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

Although the Toyota Corolla is one of the world’s bestselling automotive nameplates, it’s not one that generally arouses much enthusiast interest. Twenty years ago, however, the Corolla Levin coupe and its near-twin, the Sprinter Trueno, were sporty rear-wheel-drive cars that are still coveted by street racers today. We’ll get to the legendary AE86 in part two. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we examine the history of the early DOHC Corolla and Sprinter coupes, their Yamaha-developed 2T-G engine, and the more mundane cars on which they were based.

1976 Toyota Corolla SR5 hardtop (TE37) rear fender badge © 2011 Aaron Severson


The Toyota Corolla has been so long established as the definitive reliable-but-dull automotive appliance that it might seem hard to believe that when it first debuted back in 1966, Toyota pitched the Corolla as something of a sporty car.

That’s not to say the original KE10 Corolla 1100 was a sports car; there was nothing particularly exotic about its performance or specifications, although an 11th-hour decision to expand engine displacement to 1,077 cc (66 cu. in.) gave the Corolla a commercially useful edge of 89 cc (5 cu. in.) and about 4 PS (3 kW) over the new Datsun B10 Sunny. Rather, the Corolla was sporty in the way a contemporary six-cylinder Ford Mustang was sporty: There were standard bucket seats, the shifter for the four-speed transmission was on the floor rather than the steering column, and the sparse instrumentation was set into round pods — little touches that made the Corolla feel like more than mere basic transportation.

Toyota had already tried the basic transportation approach with the UP10 Publica, launched in 1961 in response to a proposal from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) for a low-cost “people’s car” to put Japan on wheels. The Publica quickly demonstrated that lower prices did not necessarily translate into huge sales. It was not a complete commercial disaster, but neither was it the breakout hit for which Toyota had hoped. The UP10 wasn’t a bad car for what it was, but anyone who could afford better wasn’t likely to give it a second thought, which also limited the Publica’s aspirational appeal for less affluent buyers. Toyota tried to add some interest with a convertible version and the peculiar-looking Sports 800 derivative, but neither had much impact.

1964–1966 Toyota Publica Deluxe (UP10D) front 3q © 2013 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0)

Toyota’s original UP10 Publica was 138.6 inches (3,520 mm) long and only 55.7 inches (1,415 mm) wide on an 83.9-inch (2,130mm) wheelbase. During its development, Toyota considered making the Publica front-wheel drive and entered into serious negotiations with Ford Motor Company for joint production, but neither plan came to fruition. (Photo: “Toyota Publica Deluxe UP10D” © 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)

2U engine in a 1965 Toyota Publica (UP10) © 2011 Aaron Severson

The UP10 Publica was powered by an air-cooled twin of 697 cc (43 cu. in.) displacement. The original U engine had 28 PS JIS (21 kW), but this 1965 example has the 2U with 32 PS JIS (24 kW). Performance was predictably sleepy even with a curb weight of less than 1,320 lb (600 kg). (author photo)

Still searching for the optimum balance between affordability and desirability, Toyota developed the Corolla as a follow-on to the Publica. The new model was positioned as a somewhat larger and more upscale product, albeit smaller, cheaper, and more economical than Toyota’s contemporary Toyopet Corona.

The first Corolla 1100 sedan was fairly straightforward, offering one engine, one body style (a two-door sedan), and three trim levels with prices ranging from ¥438,000 to ¥495,000 ($1,215 to $1,375 at the contemporary exchange rate). However, Toyota wasted little time adding additional body styles, more trim levels, and options like front disc brakes and two-speed Toyoglide automatic. Before long, there were also more powerful engines — up to 77 PS (57 kW) from the dual-carburetor 1,166 cc (71 cu. in.) 3K-B, added late in the model run.

1968 Toyota Corolla 1100 two-door sedan (KE10) front 3q © 2013 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0 - modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

The original KE10 Corolla 1100 was 151.4 inches (3,845 mm) long — 152.8 inches (3,880 with the optional bumper overriders — on a 90-inch (2,285mm) wheelbase, weighing around 1,540 lb (700 kg). At launch, the sole powertrain was a four-speed transmission linked to the 1,077 cc (66 cu. in.) K engine, giving 60 PS JIS (44 kW) and a claimed top speed of 87 mph (140 km/h). By 1969, there were two additional options: the high-compression K-D engine with 64 PS JIS (47 kW) and the high-compression, dual-carburetor K-B with 73 PS JIS (54 kW) and a claimed 100 mph (160 km/h) top speed. (Photo: “1st generation Toyota Corolla” © 2013 TTTNIS; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized and modified (further obscured occupants) 2014 by Aaron Severson)

All this was a huge financial gamble for Toyota, involving the construction of two entirely new factories, but the bet paid off. Unlike the Publica, the first Corolla was a breakout success, for a time becoming Japan’s bestselling car. It briefly lost that title to the new Toyopet Corona Mark II in 1968, but regained the lead in 1969 and held it for more than 30 years.

