An Abundance of Caution

Toyota’s switch to front-wheel-drive began very tentatively in 1978.


The Toyota Motor Corporation vies with Volkswagen Group as the world’s largest manufacturer of motor vehicles. Global sales in 2021 were just shy of 10.5 million vehicles, earning revenues of approximately US $250Bn. The underlying philosophy that has taken Toyota to this dominant position has been one of cautious, iterative product development over decades, always giving the customer exactly what they expect from the company; finely engineered and meticulously constructed vehicles that deliver a long and reliable service life.

As the automotive industry has evolved, Toyota has tended to demonstrate an abundance of caution, not wishing to risk its reputation on new and perhaps not yet fully proven technologies, nor challenge customer perceptions of what to expect from the company’s products. So it was with the switch to front-wheel-drive.

In the mid-1970s, Toyota’s passenger car range was resolutely conventional, featuring longitudinally mounted front engines and rear-wheel-drive. While these vehicles exemplified the qualities customers wanted and valued in their Toyotas, there was a growing perception that the company risked being left behind as the switch to front-wheel-drive gained momentum. The packaging(1) and dynamic(2) advantages of FWD were increasingly perceived as positives, while concerns about mechanical complexity and more expensive maintenance costs(3) were diminishing.


Toyota decided that it needed to develop a FWD contender of its own. It began by dusting down a design it had reportedly commenced in the late 1960s but then mothballed, believing its customer base was not ready for such a radical shift. A less risk-averse company might simply have switched its B-segment Starlet hatchback and/or C-segment Corolla saloon and estate to FWD, but Toyota was still unwilling to put its franchise at risk with such a bold move. Instead, it decided to develop a new additional model that would sit alongside its existing cars and straddle the B and C segments. That model would be called the Tercel and Corsa(4) although I will hereafter refer to it simply as the Tercel.

The new model was launched on 3rd August 1978. The press release(5) announcing the new model reveals Toyota’s ambivalence about the switch to FWD. Rather than leading on what was undoubtedly the most significant feature of the new model, the information is hidden two-thirds of the way down the body-text in a single rather bland sentence: “Both models are designed as the first Toyota front-wheel drive (FWD) vehicles.” The benefits of FWD are (under)stated as follows: “Adoption of FWD Method, extending the wheelbase 2,500mm and eliminating back seat bulge due to tire wells have preserved a spacious interior and improved riding comfort.” This was certainly no ringing endorsement trumpeting the benefits of the new technology.


If the press release revealed a certain ambivalence concerning the switch to FWD, then the engineering of the car did likewise. Instead of opting for the packaging benefits of a transverse engine, Toyota went for a longitudinal installation with the four or five-speed manual gearbox sitting behind it, just as it would do in a RWD car. The drive was then taken forward below the engine to two equal length half-shafts sitting directly below the rear half of the cylinder block. The mechanical layout was not dissimilar to that of the 1965 Triumph 1300 and 1500(6) saloons.

This layout was not dictated by having to adapt an existing engine either: the Tercel was powered by the all-new 1A-U unit, a 1,452cc four-cylinder inline OHC engine with a cast-iron block, aluminium cylinder-head and siamesed(7) cylinders to minimise overall length. It produced maximum power of 80bhp (60kW) and torque of 83 lb ft (113Nm).

Suspension was by Macpherson struts at the front and trailing arms at the rear. Steering was by rack and pinion, the first Toyota to feature this since the 2000GT sports car of 1967. When questioned about the choice of a longitudinal engine layout, Toyota claimed that it was to facilitate easy conversion to 4WD, although this never happened with the first-generation Tercel.

The mechanical layout had two consequences for the design: inside, there was a substantial RWD-like ‘transmission tunnel’ which limited the width of the front footwells. Outside, the bonnet line was unusually high. Together with the long wheelbase, this gave the Tercel interesting but not unattractive proportions, somewhat reminiscent of the Fiat 128.

