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

The fourth-generation E70 Corolla and Sprinter, launched in Japan in March 1979 and a year or more later in export markets, continued the familiar formula with a number of significant refinements. One was standard front disc brakes. Another was a new rear suspension with coils instead of leaf springs and axle location by four trailing arms and a Panhard rod. The new suspension was prompted at least in part by European criticism of the outgoing Corolla’s primitive cart springs, but Toyota had been using a trailing arm/coil spring setup on the larger Corona and Carina for more than eight years, so it was hardly a radical leap; the rival Nissan Sunny had switched to a four-link axle the year before. In any case, the new suspension reduced harshness and allowed better axle control even with relatively soft springs.

Another addition, albeit not across the board, was rack-and-pinion steering. Curiously, this was offered only on the cheaper 1300 and later the 1500 models; cars with bigger engines retained the older recirculating ball layout. The press speculated that this was a packaging issue, but according to Corolla chief engineer Fumio Agetsuma, it was actually a compromise driven by consumer preference. While rack-and-pinion steering is more precise, it also transmits more road shock than does a recirculating ball layout, compromising the big-car feel Corolla customers had come to expect. We assume the logic of introducing rack-and-pinion steering first on the cheapest models was that repeat customers who wanted their new Corolla to be more of the same would be more likely to gravitate toward the more expensive, bigger-engined versions while the cheaper models were more likely to be sold to new buyers with fewer preconceptions.

1980 Toyota Corolla 1.6 DX Liftback (TE71) side © 2009 Alex Hajek (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

The Liftback versions of the E70 Corolla and Sprinter look very similar to the three-door coupes; the difference is most noticeable in profile, where the Liftback’s longer roof is evident. Although JDM Liftbacks were available with the DOHC 2T-GEU engine, this German DX has the 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) pushrod 2T engine, which in European form had 74 PS DIN (54 kW) in single-carb form or 86 PS DIN (63 kW) with dual carburetors. (Photo: “TE71german” © 2009 Alex Hajek; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Many Corollas and Sprinters still retained pushrod engines, but in Japan, the midrange 1400 was replaced by a new 1500 powered by the 1,452 cc (87 cu. in.) 3A-U, the latest development of the new A-system engine introduced six months earlier on the FWD Tercel and Corsa. Like the earlier T-system engine, the Type A engine had an aluminum head on an iron block, albeit lighter and more compact than before and with a belt-driven overhead camshaft instead of pushrods — the Corolla’s first mass-market OHC engine. In Japan, the 1500 also replaced the OHV 1600, but the 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) 2T-C pushrod engine remained available in export markets. A few months after launch, there was also a new 1800 pushrod engine, the 1,770 cu. in. (108 cu. in.) 13T-U, with 95 PS JIS (70 kW). A federalized version of that engine, called the 3T-C, was standard on all U.S. Corollas from 1980 to 1982.

The DOHC 2T-GEU engine continued unchanged for JDM Levin, Trueno, and GT models, again with electronic fuel injection and catalytic converters. Export versions for markets with less-restrictive emissions standards had no catalysts and retained the original dual-carburetor 2T-G, later allowing the carbureted version to be homologated for Group A competition.

2T-GEU engine in a 1980 Toyota Sprinter GT DOHC (TE71) © 2010 ars666 (used with permission)

The injected version of the DOHC 2T-G engine was the 2T-GEU, the “E” signifying electronic fuel injection and the “U” indicating compliance with Japanese emissions standards. The latter suffix was phased out on Toyota’s JDM engines in the late eighties, by which time it had become superfluous. (Photo: “clean” © 2010 ars666; used with permission)

For all the changes, the “cooking” versions of the new Corolla and Sprinter still felt much like their predecessors. Except for the occasional emissions-control-related hiccup, the Corolla and Sprinter were painless to drive, but lacked the agility of contemporary rivals like the Honda Civic or RWD Ford Escort. That was at least partly by design; one of the things many Toyota customers both at home and abroad found endearing about the Corolla was that it felt bigger than it was, with light steering and a soft ride over reasonably smooth roads. The press, then as now more partial to sporty cars, complained of over-boosted brakes, steering that was numb and imprecise on center, substantial body lean, and axle tramp over bumpy roads (an annoyance the new suspension had mitigated but not completely erased).

