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.
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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.
You’re absolutely right — that had slipped my mind completely. I’ve amended the text. Thanks!
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)
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
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!
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
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?
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.
I have a pre-facelift 72 TE27. Totally restored to original.
should you need any pics for illustrating any points of interest
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!