Hidden Blossom, Inner Flower

Spare a thought for one of motoring’s perennial wallflowers.

One down, only another 40-million odd to go… a first generation Corolla heads West. (c) All images – Global.Toyota.com

Over fifty years have flowed since the first Corolla rolled from Toyota City. That most difficult of entities, the second album entitled E20 might be the subject of today’s looking glass but first a dip into the ever-deepening pool of Corolla lore.

In the early 1960s Japan began its economic miracle in similar fashion to that of Germany. Huge investment in infrastructure led to products such as the bullet train, colour TV, and air conditioning. Cars too, along with far better road surfaces and longer distances for that smooth tarmac – so now the public wanted to drive that something, somewhere – anywhere. Toyota gave the public the Publica, a basic but eminently honest vehicle although even then, the company knew better could be had, and set about making what has turned out to be a global bestseller : the Corolla.

The man tasked with making that revolutionary move was the late Tatsuo Hasegawa, who devised an eighty point plan to generate a car which wanted for nothing, one offering a pleasurable driving element. “Every facet of the car had to score at least 80 points out of 100 to be even considered. But a consistent score of 80 means a boring car so going one further; the 80 – plus Alpha, that is something new, shiny – technology to make the customer go Wow!

Hasegawa’s first plus was of all things, a curved windscreen to “make it sporty.” Popular thinking being the Corona or Crown had this first, but no: Corolla. Looking to Europe and their three bearing engines, Toyota employed five for smoothness. Corolla also adopted MacPherson Struts, another first for the Far East. Further innovations included amber indicating lenses, two speed wipers and a left hand door lock for those tight Japanese parking spaces. “Aiming for those for 80 points may sound uninviting now but we were looking at the public’s needs, not a corporate one as we offered a new kind of car.

Hasegawa and his team inspired a sales revolution which has continued to blossom over the years. One enormous headache arrived when at the far reaches of planning, some six months before product launch, top brass decided to increase engine capacity from 1000cc to eleven hundred to out-gun rival Nissan with the one litre Sunny. The team managed this in seventy five days but kept the stated top speed at 140 Kmh. When customers suddenly found they could top 150Kmh, sales grew with that extra oomph to the tune of a million in Japan.

Already keen on expansion, the E20 was given a green light just a year into Corolla production. Hasegawa presided over the Corolla’s standing; for that initial million plus sales mark to continue, where could improvements occur? Mooted approaches being an altogether new stance with an opposing don’t fix what ain’t broke. Settling on evolution with a more curvaceous air, gently reshaping the initial traditional box theme, the decision proved correct: in the E20’s four years reign, 2.4 million variations were built in four guises – saloons of two and four door, an estate and a fastback coupé.

Initial E20s came with a single carburettor 3K engine which was hastily upgraded to the new T-Series engines, bringing 86 PS @ 6000rpm and 85 foot pounds at 3800 rpm. Larger units could be had pushing 95PS. In 1972, by fitting a Solex-carburettor 1588cc 2T-G twin-cam from the proven Celica that offered 115PS at 6400rpm into a coupe body along with the name Levin (lightning bolt) became not only a success on the forecourt but the rally stage also. 

The chief styling alterations for the E20 were the addition of engine bonnet scoops to provide air to the cabin. Having deleted the triangular front vent window, the previous incarnation’s source of fresh air, the unsullied glass enhanced the looks of this tight little bolide, lending the car a (handily) more worldly stance.

Internally, luxuries aplenty were to be had; AM/FM radio, an illuminated ash tray, rear seat arm rests and better seats offering more space and comfort. Mechanically, upgrades included four speed gearboxes (with overdrive for Levin) disc brakes and beefed up suspension improving ride. Quite something fifty years ago. Shoehorn in a larger fuel tank for three hundred miles between fill-ups. 

Season two of the Corolla had done what few others in history could achieve; improvement for the mass produced car along with financial integrity for the producer. Only truly appreciative eyes would see this kūpe-sha for not only its diminutive proportions but also weep at its former ascendancy to now forgotten status.

Which is more than can be said for later variations, merely growing or shrinking in size according to design taste. Toyota came to the U.K. at Burnaston, Derbyshire (just forty miles from my home) in 1992 to build Carinas with the Corolla nudging along six years later, morphing into the yawn-fest Auris, the Corolla’s short-lived pseudonym.

