THE COROLLA AND THE SPRINTER
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.