Thunder and Lightning, Part 1: The Toyota Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno

THE 2T-G ENGINE AND THE TE27 LEVIN AND TRUENO

For enthusiasts, the most interesting of the many Corolla and Sprinter variants were undoubtedly the performance versions, added midway through the second generation.

Fender badge of a 1972–1974 Toyota Corolla Levin (TE27) front fender badge © 2008 Ernesto Andrade (CC BY-ND 2.0 Generic)

Fender badge of a 1972–74 TE27 Corolla Levin. (Photo: “Untitled” © 2008 Ernesto Andrade; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license)

As we mentioned, the new T-system was added to the Corolla and Sprinter in mid-1970. The T engine was an OHV four with oversquare dimensions, an iron block, and a crossflow aluminum head with hemispherical combustion chambers. Initially, the Corolla and Sprinter offered only the basic 1,407 cc (86 cu. in.) Type T and T-D (high-compression) versions of this engine, but later that year, Toyota created a larger 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) 2T version for the new Carina and Celica, offering 100 PS JIS (73 kW) with a single carburetor or 105 PS (77 kW) in dual-carburetor 2T-B form. A federalized 2T-C version of the single-carb engine became available on U.S. Corollas in the spring of 1971, rated at 102 (gross) hp SAE (76 kW).

2T-GR engine in a 1975 Toyota Carina 1600GT (TA17) © 2013 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0)

The DOHC 2T-G engine, seen here in a 1975 TA17 Carina 1600GT hardtop. This is actually the 2T-GR version of the engine, which had a lower, 8.8:1 compression ratio to allow the use of regular gasoline, trimming output to 110 PS JIS (81 kW) at 6,000 rpm and 101 lb-ft (137 N-m) at 4,600 rpm. The more powerful high-compression (9.8:1) 2T-G was optional by this time, a response to the scarcity of premium fuel in Japan in the mid-seventies. Almost 300,000 2T-G engines were built in all (including the 2T-GR and 2T-GEU versions) before they were replaced by the 4A-GE in 1983–1984. (Photo: “1975 Toyota Carina 1600GT engine room” © 2013 TTTNIS; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

The 2T was basically a T engine bored out another 5 mm (0.2 inches), but the Celica GT had a special 2T-G version with a new aluminum head, designed for Toyota by Yamaha, that featured not only hemispherical combustion chambers, but also chain-driven dual overhead camshafts. English Ford fans will immediately recognize the parallel with the Lotus DOHC conversion of Ford’s Kent crossflow engine. The Japanese engine provided comparable output: With a 9.8:1 compression ratio and two 40mm Solex carburetors, the 2T-G was rated at 115 PS JIS (85 kW) while the 1,558 cc (95 cu. in.) Lotus engine boasted either 115 gross horsepower (86 kW) or 110 hp net (82 kW). (For reasons we don’t claim to understand, 2T-G engines sold in Europe initially carried U.S.-style SAE gross ratings of 124 hp (93 kW) and 113 lb-ft (153 N-m) of torque in high-compression form.)

1973 Toyota Corolla Levin (TE27) front 3q © 2013 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0 - modified by Aaron Severson)

With the high-compression 2T-G engine, the original TE27 Corolla Levin and Sprinter had 115 PS (85 kW) at 6,400 rpm and 105 lb-ft (142 N-m) of torque at 5,200 rpm (both JIS gross figures) in a car weighing around 1,900 lb (855 kg), figures that are closely comparable to the Mk1 Ford Escort Twin Cam that left its mark on British sedan racing and European rally competition in the late sixties. (Photo: “1973 Toyota Corolla Levin” © 2013 TTTNIS; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

The 2T-G was initially a Celica exclusive, but the twin-cam engine was added to the Carina line in mid-1971. Around that time, an enthusiast on the Corolla development team proposed that they also install the 2T-G in the Corolla and Sprinter, which shared the Celica/Carina front suspension and were already available with lesser versions of the T-system engine. Since the combination required little in the way of new components and had clear commercial potential, Corolla development chief Shiro Sasaki approved and Corolla and Sprinter coupes with the 2T-G engine and five-speed gearbox went on sale in March 1972. Their introduction gave Toyota an answer to compact sporty rivals like the Mazda Savanna RE (a.k.a. RX-3) and Mitsubishi Colt Galant FTO.

While Carina buyers could eventually order the 2T-G engine in sedans as well as hardtops, Corollas and Sprinters so equipped were offered only in coupe form. The twin-cam models were christened Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno respectively. (“Levin” is a variation of a Middle English word for lightning, while “trueño” is the Spanish word for thunder.) To go along with their more powerful engines and five-speed transmissions, the Levin and Trueno had firmer suspensions, front disc brakes, larger rear drums, and radial tires (still optional on other models). Interior trim was also dressed up accordingly.

