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.