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


While the KE10 Corolla was an immediate success, the pace of its early sales demonstrated that Toyota could sell even more cars by adding more stores. The answer was yet another sales channel, Toyota Auto, whose first outlets opened for business in November 1967. The new channel expanded Toyota’s JDM dealer base by a further 20%.

Like the existing Publica network (which changed its name to Corolla in March 1969), Toyota Auto Stores initially sold Publicas and Corollas, but the new Auto dealerships offered an additional variant Publica Stores did not: the KE15 Corolla Sprinter, a semi-fastback coupe based on the KE10 Corolla sedan, sharing the same engines and running gear and costing only a little more.

1970 Toyota Corolla Sprinter SL (KE17) front 3q © 2013 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0)

The KE15/KE17 Sprinter was the first and last Toyota Sprinter to be badged as a Corolla in Japan, although subsequent iterations would still be based on the Corolla body shell(s) and running gear. This is a 1970 KE17 Sprinter SL powered by the new 1,166 cc (71 cu. in.) 3K engine, which replaced the 1100 in September 1969, offering between 68 and 77 PS (50 and 57 kW) depending on compression and carburetion. (Photo: “Toyota Corolla Sprinter KE17 SL” © 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)

All this did wonders for Corolla sales, but we don’t imagine it sat well with established Publica/Corolla dealers, who not only had to face additional competition for sales of Toyota’s most popular model, but were also denied the new coupe. However, this was only a temporary expedient; Toyota had already conceived a more complete solution.

The new Takaoka assembly plant where the Corolla was built had capacity to spare, but more importantly, the factory also boasted a full array of sophisticated automated manufacturing equipment and a computer-controlled production management system. All of this facilitated Toyota’s now well-known “just-in-time” production strategy, wherein small batches of individual components are manufactured to order and delivered just as they are to be installed. Aside from minimizing parts stockpiles and the need for warehousing, the just-in-time system made it relatively economical for Toyota to build multiple variations of the same car or truck on the same lines. Adding different front clips to certain versions of a car, for example, was just a matter of scheduling and wasn’t vastly more expensive than building a comparable number of identical cars.

1970 Toyota Corolla Sprinter 1200 SL (KE17) rear3q © 2013 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0)

The KE15/KE17 Corolla Sprinter coupe’s claim to being sportier than a contemporary Corolla sedan was based on the Sprinter’s more rakish roofline and 1.4-inch (35mm) lower overall height, which had an unfortunate effect on the E10 Corolla’s already less-than-generous headroom. Other dimensions were identical to the Corolla sedan’s and curb weights were similar. (Photo: “Toyota Corolla Sprinter KE17 SL 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)

In early 1970, Toyota used this technique to spin off the second-generation E25 Sprinter as a separate model sharing the second-generation Corolla platform and running gear, but with distinct styling and no Corolla identification. At the same time, Corolla Stores received a new second-generation Corolla coupe, no longer badged as a Sprinter.

A little over a year later, Toyota Auto Stores introduced a new Sprinter sedan, based mechanically on the E20 Corolla sedan and stylistically on the Sprinter coupe. In subsequent generations, the Sprinter would become a full model line offering most of the same body styles and equipment available for the Corolla, distinguished by variations in styling, trim, and equipment. The Sprinter versions were usually a bit more expensive, but probably not enough so to sway a buyer one way or the other.

1971 Toyota Corolla 1600 coupe (TE27) front 3q © 2011 Aaron Severson

With the E20 series, the Corolla got its own coupe, distinct from the Sprinter. In Japan, both the Sprinter and Corolla coupes were launched with the 1,166 cc (71 cu. in.) 3K engine, but the larger 1,407 cc (86 cu. in.) T engine was added in September 1970. The 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) 2T pushrod engine became available on U.S. Corollas in early 1971, but wasn’t offered on JDM cars until the spring of 1973. (author photo)

This was a strategy Toyota would employ repeatedly over the next three decades, allowing the company to increase its production volume and thus maximize its return on its tooling investment while reinforcing the nominal individuality of the different retail channels. How comfortable individual dealers were with this approach we don’t know, but it clearly paid off for Toyota in both sales and market share. By the eighties, most Japanese automakers had followed suit, albeit not necessarily with the same degree of success.

1971 Toyota Corolla coupe (TE27) rear 3q © 2011 Aaron Severson

Like their predecessors, E20 Corollas and Sprinters had MacPherson strut front suspension and a live axle on parallel leaf springs, but the E10’s transverse front leaf spring was deleted and an anti-roll bar added up front, giving greater commonality with the new Carina. This U.S. Corolla 1600 coupe’s oversize wheels are obviously not stock; standard wear for a Corolla 1400 or 1600 of this vintage was 6.15-13 bias-plies on steel wheels! You could order radials (generally in 155SR13 or later 165SR13 sizes), but they were not standard until much later. However, front discs were standard on 1600s. (author photo)

Since the multiple dealer channels were the result of a situation peculiar to postwar Japan, these convolutions were not reflected in Toyota’s various export markets. Overseas customers were usually offered only a smattering of Toyota’s JDM models, not always badged the same way those cars were sold in Japan and usually with a much more limited range of models, engines, and options than were available to Japanese buyers.