A few Corollas made their way overseas almost from the beginning, but Corolla exports began in earnest in early 1968, with both complete cars and CKD (complete knocked down) kits for local assembly in markets like Australia and New Zealand. The Corolla began arriving in English-speaking markets that spring, with a low starting price (under $1,700 in the U.S.) and generally positive reviews.

By contemporary small-car standards, the Corolla’s ride and handling were no better than average, particularly with bias-ply tires, and there was no great abundance of head or leg room for the long of leg. However, performance was decent (top speed was about 85 mph — 135 km/h), fuel economy was excellent, detail finish and assembly quality were quite good, and the price was right. That was an agreeable compromise for many buyers, particularly since the Corolla soon developed a commendable record for mechanical reliability (albeit not corrosion resistance).

1968 Toyota Corolla 1100 (KE10) rear 3q © 2013 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0 - modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

Like many Japanese cars of its era, the KE10 Corolla was very narrow: only 58.5 inches (1,485 mm) overall without mirrors, 3.3 inches (85mm) narrower than a Mk1 Ford Escort. First-generation Corollas had MacPherson struts with coils and an auxiliary transverse leaf spring in front and Hotchkiss drive in back. Drum brakes and 12-inch wheels were standard, but front discs became optional on more expensive models by 1968. (Photo: “1st generation Toyota Corolla rear” © 2013 TTTNIS; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized and modified (reduced rear window sun glare) 2014 by Aaron Severson)

In all, Toyota sold nearly a million KE10 Corollas in less than four years, an annual average that wasn’t far from the total of all Japanese passenger car production when the Corolla was first conceived in 1963. It was a sign of things to come.


For what happened next to make sense, it’s necessary to first examine one of the more unusual aspects of Toyota’s Japanese domestic market (JDM) business: its multiple dealer networks.

Our American and British readers are accustomed to automakers having multiple brands with separate dealer networks. Many of these are legacies of past mergers and acquisitions by previously independent automakers while others, like Honda’s North America-only Acura brand, are attempts to branch out into new market segments. Toyota’s home-market sales channels evolved in quite a different way, stemming from the unique circumstances of the postwar Japanese auto business.

1971 Toyota Corolla 1600 coupe (TE27) grille badge © 2011 Aaron Severson

This second-generation Toyota Corolla’s badge alludes to the definition of the car’s name; in botanical terms, a corolla is the crown-like shape formed by a flower’s petals. That makes the Corolla one of at least five Toyota models whose names mean “crown.” (author photo)

The market for passenger cars in Japan evolved quite slowly compared to many other nations. Although the first completely Japanese-made automobile was built in 1904, until the late 1950s, passenger cars represented a very small percentage of the domestic auto industry. Consequently, until the fifties, Japan had few automotive dealerships and most of their business was in truck sales to commercial buyers.

During World War II, the Japanese government not only imposed controls on car and truck production, but actually went so far as to consolidate all automotive distribution into a single national chain not bounded by any one brand or manufacturer affiliation. After the Japanese surrender, the Allied occupation force, keen to break prewar monopolies, quickly did away with this central organization, leaving individual dealers to fend for themselves.

Seeing an obvious opportunity, Toyota sales boss Shotaro Kamiya scrambled to sign as many of those newly independent dealerships as he could, including some previously affiliated with other makes. His recruitment drive gave Toyota the largest postwar sales network in Japan, although that still didn’t amount to very many dealers: fewer than 50 nationwide (albeit many with multiple outlets). Initially, that was hardly a problem, since materials were in short supply and most production was still restricted to trucks; the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers finally lifted the restrictions on passenger car production in late 1949. Toyota was struggling, and only survived 1949–1950 through the intervention of the Bank of Japan and a painful downsizing.

By the mid-fifties, the worst was over and Toyota was growing rapidly. As the company prepared to shift focus to passenger cars and light commercial vehicles, however, it quickly became clear that significantly expanding sales would require additional retail outlets. The dilemma was that Kamiya’s postwar dealer recruitment drive had given each of Toyota’s existing franchise holders exclusive distribution rights over very large territories, in some cases encompassing entire prefectures.

Kamiya’s eventual solution was to establish new sales channels that could sell their own franchises. The first of these new channels, established in 1956, was called Toyopet, followed about a year later by Toyota Diesel. In 1961, these were joined by an additional channel selling the new Publica (and, five years later, the Corolla).

As you might imagine, Toyota’s existing franchise holders were none too happy about the idea of new Toyota stores within existing sales territories. Kamiya managed to placate the dealers by allowing them to purchase minority interests in the new stores, giving established retailers the opportunity to profit from the additional outlets, but not absorb them. In later years, there would also be an effort to limit model overlap so as to minimize direct competition between stores, although in the early days, Toyota and Toyopet Stores sold many of the same products.