That equipment added weight, but the TE27 Levin and Trueno still weighed close to 200 lb (85 kg) less than a Celica 1600GT with the same engine. Claimed top speed was 118 mph (190 km/h), identical to that of the Celica, but the TE27 cars were naturally quicker. We don’t have independent road test data, but Toyota claimed the twin-cam TE27 cars could cover 400 meters (8 feet less than a quarter mile) from a standing start in 16.3 seconds, suggesting a 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) sprint of less than 9 seconds — hot stuff by contemporary Japanese or European standards. The Levin and Trueno also leaned less and had considerably more cornering grip than the standard Corolla, which was on the floppy side. However, understeer was still heavy, the recirculating ball steering remained a bit sloppy, and the ride was now uncomfortably stiff.

1973 Toyota Corolla Levin (TE27) rear 3q © 2013 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0)

Like other JDM Corolla and Sprinter coupes of this generation, the TE27 Corolla Levin was 155.3 inches (3,945 mm) long on a 91.9-inch (2,335mm) wheelbase, but was 0.4 inches (10 mm) lower and 3.5 inches (90 mm) wider due to the bolt-on fender flares necessary to accommodate the Levin’s greater track width, wider wheels, and fatter 175/70HR13 radials. The fender flares and wider tires were also included on U.S. Corolla SR-5s. (Photo: “1973 Toyota Corolla Levin rear” © 2013 TTTNIS; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

Continuing the English Ford analogy, the Levin and Trueno were loosely analogous to the Lotus-engined Mk1 Ford Escort TC, but Toyota itself had offered an earlier antecedent: the 1967–1968 RT55 Toyota 1600GT, essentially an RT51 Corona hardtop powered by the Yamaha-developed 9R engine, a twin-cam conversion of the Corona’s 1,587 cc (97 cu. in.) 4R pushrod engine. The 1600GT was Toyota’s second DOHC production car, debuting at about the same time as the production version of the 2000GT sports car, another Yamaha project. Fewer than 2,300 examples of the 1600GT were built, but they quickly achieved great competition success, much like the original Lotus Cortina.

9R engine in a 1967 Toyota 1600GT (RT55) © 2013 TTTNIS (PD)

Toyota’s Yamaha-developed DOHC 9R engine in a 1967 Toyota 1600GT. Despite the similarity in their displacements, there was no direct relationship between the 9R and the later 2T-G engine; the 9R had different bore and stroke dimensions, a larger block, and different cylinder head architecture. The 9R was, however, the ancestor of the 1,968 cc (120 cu. in.) 18R-G engine used in the Celica 2000GT and other Toyota performance models of the seventies and early eighties. (Photo: “Toyota 9R engine” © 2013 TTTNIS; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

The TE27 Levin and Trueno were expensive for this class, with list prices starting at ¥813,000 (around $2,700), nearly twice as much as a stripped Corolla 1200 two-door sedan and about 20% more than a Mazda Savanna coupe, probably their most obvious rival. As a result, the Levin and Trueno accounted for only a tiny slice of the Corolla and Sprinter’s JDM sales. However, the twin-cam models were a useful image-booster and sold more than enough for homologation purposes. Like the aforementioned RT55 1600GT and twin-cam Escort, the DOHC TE27 had obvious appeal for sedan racing and rallying, and not just in Japan. Toyota Team Europe used a TE27 Corolla Levin in the team’s first World Rally Championship season, winning the 1975 1000 Lakes Rally.

1972–1974 Toyota Sprinter Trueno (TE27) side © 2010 dacheket (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified 2013 by Mr.choppers and 2014 by Aaron Severson)

The Sprinter Trueno version of the 2T-G-powered TE27 differs from its Corolla Levin sibling mostly in the front clip and taillights, which the Trueno shares with other E20 Sprinter models. (Photo: “Toyota Sprinter Trueno TE27 orange”, a modified version (created 2013 by Mr.choppers) of the original photo “P1030799” © 2010 dacheket; further modified 2014 by Aaron Severson, resized, and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

Surprisingly, Toyota exported the twin-cam Corolla and Sprinter very little in this or the two succeeding generations. U.S. buyers had to settle for the Corolla SR-5, which combined the Corolla Levin’s body and suspension modifications with the same 88 hp (SAE net; 66 kW) 2T-C engine as other U.S. Corollas. We assume the main reason the 2T-G engine was never offered in the U.S. was emission standards (something that would shortly become an issue in Japan as well), but as far as we’ve been able to determine, the twin-cam Levin and Trueno weren’t exported to Australia or the U.K. and were offered only on a limited basis in European markets. Price may have been the main deterrent. The twin-cam Celica hadn’t sold especially well in Europe, perhaps because a DOHC Celica GT cost almost 30% more than a pushrod 1600ST.