If your impression of Japanese cars of the seventies and eighties is based on the automakers’ typical export strategy — a few body styles in a small number of generally well-equipped trim levels with few (if any) standalone options — then flipping through a complete list of Toyota’s home-market lineup during that period is likely to be a bewildering experience. At home, Toyota took full advantage of its just-in-time production strategy to offer popular models in dozens of variations that could be multiplied even further with the options list.

1976 Toyota Corolla SR5 hardtop (TE37) front 3q © 2011 Aaron Severson

The third-generation (E30) Corolla offered different grille and taillight treatments depending on body style and engine choice. Sedans and hardtops with the 1200 (3K) engine used one treatment; cars with the 1400 or 1600 (T and 2T) engines, like this U.S.-spec 1976 Corolla SR5 hardtop (powered by the 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) 2T-C engine), had a second; and coupes and Liftbacks (introduced later in the run) shared yet a third treatment. A fourth iteration was adopted for the facelifted E50 Corolla sedans and hardtops in mid-1977. (author photo)

1977 Toyota Corolla 1200 Deluxe two-door sedan (KE30) front 3q © 2012 happy days photos and art/free photos (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

For contrast, this is a 1977 KE30 Corolla 1200 Deluxe sedan; note the distinct grille shape. This non-U.S. car also lacks the coupe’s larger bumpers, which made U.S. E30 Corollas some 7.9 inches (200 mm) longer than contemporary Corollas sold elsewhere. (Photo: “1977 Toyota Corolla 30 De Luxe Automatic” © 2012 happy days photos and art/free photos; resized and modified (obscured numberplates) 2014 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, with this modified version offered under the same license)

1978–1979 Toyota Sprinter (KE65) front 3q © 2013 Torquoiz123 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

… and here’s the sedan version of the facelifted 1978–1979 (E60) Sprinter, seen here in KE65 (1300) form with the new 1,290 cc (79 cu. in.) 4K-U engine. The front clip of 1974–1977 (E40) Sprinter sedans was similar, but the leading edge of the hood did not extend below the tops of the headlight surrounds and the central grille had no vertical bars. (Photo: “SprinterKE65” © 2013 Turquoiz123; resized 2014 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

As two of Toyota’s bestselling models, the Corolla and Sprinter were not exempt from this proliferation. If you were so inclined, you could still order a stripped, price-leader two-door Corolla 1200 sedan, but Corolla and Toyota Auto Stores were also more than happy to sell you plusher, pricier versions with more convenience items and/or bigger engines. Toyota didn’t try to cram its bigger R-system or M-system engines into the Corolla or Sprinter, but the 1200’s 1,166 cc (71 cu. in.) 3K engine (the earlier 1100 had been dropped) was soon supplemented by the bigger T-system engine in 1,407 cc (86 cu. in.) and later 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) sizes, each offered in several states of tune. Depending on engine and trim level, you also had a choice of four- or five-speed manual transmission, two- or three-speed Toyoglide, and a lengthy list of optional equipment.

1976 Toyota Corolla SR5 hardtop (TE37) rear 3q © 2011 Aaron Severson

The TE37 Corolla hardtop looks very similar to the later E50 Corolla coupe (introduced in Japan in early 1977) and it’s easy to mistake one for the other. Other than the grille and taillights, the obvious differences are the hardtop’s notchback tail (the coupe is closer to being a fastback), more pronounced beltline kick-up, and vertically stacked rear fender “exhaust ports”; the simulated fender exhaust ports on coupes are horizontal. (author photo)

These mechanical permutations were overshadowed by the myriad body styles that emerged during the third generation. When the third-generation E30 Corolla and E40 Sprinter were launched in 1974, the Corolla was offered as a two- or four-door sedan, two-door hardtop, and two-door station wagon/van. The Sprinter, meanwhile, was available as a four-door sedan or semi-fastback coupe, the sedan essentially constituting an additional variation of the Corolla four-door and the coupe having its own more-or-less unique body shell. Later in the run, the facelifted E60 Sprinter added its own version of the Corolla two-door hardtop, the updated E50 Corolla gained its own version of the coupe, and both lines added new three-door Liftback bodies, which were based on the larger coupe shell.

By 1978, there were more than 75 different variations of the JDM Corolla and Sprinter, all riding the same platform, sharing the same running gear, and built on the same assembly lines. If that still fell short of the diversity of some American car lines during Detroit’s heyday, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Such variety helps to put into perspective the Corolla’s enormous sales success and continuing status as Japan’s bestselling car line. The Corolla wasn’t so much a car as cars.

1977–1979 Toyota Corolla Liftback (TE51) side © 2011 John Lloyd (CC BY 2.0 Generic)

Introduced in Japan in January 1976, the Corolla and Sprinter Liftbacks were essentially shooting brake versions of the larger coupe body shell, analogous to the earlier Volvo 1800ES or Jensen GT. Export Liftbacks carried the same engines as other Corollas, but in Japan, the three-door initially featured the 1,588 cc (97 cu. in) 12T engine, a modified 2T using a licensed version of Honda’s CVCC stratified charge technology (which Toyota called TTC-V) to meet Japanese emissions standards without an air pump or catalytic converter. (Photo: “Spring Carlisle 2011” © 2011 John Lloyd; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)


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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