With any of the pushrod engines, the Corolla and Sprinter’s straight-line performance wasn’t much to write home about either. The 1300 could be coaxed to perhaps 90 mph (145 km/h), but needed 15 seconds or more to reach 60 mph (97 km/h) even with manual shift. The uncatalyzed pushrod 1600 trimmed that time to the low-12-second range and put 100 mph (160 km/h) within reach, which was decent if hardly thrilling. U.S. cars had similar performance; the 3T-C engine, tuned for torque and low emissions rather than power, mustered no more than 75 hp SAE (56 kW).

1980–1983 Toyota Corolla 1300 station wagon (KE73) front 3q © 2010 OSX (PD - modified by Aaron Severson)

An Australian Corolla 1300 station wagon. While four-door Corolla wagons had been available in other markets for some time, a JDM version wasn’t added until 1982; earlier JDM wagons were available only in sparsely trimmed two-door form and were considered light commercial vans rather than family wagons, which didn’t really catch on in Japan until the eighties. The E70 Corolla wagon and van, which retained the previous Corolla’s semi-elliptical rear springs, remained in production with minor changes until mid-1987, when they were replaced by wagon versions of the FWD E90 Corolla. (Photo: “1980-1983 Toyota Corolla (KE70) station wagon 01” © 2010 OSX; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

On the other hand, many Corolla customers weren’t terribly concerned with sporty road manners. For most buyers, it was more important than the E70 retained the Corolla and Sprinter lines’ principal virtues: good fuel economy, an above-average repair record, and a painless ownership experience.

TE71 LEVIN AND TRUENO

By the late seventies, the mildly sporty air Toyota had cultivated for the original Corolla had been surrendered to the Celica sports coupe, which in Japan was sold through Corolla Stores. However, Japanese customers who found the standard E70 Corolla and Sprinter too sedate could still order the twin-cam 2T-GEU engine, which was now available on Liftbacks, hardtops, and four-door sedans as well as coupes. All DOHC models included not only a five-speed gearbox, stiffer springs and shocks, and wider radial tires, but also quick-ratio steering, a rear anti-roll bar, and four-wheel disc brakes. (The latter three items were also optional on JDM SR and SR coupes.) Only the twin-cam coupes were called Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno, but except for the narrower tires used on sedans, all 2T-GEU cars were mechanically identical save for the slight variations in weight between the different body styles.

1979 Toyota Sprinter GT DOHC hardtop (TE71) © 2010 ars666 (used with permission)

This 1979 TE71 Sprinter GT DOHC hardtop is a Sprinter Trueno in all but name, sharing the injected 2T-GEU engine, five-speed gearbox, disc brakes, and beefed-up suspension. Note the bumpers; larger urethane bumpers like those used on U.S. models were standard on the Japanese GT/Levin/Trueno and optional on other Corollas and Sprinters, adding 5.3 inches (135 mm) to overall length and about 33 lb (15 kg) to curb weight. (Photo: “TE71” © 2010 ars666; used with permission)

The twin-cam cars were undoubtedly faster than lesser models, although even the lightest of the DOHC TE71 body styles was fully 220 lb (100 kg) heavier than the original TE27 Trueno and Levin, so the early cars were likely quicker. We assume the TE71 handled better than other E70 Corollas and Sprinters, but, lacking JDM road test data, we don’t know exactly how much better or at what cost in ride quality.

The cost in yen was much more obvious. The DOHC Corollas and Sprinters were cheaper than a Celica or Carina hardtop with the same engine, but nearly twice as expensive as a basic Corolla 1300, well into the territory of the new Mazda Savanna RX-7. The price of a new Sprinter Trueno GT would also put you into any number of bigger sedans with 2-liter engines. After launch, Toyota again tried to split the Levin and Trueno into cheaper S, standard, and better-equipped APEX versions, but the price differential wasn’t huge and sales remained mediocre, amounting to fewer than 25,000 units a year in all.

Midgley Motor Sport 1980 Toyota Corolla Levin (TE71) coupe front 3q © 2013 NTGpictures (used with permission)

The TE71 Corolla Levin was very successful in Group A rally competition. This 1980 TE71 Corolla coupe, photographed at a 2013 rallying demonstration, was prepared by Midgley Motor Sport for the 1982 British Open Rally Championship and went on to win various 1.6-liter class victories in the hands of both John Midgley and Team Toyota GB driver Per Eklund. This car’s well-tuned 2T-G engine has twin carburetors rather than the electronic fuel injection of JDM cars. (Photo © 2013 NTGpictures; used with permission)

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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