There were two and four-door saloons and a three-door model with an all-glass hatchback, in reality no more than a large opening rear window with a high sill over which luggage had to be lifted. All models shared a wheelbase of 2,500mm (98½”) and width of 1,555mm (61¼”). The hatchback was 3,960mm (156”) long, while the saloons were 30mm (1¼”) longer.


Following its domestic launch in August 1978, the Tercel was introduced to Europe at the Geneva Salon in March 1979 and made its US debut as the Corolla Tercel a year later. While the mechanical layout sacrificed the space-efficiency of transverse-engined cars, it also had benefits. The gearchange was as slick and precise as on any RWD car, not the rubbery, indirect linkage usually found on FWD cars. The equal length driveshafts meant that there was no hint of torque-steer(8), an issue that bedevilled powerful FWD models.

The first-generation Tercel sold steadily for four years and was followed by a second-generation model that retained the same unusual mechanical layout. The new model was launched in May 1982 in three and five-door hatchback and four-door saloon variants, the latter solely for the Japanese domestic market.

The styling was rather more conventional this time around, with sharply geometric lines that were very much in fashion at the time. Branding became even more complicated, with the hatchbacks being sold in Japan as the Corolla II while the Tercel and Corsa names were reserved for the four-door saloon or five-door hatchback, still sold through different dealer networks. In overseas markets, the new model was known simply as the Tercel II, the Corolla prefix previously used in the US market having been dropped.


The most interesting derivative of the second-generation model, however, was a five-door estate with a raised roofline and optional four-wheel-drive. This was called the Sprinter Carib in Japan but Tercel II elsewhere. It was, in effect, a very early example of what we would now describe as a small crossover.

The first-generation Tercel was never sold in the UK but the new model was launched in late 1982. Car magazine tested it in three and five-door hatchback forms and, in its December 1982 issue, summarised it as “far from exciting (it’s not meant to be) but it’s a sensible, good-looking package and agreeable to drive and ride in.” The reviewer highlighted the unusual mechanical layout but acknowledged Toyota’s claims that it was better for NVH suppression and enabled simple conversion to 4WD.

Sadly, the magazine was underwhelmed by the 4WD estate version, which it finally got around to testing and reporting on in its June 1987 issue. It was described as “quite characterless and surprisingly unsophisticated by any modern standard” It had “tugboat-heavy steering at low speeds, and insensitivity all the way. It bounces, it booms, and its engine gets wheezy if you do if you do any more than average speeds on the open road.” In fairness to Toyota, the model was already five years old at this point and nearing the end of its life.


The Tercel II remained on the market for six years until 1988, by which time the mainstream Corolla and Starlet models had switched to a transverse-engined FWD layout (in 1983 and 1984 respectively). Three more generations of Tercel models followed until the end of the century, but these were, in mechanical terms largely identical to the Corolla.

The Tercel was always something of an ‘also-ran’ in Toyota’s range, but it did a valuable job of easing the manufacturer into a wholesale switch to front-wheel-drive without the need to take undue risks with its mainstream models. The first Tercel also deserves recognition for its unusual mechanical layout that was not without merit on its own terms.


(1) Mainly achieved with transverse engine installation rather than FWD per se.

(2) FWD cars may offer less dynamic involvement and satisfaction than RWD cars for expert drivers, but their tendency to understeer is safer for the vast majority of motorists.

(3) These concerns were mainly associated with BMC’s densely packaged drivetrains, a feature of the FWD cars designed by Alec Issigonis.

(4) The Tercel and Corsa were mechanically and bodily identical, differing only in trim details. In Japan, they were sold through different sales channels, the Tercel through Corolla dealers, the Corsa through Toyopet dealers.

(5) The Toyota press release may be found here.

(6) The 1300 and 1500 were Triumph’s brief flirtation with FWD before reverting to the bodily identical but RWD Toledo and 1500TC / Dolomite models.

