Corona pulled Toyota into the passing lane
After the disaster of the Toyopet Crown, Toyota engineers and designers didn't just go back to the drawing board; they threw out the drawing board. The 1966 Corona served notice that Toyota was a burgeoning world-class automaker to be taken seriously.
Not only was the Corona lighter, quicker and better than the Toyopet, it shaved hundreds of dollars off the Toyopet's price.
The improvements are obvious as one approaches the car. Whereas the Toyopet's styling was derivative, the Corona evokes Japanese period architecture and refinement. In short, the car has presence.
By the mid-'60s, Toyota designers had learned that little changes could make big differences. A subtle character line in the sheet metal, beginning just below the top of the wheel arches, gives the Corona a stately look. Perhaps hinting at racing efforts to come, the ignition key goes on the door side of the steering wheel, like Porsche did with the 911 to gain an edge at the Le Mans starting line. And the sea foam green paint seems perfectly at home driving along the California coast.
There are other steps forward in sophistication. The doors shut with the same reassuring click as a Jaguar or Porsche of the era. The turn signals are actuated by ticking the horn ring upward or downward, so that the driver's hands never leave the steering wheel. The Corona also features period amenities such as armrests, sun visors, glove compartment and tinted glass.
The Corona's 1.9-liter engine puts out an impressive — for the era — 90 hp. Acceleration is brisk. Flooring the gas pedal brings a startled gasp from the engine, but that may have been the result of stale gasoline overwhelming the carburetor's ability to process it.
The column-shifting three-on-a-tree is hardly an expedient way to move through the gears, but it's all Toyota had at the time. First gear reaches its power peak quickly, but second and third gear are pretty tall. While that limits acceleration thrust, it makes for a less frantic engine in American driving conditions.
Toyota also offered an automatic transmission version in low volumes, but those were quite rare. The Toyota Museum did not have one available to test drive.
Drum brakes were still the norm in 1966, and the Corona's binders pull the car to the side slightly when under duress. While pedal feedback is an all-or-nothing affair, a panic stop slowed the Corona reassuringly.
The modern Toyota philosophy of providing a smooth ride at the expense of handling and cornering already appears in the Corona. While it rides over expansion joints and steel plates with aplomb, hard cornering generates a lot of body roll.
As small as the car appears, there is actually decent rear seat room. If a driver has the front bench seat slid forward even slightly from the last detent, a pair of six-footers can fit in the back seat.
In its first five years on the market, Toyota sold more than 300,000 Coronas, priced from a modest $1,760. Toyota was on its way.
— Mark Rechtin