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

Still, with annual worldwide Corolla sales edging into seven figures, continuing to offer the DOHC cars was easy to justify. The cost probably wasn’t unreasonable; the components that weren’t standard Corolla/Sprinter stuff were either cheap or shared with other models. Beyond that, offering the twin-cam models added spice to the stew, keeping the Corolla and Sprinter competitive on the racetrack and helping to attract younger buyers to Corolla and Toyota Auto Stores, even if many of those customers ended up settling for a cheaper model.

In part two, we talk about the final rear-wheel-drive Corolla and Sprinter and the later history of the twin-cam Levin and Trueno.



The author would like to thank ‘ars666,’ Frank Dupre, Ingvar Hallström, John Howell, and ‘NTGpictures’ for their assistance with background information and images for this article.


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The online dictionary Jisho ( was also a big help in deciphering Japanese-language information.

Some historical exchange rate data for the dollar and the yen came from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2011, MeasuringWorth,, used with permission). Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate dollar equivalent of prices in non-U.S. currencies, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all equivalencies cited herein are approximate and are provided solely for the reader’s general reference — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!



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  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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