(7) Siamesed or conjoined cylinder bores have no coolant channels between the centres of the cylinders.

(8) Torque-steer is when the steering is pulled off-centre by hard acceleration.

Author’s note: Formative DTW stalwart, Sean Patrick also wrote about the Mk1 Tercel back in 2016. Sean’s piece may be found here.


Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

38 thoughts on “An Abundance of Caution”

  1. You are right about Toyota’s technical conservatism. I ran a seventh generation CE100 (91-97), wagon for a few years and thought I would have to replace the radiator after it was punctured in an accident. But the radiator was made using the old method of copper soldered core soldered to brass end tanks so I had it recored. By the mid 9os all other cars comparable in size and price had gone to the cheaper aluminium core with plastic end tanks and I was surprised that this wasn’t so for the Corolla. But most other cars would have received a lot more maintenance to reach 1 million km, my Corolla only needed brake pads, tyres, oil and filter changes and 2 air conditioning compressors. It would have done more but it was an insurance wrte-off after being rear-ended

    1. One last minute change during the development of Golf Mk1 mere weeks before the production start was the change from a conventional soldered radiator to the then new crimped type pioneered by the French car makers.
      A lot cheaper to make but impossible to repair and available from the early Seventies.
      Toyota always had a strong view on conditions under which their cars would be used – remember Mr. Toyoda’s statement that he could not imagine a Red Cross Landcruiser in Nepal being battery driven.
      Cars intended for developing counries needed a high degree of repairability and Toyota built them that way.

    2. Yes, every time I see coverage from Afghanistan, or Myanmar, or other troubled spots I always see CE 100s driving around, all former JDM.

  2. Though I find it remarkable that in 1980 the Tercel was the *only* fwd Toyota. They were a full generation behind almost all of the competition. In 1980 Ford had their Fiesta and Escort, GM had the Kadett/Astra, in the US the X-cars which were Toyota Camry-sized. Simca/Talbot, Saab, VW, Audi, Renault, Citroën, and Lancia was entirely front wheel drive. Fiat had the Ritmo and everything under it. In that year Toyota decided to launch the rear wheel drive Corolla.

  3. Great article, as always. Looking at the photo of the first generation three-door Tercel I can’t help wondering how the opening of the large rear window works in relation with the wiper that is mounted in top of the car.

    1. The wiper has a flexible joint. As you open the rear shield the wiper´s axle bends the few degrees needed to slide in the single After Eight mint you need to put in the boot. I wonder about the parcel shelf. String connector?

    2. Great article, thank you, Daniel. The first models have a real ‘GM long-car’ look about them.

      Richard – yes, a string connector, as (just) visible in the brochure.

      Given the Kei cars favoured by the Japanese, I’m surprised that they didn’t adopt space-saving technology more eagerly. That said, it’s worth reading Sean Patrick’s article as it gives a bit more background on the issue.

      I think there might be a parallel with EVs -Toyota don’t seem to be entirely convinced and until they are, development will be slow. It may have been the same with rotary engines, come to think of it.

    3. The Tercel Liftback had no parcel shelf and therefore didn’t need string connectors.
      Just an open, exposed boot.

  4. I confess, I was never a lover of Japanese cars. But I regret that I never owned a first-series Tercel Liftback. A car that has everything you need, what it doesn’t have (had) you don’t need – and somehow it looked good for the time.

    (But, at least we have the Italian version in the form of the Alfasud Sprint – which, I would like to mention at this point, has brought us over 4000 km through France in the last few weeks with a lot of fun).

    1. I beg to differ. An Alfasud sprint is not an equivalent to the Toyota Tercel because it is fun to drive.
      I hope you did some pass roads in the Pyrénées or Massif Central.