Returning to the original inner flower nomenclature last year with its twelfth generation, a galactic distance away from that handsome second version, yet looked on favourably by the motoring press. In that forty mile radius from home, hundreds of nearly new Corolla’s are available and whilst the dimensions may have diminished, the costs have proven otherwise; anything north of £20k with top spec touring versions well over £30k.

Is that part of the problem? Do we see the Corolla as just a Toyota and barely relate it to the competition, however well specified or beautifully engineered? With all the Kaizen (continuous improvement), Muda (non-value adding activities) and Pokayoke (failsafe devices on the line) in the world, are nearly fifty million customers in those fifty years, wrong?

In researching this piece, I’ve found stories of Corolla’s being used to transport medical supplies to remote outposts, mega-mileage examples still going strong, families buying and adoring every possible generation, and restored versions gleaming in showroom condition.

Probably the most remarkable is that of the 1971 1.4SR being washed away in the Japanese tsunami of 2011. His house destroyed and his car thirty metres away, with time, care, enthusiastic help and devotion, Masayuki Watabe’s car was returned to its former glory, illustrating the stoicism of a both a proud nation and Corolla owner.

To sum up: Corolla – a car both of and for the world, showing no signs of going away any time soon yet all too transparent. The inner flower blossoms though hidden from appreciating eyes.

Data and photo sources: Global Toyota site, Toyota UK.com

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

10 thoughts on “Hidden Blossom, Inner Flower”

  1. Good morning Andrew. A nice retrospective on a highly significant car, thank you. The E20 Corolla was just about the first Japanese car to make landfall in Ireland, along with the Datsun Sunny B110. In the early days, Toyota was the more successful and those Corollas became a common sight on Irish streets. They might have rusted as enthusiastically as any contemporary European car, but they were very reliable and good value.

    Here’s a Euro spec car in a typical colour:

    I remember studying one as a curious ten year old and noting the curiously ornate front grille and rear light clusters. (I was less aware of how smooth the underlying bodywork was.) The interior looked positively luxurious compared to the austere Escort, with black vinyl and cloth insert seat upholstery, and discreet plasti-chrome highlights on the vinyl covered dashboard. Everything looked meticulously designed and precisely assembled, quite unlike the rather approximate build standards that prevailed elsewhere at the time.

    1. There was a rather vivid green as well, as I recall. Popular they certainly were in Ireland, and as you say, far more luxuriously appointed than the rival Escorts and Kadetts…

  2. Hello Andrew,
    Thank you for this excellent article on an important car that deserves more recognition. As I was in the process of going through my brochures anyway, here is the first brochure of the Corolla:

  3. I have to say, having never owned a Toyota myself, that I find the latest Corolla really attractive – with a “Lexus” air. I saw my first new Corolla wagon yesterday, which was spoilt only by the fact that it uses the front-end styling of the hatchback rather than the sleeker style of the saloon.
    It is unfortunate that Japanese manufacturers traditionally kept their most interesting models for domestic consumption, and only exported the humdrum models.
    I do recall, as an avid Autocar reader from the fifties until the noughties, that they gave a detailed write-up of Fords advanced “revoknuckle” suspension for the Focus RS. A few weeks later they conceded that Renault had already done something similar for their “hot” Megane model. They never mentioned that Toyota had beaten the Europeans to it with a similar system on fwd Levin/Trueno variants of the Corolla.

  4. Just to elaborate on my earlier comment, the somewhat chintzy detailing (lights, grille, badges) obscured what was a commendably neat and well proportioned shape underneath.

    Here’s another photo of the E20 that shows what I mean:

    Maybe potential buyers regarded the ornamentation as indicative of greater luxury? I always thought it was a bit tacky (but I was a very precocious child!)

  5. The Corolla E20 seems to have found some favour with “Irish coupé-man”, or at least with the real-life model for Bishop Len Brennan:

    1. A somewhat uncharacteristically modest bolide for ‘his grace’ to drive. On second thoughts, it was probably the housekeeper’s car. And Mrs. Doyle she most certainly wasn’t. I have it on very good authority that the Bishop of Galway’s automotive tastes ran more towards the products of Stuttgart-Unterturkheim. But then, he had a big appetite – seemingly for just about everything.

    2. Was the coupé version of the Corolla E20 ever oficially imported into Ireland? I have no recollection of it. Perhaps his grace used some divine intervention to get hold of one?

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