As successful as the Toyopet Crown was in the 1950s Japanese mid-size market, Nissan’s 210 was selling even better in the small-car market. Nissan and Toyota were poised to become Japan’s two largest automakers and were one-upping each other at every step. In response to the 210, Toyota released the similarly sized Toyopet Corona in 1957. Both had water-cooled 1,000-cc engines and top speeds that maxed out in the high 50-mph range.
Toyota had intended to take its time developing the Corona, but the market was so hot that it couldn’t afford to wait. Engineers hurriedly put together the firstgeneration T10 Corona with an architecture largely based on that of the Crown, using much of the larger car’s leftover tooling. Sticking with the “crown” theme, the name Corona was chosen because it means “crown of the sun.” The 210 prevailed in the sales war, but Toyota managed to steal a good chunk of business away from Nissan, sparking a rivalry that has lasted for decades.
In 1959, the Datsun 210 became the Datsun 310 Bluebird, first of the modern Nissans. Toyota quickly followed suit with the T20 Corona in 1960. In its eagerness to beat Nissan, Toyota gave it an optional 1.5-liter four-cylinder capable of 60 ps (besting the Nissan’s 1.2-liter) and a rear suspension in which a leaf spring acted as the trailing arm on a coil spring.
The clever suspension gave the Corona handling that helped it sweep the top three spots in its class at the 1963 Japan Grand Prix. Unfortunately, the class was for 1,300to 1,500-cc cars, preventing a Corona/Bluebird showdown on the tarmac. However, that same suspension was a liability on Japan’s shoddy roads, where the Corona was frequently found in the breakdown lane.
As this compact car death match was going on at home, Toyota was having big problems overseas. By 1960, poor sales of the Crown was bleeding Toyota’s US export program dry and it had stopped sending Crowns to America. The home office in Aichi was almost ready to call the whole thing off, except that in the meantime Datsuns had begun showing up on US shores and Toyota wasn’t about to cede the American market to Nissan.
As a stopgap measure, Toyota sent over a shipment of T20 Coronas as it worked on a solution. Here, the story gets a little hazy, partially due to bad record keeping, partially due to the fact that Toyota was just trying to tread water. In 1961, Toyota began selling the 1.5-liter T20 Corona in the United States, renamed the Tiara (again playing off the “crown” theme). Then in 1963, Toyota appears to have created an export-only 1.9-liter T30 Corona, named either the Tiara or simply the Toyopet 1900 in the United States. Some records indicate that about 300 Tiaras were sold in all of 1965, and there is even evidence of a rarer-than-Bigfoot wagon, but photographic proof has yet to turn up. Toyota may not have made money on the venture, but it did learn what Americans were looking for in a car.
Back in Aichi, engineers used those disappointing experiences to develop the next Corona. At the time, the most popular compact car in America was the Volkswagen Beetle, so Toyota’s goal was to build a car that was about the same size as the Beetle, but didn’t compromise the large sedan experience. It should have four doors, a non-clackety water-cooled engine mounted in the front, and sharp styling.
When the T40 Corona debuted in 1964, it hit every single one of these marks. Though nearly the same dimensions as a Beetle, the Corona was a true sedan that could seat five occupants with relative ease. Several engine options existed in Japan, but only the top choice, an SOHC 1.9-liter, inline-four delivering 90 horses and a surprising 110 ft-lbs of torque, made it to America.
The newfound power was brought to life by a monocoque body that cut 132 pounds from the previous model and a fully synchromeshed 3-speed transmission geared for strong acceleration. The suspension’s front architecture carried over from the T20, but the rear was given a standard semi-elliptical, leaf-spring setup. Boasting a top speed of 90 mph, performance was far ahead of its predecessors.
The RT40 was an incredible step forward in design as well. Its steeply raked grille and smooth contours had a streamlined minimalism about them, an exciting departure from Toyopets. The Aussies called it the shovelnose. The Japanese called it barikan (electric shaver). Americans simply called it the only import that could live up to the quality of domestics.