    2. At the request of the best-wife-of-all, the complete Napoleon route – and almost all the bends in the Perigord. (The Sprint stood grinning in its parking space almost every evening for days.) 🙂

  5. I wonder how much the tightly packaged and indifferently engineered cars from BMC/Leyland tainted perceptions of FWD in the UK? They were pioneers and the cars were fragile, troublesome, and an absolute swine to work on because of the ridiculous desire to fit the powertrain into as little space as possible.

    The packaging wouldn’t have mattered in a Toyota of course, you weren’t under the bonnet ever 1500 miles fixing something!

    1. That’s an interesting question, although the Austin / Morris 1100 / 1300 was consistently a best-seller and other front wheel drive cars did well. I don’t think the basic engineering was fundamentally duff, but the attention to detail in execution was sometimes lacking.

      Fleet operators were said to prefer simpler engineering (and more traditional body styles). That’s understandable, especially if you do a lot of servicing in-house, as some bigger fleets did.

      I don’t think BMC’s more ‘bohemian’ approach to product testing and development hurt the concept of front wheel drive. Cars like the Fiat 127 and Ford Fiesta and various Simcas and Renaults were accepted readily enough, and 2CVs were, I think, seen as being laughably simple and robust, if a somewhat eccentric choice (other Citroëns perhaps less so, for other reasons).

    2. I still remember the exceedingly crude method used to attach the exhaust pipe to the manifold on the ‘A’ series. It was bad enough if you had space around it – in a Mini or 1100 it must have been awful.

    3. I understand that the tight packaging of Issigonis cars was quite an irritation for those unfortunate to have to work on them. My late father was an electrical engineer, but also first port of call for friends and neighbours whose cars had broken down. A good friend of his had a MG 1300 and it was by some margin the car my dad least liked working on. Skinned knuckles were a given.

  6. Good evening all. Apologies, I’ve been otherwise occupied today, but thank you for your comments. Like Fred, I have an irrational fondness for the first-generation Tercel three-door liftback. Its sheer oddness is rather appealing. Here’s a nice, shiny Dutch registered example showing the tailgate open:

    1. Daniel, I always liked the area around the rear lights, the C-pillar and the (glass) tailgate. I can’t get enough of it.

    2. Ah, the Tercel: one of those “oh yeah, they built those” cars. Glad they did though. I’m with Fred in being immensely taken by the rear of the three door. Somehow it’s a very satisfying shape. Those stick-out taillights are very much of the ‘sixties but the detailing (and relative lack of chrome) is very much late ‘seventies.

      One would be tempted to compare the Tercel to the Autobianchi Primula, but that car was much more prescient in its mechanical lay-out. As the Tercel was developed in the ‘sixties, mounting the engine transversely probably wasn’t yet an established convention, so they simply made a choice. Renault did much the same for a few of their models that were early adopting FWD, a legacy that produced the 5, for instance (via the 4). Of course the Renaults’ engine and gearbox placement are mirrored compared to the Tercel.

    3. This back reminds me the one of the corolla e110 for europe market. One question, the external rearview mirrors in front of the car were they adjustable from the inside some how?

    4. Hi Marco. I don’t believe they were, but perhaps others might know differently. Those wing rather than door mirrors were mandatory in Japan at the time.

    5. Hi daniel, thank you for your answer. It would be interisting to know the logic behind such rule. I thought it was about engineering problem to put them where they usually are.

    6. Marco, if I remember correctly, the rule was that the rear-view mirrors had to be visible from the area of the windscreen cleaned by the windscreen wipers.

    7. Hi Marco. Back in the 1960s, external rear-view mirrors were always wing rather than door-mounted. As I recall, door-mounted mirrors first appeared on European cars in the mid-1970s. I guess Japanese regulations took some time to catch up with the change in fashion. In the 1980s, JDM ‘grey imports’ into the UK were readily identified by still having wing mirrors, unlike official imports which had door mirrors.

