enjoying such sales success at the time.

    3. There is something about the Tercel’s stance I really like. It’s quite un-Toyota really, being more akin really to an Issigonis design – mind you, FWD pioneers tend to stick together. There is also an element of ‘spot the contemporary Toyota styling cue’ to its detail design which is moderately diverting on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

      Daniel mentions the E80 Corolla Liftback, which is quite good until one perambulates rearward and is confronted by the shockingly ill-considered numberplate recess. Amateur hour and quite beneath Toyota City’s capabilities. I imagine the culprit was forced to fall upon his magic markers. Its replacement however was a far better executed piece of work, as detailed by our own fair hand here… https://driventowrite.com/2015/07/18/1987-toyota-corolla-liftback-ae92-profile/

    4. Ah, rumbled! Now everyone knows why I chose a front three-quarter photo above, thanks Eóin. The E80 could also have done without that superfluous additional horizontal crease line along the flanks (the one that runs through the fuel filler flap). The rear number plate placement is a bit of a shocker:

      One that could have been easily fixed, however:

  4. The E92 liftback really was a lovely piece of work, especially the almost flush DLO treatment, which anticipated (inspired?) the similar looking 1989 R8 generation Rover 200 five-door:

    The same generation five-door hatchback was however, a bit of a fail by comparison:

    Whoever thought that C-pillar vent was acceptable deserved the same punishment as the designer of the E80 number plate recess.

  5. Doh, wrong photos! I’ll try that again. Toyota Corolla E92 Liftback:

    Rover R8 200 five-door:

    1. The E80 might have got away with the positioning of the number plate (perhaps) had it not been for the matter of the positioning of the number plate lamps. These are missing from the images you appended, Daniel (by design or by happenstance I cannot say), but they looked like something you’d more likely see on a caravan – from the 1970s.

      Given that they are not shown in the images above, this may have been a legislative issue related to UK and ROI markets, but nevertheless it was shockingly ill-considered on Toyota’s part.

    2. The number plate lamps were moved to a hidden position as part of a slight facelift in August 1985.

    3. I saw photos with and without the ugly numberplate lights – now I know why.
      These lights apart, I think the idiosyncratic placement of the plate has quite some appeal. It lends the whole back layout some sort of ‘upside down’ taste that makes one stumble a little bit. It’s very characteristic and unlike any other hatchback of that time. Daniel’s second photo with the red car shows a cleaner, but also much more conventional look.

  6. Oh, and I also see the Issigonis influence in the Mk1 Tercel, but I think this also might have provided some inspiration:

    Well, that neatly connects yesterday’s and today’s radically diverse DTW topics. My work her is done!

  7. The Tercel was one of the finest rustbuckets ever designed. Examples trailing rotting debris behind them and with flapping rear fenders in the vortex breeze but with that oh so reliable powertrain up front, were here numbered in the thousands becaue they were cheap to buy. Good for three or four years and then its time was up from failing annual Motor Vehicle inspection for structural reasons.

    The only interest it held was being FWD and fore-aft engine. A few years later, Toyota joined the mainstream and made transverse engine FWD cars. But it wasn’t until the mid ’90s when they finally adopted galvanized sheet steel that they weren’t all dreadful rusters. Can’t get excited by an underengineered product. No good having reliable engines if the body is useless. Honda and Datsun were just as bad in that regard. American and European cars were rusters too, but not anywhere near as bad. The Germans made the best-lasting bodies, with BMW bringing up the rear.

    Just a different point-of-view from another place.

  8. On the topic of neat European-style Japanese cars of the 80’s, here’s another example, the 1980 Mazda 323/Familia five-door hatchback:

    There’s an interesting anecdote about this particular model: Mazda originally designed it with an additional window in the C-pillar, and very smart it looked too. Ford, who had a significant stake in Mazda at the time, objected because it looked too much like the recently launched Mk3 Escort, so forced Mazda to delete the “third light” for export markets. So rare is the Mazda in its original form that I can only find one blurred photo of it. However, Ford then sold the car in Australasian markets as the Laser…with the third light reinstated to make it look like the Escort:

    You’ll have to ignore the slightly tacky Ford rear lights, but it’s a very neat design, IMHO.

    1. That anecdote should be expanded into an article in its own right. I’ve heard that story before, and when I heard it I tried to dig up some info on the story to see if there was something to it. Because the story I heard is that the Escort and the Familia (323 in Europe) was supposedly developed in conjunction and shared a substantial amount of body hardpoints, something that both Ford and Mazda talks very little about for their own private reasons. The point of the third light debacle was that it became all too obvious how much the cars really shared when seen together, and therefore an embarrassment to at least Ford Europe. Now, I’ve never seen this substantiated anywhere, and I think this matter is too interesting to not see it investigated further. Wikipedia only mentions on the Familia page the car was developed “with input from Ford”. But inquiring minds really want to know, how much tech is really shared between the cars and where was the r&d done and how much was shared between the companies?

    2. Ingvar Hallström

      If it is indeed the case the mk3/mk4 Escort and Famillia/323 are more closely related then anticipated, is it known to what extent the 121/Festiva is related to the larger Famillia/323?

    3. I’m afraid my knowledge on this subject is limited to my recall of a piece in (I think) Autocar back in 1980 in which it was claimed that Ford insisted on the third light being deleted on export 323 five-door models. I believe there was a reference to Ford having input on the 323’s design, but I cannot recall to what degree.

      Here’s the only photo I could find of the Mazda with the additional window:

  9. My sister had one and I was very proud to have found it for her. I was walking past a petrol station with my mother and this little gremlin was advertised for 4000 French Francs. I knew my sister who just had her licence was looking for a cheap first car so I pointed it to my mother and long story short she bought it. I mentioned it before but it was very durable, very well made compare to french offerings of the time. One odd thing I remember is that it had a horn on each spoke of the steering wheel (so 3 or 4 horns I can’t remember) and they were very easy to trigger so you’d consistently sound the horn by mistake while maneuvering. So many drivers gave my sister dirty looks because they thought she was honking at them.

    1. Most Toyotas of that era had horn buttons on either side of the steering wheel boss. Presumably the rationale was that it was possible to sound the horn without moving one’s hand from the wheel rim. I would agree they were deceptively easy to trigger inadvertently.

    2. I read once that one of the reasons Chinese buyers don’t often choose a french car is because they don’t like the horn being at the end of a stalk, as is the case with french cars, but they prefer the horn in the middle of the steering wheel that you can push with the palm of your hand. I think it might even be a pan-Asian thing rather than China-only.

    3. NRJ, it might have been some time since you last drove a French car. Unfortunately, they have succumbed to the general custom of placing the horn in a place where you have to take your whole hand off the wheel to reach it.

    4. Hi Simon,

      Yes I haven’t driven a recent french car but my Clio 2 from the noughties still has it at the end of a stalk and the article was a few years old. It’s interesting how a little difference in taste could’ve had a big impact on potential sales.

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