THE EMISSIONS ISSUE

The Levin and Trueno returned for the third-generation E30 Corolla and E40 Sprinter, launched in April 1974. Toyota now offered the new Sprinter Trueno in both plain and better-equipped GT editions, the latter featuring tape stripes and some additional convenience features.

1974–1977 Toyota Corolla Levin (TE37) front 3q © 2008 Tennen-Gas (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

When the third-generation Toyota Corolla and Sprinter were launched in 1974, the Corolla was not yet available as a coupe, so the Levin model was initially based on the TE37 Corolla hardtop. When the facelifted E50 Corollas arrived in 1977, the Levin hardtop was replaced by a new TE51 Levin coupe. (Photo: “Toyota Corolla E30 001” © 2008 Tennen-Gas; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Either way, the mechanical package was much the same as the TE27’s, although the new models’ greater weight presumably took a toll on performance. The high-compression 2T-G engine was still available as a no-cost option, but the low-compression 2T-GR was now standard, a response to the decreased availability of leaded premium fuel. (All regular-grade gasoline in Japan would be unleaded by early 1975.)

1974–1977 Toyota Corolla Levin (TE37) rear 3q © 2008 Tennen-Gas (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

At 157.3 inches (3,995 mm) overall and 2,050 lb (930 kg), the TE37 Corolla Levin was 2 inches (50 mm) longer and 165 lb (75 kg) heavier than its predecessor. (Photo: Toyota Corolla E30 002 © 2008 Tennen-Gas; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

The phase-out of leaded gasoline was a sign of things to come. Japan lagged a few years behind the U.S. in adopting national emissions standards, but worsening air quality in major cities led to public pressure for controls on automotive emissions. Despite protests from the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA) — whose president at that time was Eiji Toyoda — Japan’s first interim national standards went into effect in April 1973 with stricter rules following in 1976 and 1978. The latter were inspired by, though not identical to, contemporary U.S. federal standards.

1975 Toyota Sprinter Trueno GT (TE47) front 3q © 2013 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0)

The third-generation TE45/TE47 Sprinter coupe shared the same 93.3-inch (2,370mm) wheelbase as the Corolla sedan and hardtop (and presumably the same floorpan), but had unique sheet metal and a distinct body shell: 2.9 inches (75 mm) longer, 1.2 inches (30 mm) wider, and up to 1.6 inches (40 mm) lower than the hardtop. The E40 Sprinter line didn’t offer a hardtop body style, but a hardtop E60 Sprinter was added in early 1977, shortly after the Corolla line gained its own version of the coupe body. (Photo: “1975 Toyota Sprinter Coupe 1600 Trueno GT” © 2013 TTTNIS; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

At the end of 1975, Toyota was obliged to drop the various models with the 2T-G engine (which included the Corolla Levin, Sprinter Trueno, Carina 1600GT, and Celica 1600GT) because they were incapable of meeting the 1976 emissions standards. This turned out to be a temporary measure; the twin-cam engine returned in 1977 as the 2T-GEU, now with electronic fuel injection (a Bosch L-Jetronic system made under license by Nippon Denso) and an air injection pump. The air pump and the need to subsist on regular unleaded gasoline (requiring a lower 8.4:1 compression ratio) reduced output to 110 PS JIS (81 kW), but by late 1978, the thermal reactor was superseded by a three-way catalytic converter, restoring advertised output to 115 PS JIS (85 kW) and 109 lb-ft (147 N-m) of torque, fractionally stronger than the carbureted engine.

Because the Corolla and Sprinter had continued to gain weight throughout the third generation, the fuel-injected Levin and Trueno were still undoubtedly slower than the original TE27 editions. One consolation was that by 1978, the 2T-GEU and its associated equipment were now available with the new Corolla and Sprinter Liftback bodies as well as coupes, although the Liftbacks were badged as GTs rather than Truenos or Levins.

1975 Toyota Sprinter Trueno (TE47) rear 3q © 2013 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0)

The TE47 Sprinter Trueno was offered in both standard and GT versions from its launch in April 1974, but the contemporary Levin didn’t follow suit until it switched to the TE51 coupe body in 1977; earlier TE37 Corolla Levin hardtops were offered in a single trim level. In addition to its tape stripes, the Sprinter Trueno GT included various features that were optional on “base” Truenos, including a radio, floor and overhead consoles, and a rear defroster. (Photo: “1975 Toyota Sprinter Coupe 1600 Trueno GT rear” © 2013 TTTNIS; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

THE E70 COROLLA AND SPRINTER

Despite the headaches caused by early emissions control devices (which affected Japanese cars much as similar devices had U.S. and Australian cars), the Corolla remained a commercial powerhouse. By the end of the third generation in early 1979, total worldwide Corolla sales had topped 7 million units.