Inside, fit and finish were of an extremely high quality and the list of standard options was long. For a price of $1,760 it really couldn’t be beat. Though Coronas began trickling onto American shores as early as 1965, the first official model year was 1966, when Toyota saw its US sales quadruple. Ultimately, more than 300,000 Coronas were sold in the United States, making Toyota the biggest Japanese auto exporter.
Though nearly the same dimensions as a beetle, the corona was a true sedan that could seat five occupants with relative ease.
As the first Toyota that could truly compete with cars from the rest of the world, you can imagine how far ahead of the pack it was at home. The Corona’s 1964 introduction happened to coincide with the opening of Japan’s first inter-prefecture highway, the Meishin Expressway. Toyota promptly took the Corona on a continuous 100,000-km high-speed test to prove its abilities. The feat was touted as the equivalent of circling the Earth two-and-a-half times, and perfectly captured Japan’s growing fascination with the open road. Whereas previous Coronas could never touch Nissan’s Bluebird in sales, the popularity of the T40 launched the two auto giants into the “BC Wars” (for Bluebird-Corona) against the 310. Toyota won this round, smashing the all-time Japanese record for registrations of a single model.
Things were going so well in fact that in 1967 Toyota decided to build a sports sedan. Keep in mind that the stunning and über-expensive 2000GT (more on that later) had just been launched and Toyota’s image was hotter than a Tokyo summer. Toyota knew the average Jiro couldn’t afford its supercar, but wanted to make the most of the halo effect of the 2000GT.
Toyota co-developed a twin-cam version of the 4R with Yamaha, based on the technology used on the 2000GT. The engine was called the 9R, kicking off a long tradition of Toyota high-performance twin-cam fours. The 110-ps engine was fitted with dual carbs and dropped in the body of a T50 Corona coupe, creating the Toyota 1600GT. Clearly the name was meant to evoke a lesser 2000GT, and further connections to the flagship were made with triangular badges and a 2000GT-style steering wheel (albeit in plastic rather than rosewood). Toyota also offered GT4 and GT5 trim levels, which came with a 4or 5-speed transmission, respectively, the latter of which is the same unit used in the 2000GT.
With the souped-up engine and five forward gears, the 1600GT was capable of a 109-mph top speed. Toyota did the natural thing and went racing. Although it won several contests, the public was once again robbed of a Corona/Bluebird showdown because by then Nissan was putting all its racing resources into the Fairlady Roadster and Skyline GT-R, newly acquired from its merger with Prince. Japan Auto Federation rules put the 1600GT in the same class as the hakosuka GT-R running far more powerful 2-liter twin-cam sixes, so despite a hard-fought battle at the 1969 JAF Grand Prix, Toyota never did topple the GT-R.
It must be mentioned that one of the obstacles to the 1600GT’s success was probably that in the same month it debuted, Nissan also introduced its nextgeneration Bluebird, the legendary 510. The 1600GT might have had the more whiz-bang engine, but the 510 had a four-wheel independent suspension and thus better handling.
Obviously the 1600GT (or RT55 if going by just its chassis code) is the most collectible of the first-generation Coronas. Just as obviously, it was never imported to the United States. Reportedly, only 2,222 examples were built over a run of 13 months, making it rare, but still six times more common than the 2000GT. However, because of the 2000GT’s international recognition, you’re far more likely to see one of those at any given car show than a 1600GT.
As the story goes, the Corona Mark II was originally intended to be the nextgeneration Corona. It even got the T60 (T70 for coupe) chassis code. It retained much of the Corona’s styling, but was quite a bit larger. Perhaps as a poke at Nissan, Toyota decided midway through development to make the Mark II its own model as their game of one-upsmanship continued. Nissan debuted a new model, the Laurel, in April 1968. It was basically a stretched, slightly more luxurious Bluebird, splitting the difference between 510 and Cedric. By the end of the summer Toyota had spun off the Corona Mark II into its own model, a stretched, slightly more luxurious Corona, splitting the difference between it and the Crown.
