Open Menu
Open Menu

Toyota’s Corolla, the world’s most popular automobile, marks its golden anniversary

Published in

First-generation 1970 Toyota Corolla. Photos courtesy Toyota.

In November of 1966, Toyota launched a new model in the Japanese market, slotting in below the popular Corona. Called the Corolla, it was Toyota’s affordable response to the “motorization boom” that saw Japanese families abandoning cities for the suburbs, following a migration that had taken place here in the 1950s. Five decades later, the Toyota Corolla, now in its 11th generation, has surpassed the Volkswagen Beetle as the most popular nameplate in the world; in 2016, the Corolla celebrates its first half-century in production.

The Corolla arrived on these shores in the summer of 1968. Though a step up from Toyota’s first U.S. automobile, the suboptimal-for-American-roads Toyopet Crown, the Corolla was hardly an overnight sensation, and early reviews were kind only to the car’s $1,660 price. With 60 horsepower on tap from its 1,100-cc four-cylinder engine, the Corolla took 17 seconds to reach 60 MPH, and ran the quarter-mile in 20.5 seconds at 64 MPH (which, in fairness, was a comparable performance to its rival, the Volkswagen Beetle). Period magazine Car Life rated the Corolla’s 7.87 x 1.38-inch drum brakes as “poor… with quite a bit of control lost,” and thanks to wheel lift during high-speed cornering, its handling didn’t receive stellar marks, either.

1973 Toyota Corolla

1973 Toyota Corolla.

It is the Japanese way to make constant improvements, and in 1969 a slightly more powerful 1.2-liter engine was introduced. The Corolla’s range of body styles (which included sedan, coupe and wagon variants) was gaining favor with American consumers, but it was likely the introduction of the 1.6-liter 2T-C engine in 1970, in the Corolla’s second generation, that really boosted sales. The Corolla became the second-best-selling import in 1970, trailing only the Volkswagen Beetle and laying the groundwork for the Corolla’s global success story.

Third generation Toyota Corolla

Third-generation Toyota Corolla.

Each new generation of Corolla brought with it a slightly different engineering focus. The third-generation cars, which debuted in 1974, were intended to add a level of refinement and quality not seen in previous models, but with increased sound deadening came added weight and increased cost. Competitors were gaining on the Corolla in terms of interior space, fuel economy and handling, ultimately forcing significant changes to its tried-and-true format.

With the fourth generation (introduced in 1979), Toyota finally adopted a coil spring rear suspension, but only after a Dutch ad agency pointed out to chief engineer Fumio Agetsuma that the existing car’s leaf spring suspension was the same design used on a horse-drawn carriage. The next generation, debuting in 1983, moved (most) models to front-wheel drive in an effort to gain interior volume enjoyed by competitors, but Toyota kept a separate platform for enthusiast drivers.

AE86 Corolla

AE86 Toyota Corolla GT-S.

Known by its chassis code, AE86, the rear-drive Corolla was sold in its most coveted GT-S variant for just four years, 1985-’88. In addition to its front-engine, rear-drive layout, the GT-S boasted a double-overhead cam, 16-valve, fuel-injected 1.6-liter four-cylinder with a variable intake system. Though it produced just 112 horsepower in U.S. trim (to meet California emission standards), the engine revved to an engaging 7,600 RPM, and given the AE86 Corolla’s sub-2,400-pound curb weight, delivered ample entertainment value. Further proof of its target market was the fact that the car came only with a five-speed manual transmission, and in the U.S. market, offered a limited-slip differential as an option.

In the decades since, the Corolla has once again gravitated towards its original mission of providing affordable and fuel-efficient transportation for the masses, but apparently that hasn’t dimmed the car’s global appeal. In 1997, the Corolla became the world’s best-selling nameplate, and in 2005 Toyota assembled its 30-millionth example. Today that figure is greater than 43 million, expanding at the rate of roughly 1.5 million examples per year; if any nameplate is likely to remain in production for the foreseeable future, it’s the half-century-old Toyota Corolla.

Akio Toyoda

Even Akio Toyoda, president and CEO of Toyota, is a fan of the Corolla. His first car after college was a used Toyota Corolla 1600 GT.

As part of the brand’s year-long anniversary celebration for the Corolla, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. is asking current and former Corolla owners to share their stories on a dedicated website, where one U.S. entrant (excluding residents of Alaska, Hawaii, and Florida) will also win a 2017 Corolla. For additional details, visit