  7. However unlikely it seems (even if Daihatsu was itself linked to Toyota), with the exception of both being FWD have always wondered if there were further connections between the Toyota Tercel L10 and Daihatsu Charade G10? Both appeared around the same time as did their respective Toyota A 4-cylinder and Daihatsu C-Series 3-cylinder engines, featuring a 76mm bore and Toyota’s Turbulence Generating Pot (TGP) lean-burn system (in addition to the Daihatsu A 2-cylinder that also appeared around the same time).

    One would have also thought Toyota would have it even safer by using Daihatsu to test the waters with what became the Tercel (and its L20 redesign) to either compliment or supplant the outdated Charmant, prior to eventually being superseded by the Applause around the same time the L20 ceased production.

    1. Daihatsu’s really serious association with Toyota began around 1967 – likewise Hino. Probably around the time the keel of the Tercel /Corsa was being laid.

      In retrospect, it seems a pity that Toyota didn’t use either company as their Autobianchi or Audi / NSU. Not that they haven’t done well since…

      Nissan took far better advantage of their takeover of Prince Motor Company. Stretching a point slightly, it could be argued that the Prince-developed Cherry was Datsun’s Golf, while the Skyline brought charisma to a conservative but worthy product range.

  8. I’ve long been a Tercel / Corsa watcher – it’s such a strange car.

    The design sat on Toyota’s shelf for at least ten years before they decided they had to make something – just anything – with front wheel drive. The Fiat 128 or Honda Civic might as well have never happened.

    The angles, aperture shapes, construction details, and proportions of the first generation cars’ bodies suggest light fettling of a late ’60s design. I see quite a lot of ADO16 and MGB GT in the 3 door hatch.

    That Triumph-inspired drivetrain would never have got past Fiat’s brutal management-imposed cost strictures. In that respect it’s even worse than Issigonis’ as it turns the drive through 90 degrees as well as needing that train of costly and noisy idler gears. Toyota rationalised it rather well, possibly with a good look at the NSU K70, but the fundamental inefficiencies remained. Perhaps having a toe in the water was more important for Toyota than maximising profits.

    The other surprise is introducing the “A engine” in the Tercel / Corsa. Perhaps Toyota wanted to prove it in a niche product, rather in the big-sellers, where it eventually found its place. Toyota were clever in the design of the powertrain to be capable of accommodating other engines, far better in that matter than Harry Webster or Alec Issigonis.

    1. One mystery regarding the Tercel’s background as a dusted off decade old design would be if it included the Toyota A from the beginning (only to be delayed due to the fuel crisis, etc) or another engine such as the K and T motors used in the Corollas of the period?

    2. When you look at the K70’s drivetrain you see that it needs one set of gears less than the Toyota design to transfer power from crankshaft to gearbox.

      The good old Saab 99 had two sets of intermediate gears but a completely different gearbox design

      And there’s Audi’s completely mad solution for getting the power to a differential ahead of the clutch housing

  9. Having read a bit more about the first Tercel, I think I may have found a couple more clues about the reason for the longitudinal engine layout. The 1A-U engine was also used in the new, rear wheel drive Corolla of the time, so the longitudinal layout made sense.

    In addition, Toyota apparently wanted to develop a relatively narrow car, to help aerodynamics and thus fuel economy. Again, the longitudinal layout made this easier. Toyota acknowledged that the car’s looks weren’t popular in its home market. However, Americans did like it, so job done.

  10. That Audi gearbox just drives home how wrongheaded the engineering is in their cars (and why they aren’t great to drive). Even with that Heath Robinson gearbox nonsense you still end up with the front axle line behind the entire engine.

    1. You’re invited to have a look under my A4 B9’s bonnet to see how far back in relation to the front axle the engine sits.

    2. I have now seen the engine in a B9 Audi A4 and the engine sits almost entirely ahead of the strut towers.

  11. I also have a soft spot for the first generation Tercel hatchback. A clean design for the times, with the big glass hatch. You also got some contemporary Toyota family resemblance to the first generation Cressida with those rear lights!

    1. Hi Asgeir. I see what you mean regarding the tail lights:

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