If the rumors are true, Toyota was then left scrambling for a true replacement for the Corona. That may explain why the T80 Corona debuted in 1970, giving the T40 a long (for Toyota) six-year lifespan. It also explained why the T80’s tail end so closely resembled the Corona Mark II’s. Overall, though, the standard T80 sedan looked rather plain. The only flourish was a zig-zag lightning bolt shape formed by two character lines overlapping on the rear door, which became known as the “thunder wave.”
Toyota marketing used the tagline “Silhouette 70,” indicating that the new Corona was a car for the new decade. But the thunder wave turned out to be no match for the 510’s “supersonic line.” Toyota had positioned the T80 as a family car, touting its luxury appointments and the fact that it had a 108-horsepower (97horsepower SAE net) 1.9and 2.0-liter engine options in contrast to the Bluebird’s 1.8 (or 1.6 in the United States). But the Corona still had a leaf-spring rear suspension, while the Bluebird and its US counterpart were focusing on independent rears for sharper handling and, more importantly, racing.
The T80 sedan was sold in the United States from 1970 to 1973. An even more obscure T90 hardtop coupe was offered from 1971 to 1973, but despite it being a rather attractive design examples have become nearly impossible to find today. By the time the Corona went on sale, Toyota had added the Celica and Carina to its lineup, both of which shared a sportier four-link rear suspension, making the idea of a Corona coupe somewhat redundant.
Similar to the T40 Corona, the 510 had captured lightning in a bottle, something that happens to an automaker maybe once in a decade if it’s lucky. Today, even hardcore Toyota enthusiasts would be hard-pressed to recall the T80 or T90 Corona. Nissan had regained the lead in the BC Wars.
From that point on, it almost seemed as if Toyota forgot about the Corona completely. The model continued for another generation with the same aging leafspring rear. With the larger six-cylinder Mark II/Cressida line above it and the sportier Celica below it (both with newer four-link rears), the Corona held the position of a mid-size car with the luxury amenities of the Mark II but the fuel efficiency and price of a Corolla.
The T100 generation arrived just in time for the oil crisis of 1973. Similar to the Bluebird 610 that had been launched in the meantime, it was quite a bit larger than its predecessor. Four body styles were offered: four-door sedan, two-door notchback sedan, two-door hardtop coupe, and four-door wagon (with optional woodgrain paneling).
Its upright styling was far from flashy, but looking back at it decades later, one might expect it to be from the early 1980s, especially when compared to the Mark II or Bluebird 610. The hardtop coupe is particularly attractive, but very rare. Zenki models can be identified by a unique grille that cuts into the hood, while kouki models had a jutting eggcrate grille.
The T100 Corona was introduced in America in 1974 with all four body styles and the carryover 97-horsepower 2.0-liter 18R-C inline-four underhood. Optional 4and 5-speed manuals and a 3-speed automatic were offered. However, with fuel economy and emissions concerns at an all-time high, performance figures diminished as the decade wore on. Thanks to those factors and the conversion from SAE gross to net, the 20R engine introduced in 1975 generated 95 horsepower on paper despite being 0.2 liter bigger.
The sixth-generation T130 Corona was introduced in late 1978 (1979 for the US market), with styling that foreshadowed the X60 Cressida. New urethane bumpers integrated into the body better than the 5-mph park benches, and the suspension was finally brought out of the Stone Age with a four-link rear. Americans received the four-door sedan, wagon, and a five-door liftback. Horsepower ratings continued to drop as emissions equipment choked the 2.2-liter down to 90 horsepower, but the venerable 2.4-liter 22R appeared in 1981 and clawed output back up to 96 horsepower. Due to declining sales, the T130 was the final Corona model offered in the United States.
After 1983, Toyota found a new car to replace the Corona, opting for a frontwheel-drive layout. You might have even heard of it. It was called the Camry.
Today, Celicas and Corollas are common sights wherever vintage Japanese cars assemble, but Coronas of the same era are largely absent. One must wonder if some long-forgotten examples are lurking in garages waiting to be discovered. Though the Corona name lived on in Japan for five more generations, the most popular classic Corona in both the United States and Japan is still the T40, a testament to its enduring legacy as the car that saved Toyota’s financial hide.