Over the years, the Corolla had grown (literally as well as figuratively) into an unexciting middle-of-the-road compact family sedan. The Levin and Trueno not withstanding, most Corollas and Sprinters were resolutely conservative in their engineering. For all the steady growth and the proliferation of models and options, the basic specifications had changed little over the years: carbureted pushrod engines (except for the 2T-GEU), MacPherson struts and recirculating ball steering up front, a live axle on semi-elliptical leaf springs in back, and of course rear-wheel drive. Throughout most of the seventies, cheaper JDM models still had four-wheel drum brakes and bias-ply tires, although front discs and radial tires gradually spread throughout the line.

1979–1983 Toyota Corolla GT DOHC four-door sedan (TE71) front 3q © 2008 Tennen-Gas (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

The TE71 Corolla and Sprinter 1600 GT DOHC sedans were essentially four-door versions of the Levin/Trueno, sharing the same drivetrain, suspension, and brakes. The main mechanical difference was that sedans had slightly narrower 175/70HR13 tires whereas DOHC coupes, hardtops, and Liftbacks had 185/70HR13s. (Photo: “Toyota Corolla E70 001” © 2008 Tennen-Gas; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

12 Comments

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  1. Aaron,

    Regarding your comment “…..like Honda’s U.S.-only Acura brand,….”, in fact, the Acura brand has been sold in Canada as well, since its inception in (as I recall) 1986 or 1987.

    Regards,

    Bob Wilson

    1. Bob,

      You’re absolutely right — that had slipped my mind completely. I’ve amended the text. Thanks!

  2. The older Corolla is one of those cars that seemed to go from ubiquitous to non-existent in the blink of an eye. I seldom see a RWD Corolla on the road now and the rare times I do they are either rusted out or the victim of some truly horrible modifications. I really wish I took the opportunity to get a late RWD GTS before they all vanished. Drove one once and it was a blast – nearly as much fun as the original MR2 (another regret was not buying one of those when they ere only a few years old and easy to find in nice shape)

    1. The RWD versions are definitely getting harder to find unmodified. Chalkbthat up to most being emissions exempt and also being so light weight that people use them to drag race or drift. The GTS Corollas can be had for a few grand now, I own a 3rd Gen SR5 that I am now in the process of modifying

  3. Aaron, I will thank you for this article in advance of reading it (which I don’t have time for at the moment). I am a Japanese compact car nut and information dense, scholarly information is difficult to come by. Can’t wait ’til you get to the FWD series, including the 20-valve and E100 chassis cars we didn’t get in the states!

  4. Yet another great article. Those KE15/17 pics bring back memories, as my brother had one around ’79/80. Would be fun to have now with the dual carb 3K-B

  5. We have a 1970 Toyota Corolla Sprinter (fastback) 1200cc engine that my wife bought new. It is a sweet little car, and with the 12 inch tires (radials now) it drives like a go cart. We haven’t had it on the road in a few years, but shares dry storage with a couple of other cars in the stable. I never really remember seeing a lot of the sprinters, but was told by a Toyota dealership, there were not a lot brought into America. Does anyone know the production numbers of these sweet little gems?

    1. I unfortunately don’t have detailed sales breakdowns for the Corolla and Sprinter. (I wish I did; it would have been very helpful.) I looked up the press release for the launch of the second-generation car in 1970, but while that includes sales projections that suggest how many Toyota was selling at that point, it doesn’t indicate how many had been sold to date. If Sprinter sales since 1968 were fairly consistent with those projections, the KE15/KE17 probably accounted for something between 15 and 20 percent of first-generation Corolla production. My very rough guess would be around 150,000 coupes in Japan and maybe 30,000 to 40,000 for export, give or take.

      The dealer was probably correct that not many KE17 Sprinter 1200s were sold in the States. The Corolla was still finding its feet in this market and on top of that, the bigger engine wasn’t introduced until the final year of the first generation. The ’69 was sold only with the 1100.

    2. Anyone selling a sprinter? Would be cool to drive it around town

  6. I have a pre-facelift 72 TE27. Totally restored to original.
    should you need any pics for illustrating any points of interest

  7. I love these articles–the website is a treasure trove. You mentioned that there were five Toyota models whose names mean “crown”. There was the “Crown”, of course, and the Camry, which is a transliteration of the Japanese word for “crown”. Add Corolla, and you have three, and Corona is four. What’s the fifth one?

    1. I was thinking of the Corona Mark II — a name they liked so much they used it twice! The “Corona” part of “Corona Mark II” eventually became silent, but persisted in Japan well after the Mark II became a clearly different car.

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