1970 Toyota Corolla Sprinter (KE15) rear decklid badge © 2011 Aaron Severson

In export markets, the 1968–1970 KE15/KE17 Corolla Sprinter coupe was sold through the same dealerships as other Toyotas, but in Japan, the Sprinter was exclusive to the new Toyota Auto network. The Corolla sedan was sold through both Auto Stores and Publica Stores (which were renamed Corolla Stores in 1969) until the arrival of the E20 Sprinter sedan in mid-1971. (author photo)

The multiple channels were not a GM-style hierarchy and, unlike the company’s later Lexus and Scion divisions, did not necessarily reflect different branding. The Toyopet name, for example, had existed well before the first Toyopet dealerships and both Toyota and Toyopet Stores sold Toyopet-branded cars and trucks until Toyota phased out that brand in the late seventies. Beginning with the launch of the Publica in 1961, Toyota did to some extent use the separate channels as a way of targeting different buyer demographics, but the principal goal was simply to increase sales volume by allowing Toyota to first double and then triple its dealer base.

If you’re not confused already, we should add that during this period, Toyota’s sales organization was actually a separate company, Toyota Motor Sales Co., Ltd., of which Kamiya was president. The sales organization had been spun off at the insistence of the banks during Toyota’s 1950 reorganization; the rationale is cryptic, but we assume the goal was to enable Toyota’s valuable dealer network to survive even if the struggling manufacturing business did not. Toyota Motor Company and Toyota Motor Sales were not formally reunited until 1982, spending the intervening 32 years in what former Toyota president Eiji Toyoda later characterized as an interdependent but often contentious relationship.


Add a Comment
  1. Aaron,

    Regarding your comment “… 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.


    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.

  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.

  8. Perhaps you could compare the regular Corolla sedans to cars that sold well in other countries, the Chevrolet Impala in the USA, Ford Cortina in the UK, VW Beetle in Germany in one respect you alluded to in your text. That is offering a relatively painless car owning experience. Not unfailing reliability, although Impalas and Cortinas were less than bulletproof finding a shop that would fix them at at a reasonable cost was quite easy.
    The point I think is most customers wanted an affordable, unpretentious, competent car that was unlikely to let them down. In their own way the examples I have given fitted the bill for their own markets. Toyotas trump card for maintaining sales for many years was developing and updating it and its enviable reputation for reliability, something Ford and Chevrolet never really had, and VW seem to have lost.

    1. In all of the cases you mention, a key factor was low overall cost of ownership: a combination of modest operating costs and strong residuals. A lot of the Cortina’s British success, as I understand it, was that Ford was able to optimize its standardized cost-of-ownership numbers in a way that was like catnip for fleet sales managers. Similarly, a properly equipped sixties Impala, though rather thirsty by global standards and far from bulletproof, had a reputation for perceived quality that translated into very good resale values.

      What’s significant about the Corolla in that regard is that Toyota managed to translate that into a variety of different global markets. An Impala was only cheap to own in the U.S. and perhaps to a lesser extent in Canada. I know Ford sold the Cortina in a variety of markets, but the only ones where it was a market leader were the U.K. and perhaps South Africa. (I don’t have any comparative overall sales figures for South Africa.) The Corolla was economical enough to be considered so in markets with higher fuel prices and lower incomes and was rugged enough to make a fair go of it in places where a breakdown was more complicated than having to drop the car at the local garage down the road.

      I know car people tend to use “appliance-like” in a derogatory fashion, but in a lot of circumstances, it’s perfectly appropriate. For instance, if I’m purchasing a toaster, I just want it to be cheap and work when I need it to. Given two identically priced choices, I might choose a jaunty red one over the usual stainless-and-black number, but I’m not going to pay extra for attractive toaster design (especially if it seems to come at the expense of function), “soft-touch” controls that are going to break, or the like. It’s not unreasonable to approach cars in the same way.

  9. thank you for this article, very informative. All I need now is to know how many hard tops were built and sold during the 3rd generation of the Corolla Levin. lol! I own one and seldom see them, even during Toyotafest meets.

    1. I unfortunately don’t have any detailed production breakdowns. I looked, but my Japanese isn’t nearly good enough to find Japanese-language data, which might need to come directly from Toyota in any case. Sadly, their otherwise extremely comprehensive 75th anniversary history site, which did have extensive information on the development of the Corolla, did not include production breakouts. The closest I found was the production estimates in the launch press releases, which aren’t necessarily accurate, being pre-release estimates (although they do give some idea how well the outgoing model had been doing), and generally aren’t broken out by body style. If anyone knows of a good source for total production figures, I’d be glad to hear of it!

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