After Toyopet trauma, Corona got Toyota up to speed in U.S.
Tatsuo Hashiguchi: Finally, Toyota had a car that could handle U.S. roads.
Photo credit: 1970 photo courtesy of Sandy Orihuela
It wasn't exactly Waiting for Godot, but it must have felt that way. From 1961, when Toyota virtually pulled out of the U.S. car market, dealers who had hooked up with the manufacturer had to wait four years before the arrival of the Corona.
Stories of the Toyopet Crown, which preceded the Corona, are legendary — a mere 58 hp pushing 3,000 pounds. "It couldn't get out of its own way," recalls Dudley Hawley, former vice president of corporate service at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. and now president of subsidiary AirFlite Inc.
The flop of the Toyopet Crown made Toyota realize how different driving conditions were in Japan and the United States. In Japan then, people drove 35 to 40 mph. "But at that time in the U.S., they had 55-mile-per-hour freeways, and they drove for a long time at high speed," says Mitsuo Yamada, now 77, who was a young employee in Toyota's export department during the 1960s.
Toyota was much more cautious about getting the right car the next time. There was no margin for error.
Toyota was determined to learn how to make the product fit the market, says Yamada. "We did tests from morning to night. We spent five years improving it to meet the U.S. market."
GOAL: A STYLISH BEETLE
When the Corona finally arrived in 1965 with a 90-hp engine and three-speed manual transmission, it wasn't perfect. But it was so much better than what had come before that, by itself, it lifted Toyota in the United States.
"It was the first car we could drive in American driving conditions that would not break," recalls Tatsuo Hashiguchi, 74, who spent 38 years at Toyota Motor Sales in the parts department.
The Corona "also had a 1500cc engine and a two-speed automatic transmission, which we joked were slow speed and slow, slow speed," Hashiguchi says with a smile. "We got teased about it, but at least it didn't break."
They kept testing the American environment, he says. "This was a good teaching ground. If you survive in the U.S., you can survive anywhere in the world. This is a car country."
The Corona's target was the Volks-wagen Beetle, but Toyota wanted to counter the Beetle trend on styling, says Dave Power, 76, founder of J.D. Power and Associates.
"It had the look of a miniature domestic car, with a lot of styling cues to what big cars were in the United States," Power says. "The Beetle was considered to be dependable, trouble-free and all that. But it didn't have the accoutrements that the big domestic cars had, and Toyota began to work on those things, like air conditioning.
"They tried to put as many features on it as they could. I think they were thinking that in the U.S. market, you had to be much more like the Big 3 in your concepts."
TOO SMALL FOR AC?
Yamada remembers the Corona as "the first car we could supply with a high-powered engine and luxury interior with wall-to-wall carpeting. And it had a cooler, though not air conditioning, and an automatic transmission. At the time, no other import had a cooler or AC.
"We could offer a 1.9-liter engine. It was more powerful than other imports. That was a big difference."
The Corona had its problems. One of them was the "cooler" — an optional retrofit air-conditioning unit installed at the port of entry.
"In those days, air conditioning was a luxury item," Hashiguchi recalls. "There was a problem with the engine overheating or the air-conditioning system itself would have a problem. Air conditioning for a small engine was something new. Some had mist coming out of the vents. It was such a new invention that people didn't know it wasn't supposed to do that.
"We had to learn that because air conditioning was not popular in Japan and it was only just becoming popular in America. But American cars had those big 300-hp engines, and there had not been a lot of research into how air conditioning would perform with small engines."
The brakes needed some work, too, according to early surveys by J.D. Power and Associates. But the Corona had something else that was new to Toyota products in the United States.
"The fit and finish that has become our trademark over the years was there in the Corona," Hawley says.
Dave Power was working with Toyota in the late 1960s when the company was developing a Corona hard top coupe — a popular body style for domestic cars at that time. "The two doors were longer than they should have been to be comfortable," Power said.
"I think it wasn't that well-proportioned when they tried to put a hard top on a small, boxy car. It wasn't that successful, and they dropped it. But it shows they experimented with things and were flexible enough to drop it if it didn't work."
The coupe had its fans, though. It was one of Hawley's favorites. "You could drive home in snowstorms," he says. "The car just went."
In its first year in the United States, the Corona lifted Toyota's annual sales from 6,404 to 20,908. In 1968, Toyota sales reached 72,554, almost entirely because of the Corona.
Hashiguchi remembers the turning point, when they could consider the Corona a success. "We started seeing Coronas on the street," he says. "Before that, if we saw a Toyota on the street, we knew the person driving it, because that person was a Toyota employee. Now we don't know the guy who is driving. That was something new. That was a surprise."The 1965 Corona won the Motor Trend Car of the Year award and the Deming Prize for quality.
Hawley joined Toyota in 1967, as the Corona was gaining popularity. "I didn't know what Toyota was when I started," he says.
"It was great to work for a company that was not caught up in history. We could take on the challenges and find new ways to do things. We weren't tied up with the way things were always done, the way Ford, GM and Chrysler were.
"It was a lot of young people getting together and looking at a problem and asking themselves, 'How do we get it resolved?' "
But Hawley, 63, remembers that the response from headquarters was not so swift. "The Japanese response when we had new ideas was kind of sobering to us. They said, 'Yes, well, we appreciate what you've come up with, but we'll talk about it a little bit longer.'
"However, it always seemed to evolve into what it should be — probably faster than they would have liked, a lot slower than we would have liked."
Toyota is not intolerant of risk, Hawley adds. "They take lots of risks, but they are just very calculated."
Photo credit: 1970 photo
MAKE WAY FOR COROLLA
Sometimes those risks include sudden breakthroughs. The Corolla was one. Shotaro Kamiya, renowned for his success in building Toyota sales in Japan, had pushed the company into the United States over engineers' objections that the Toyopet Crown was not right for the market. But he had feared Toyota could be shut out of the import market if it didn't move quickly, says Susumu Yanagisawa, now 74, who joined Toyota Motor Sales in Japan in 1958.
After the Corona succeeded, Kamiya pushed the sale of the smaller Corolla over the objections of American staff, who thought it would be too small.
"Kamiya said we're going to export it because it is small," Yanagisawa says. "We can avoid direct competition with the Big 3, and small cars are very good for second or third cars. And Corolla was an instant success."
The little Corolla arrived in 1968 as a subcompact with a 60-hp, 1.1-liter, four-cylinder engine that soon was expanded to 1.2 liters and then 1.6 liters. As the engines grew, so did sales.
With the addition of the Corolla, sales jumped from 72,554 in 1968 to 124,356 the next year. The Corona and Corolla together had put Toyota on the U.S. map.