Those doubtful that the meek shall inherit the earth should consider the humble Toyota Corolla.
This past July, the Japanese automaker sold its 50-millionth Corolla since introducing the wee sedan in 1966. It became the world’s top-selling automobile in 1974, and eventually eclipsed the iconic Ford Model T and Volkswagen Beetle as the most popular car of all time.
Now in its 12th generation, the Corolla has blossomed into a line of sedans, hatchbacks, wagons and a soon-to-be-released crossover serving virtually every market on the globe.
It’s been called a driving appliance by critics. But for millions of motorists that crave a car that’s rarely found on a garage hoist, it doesn’t get better than owning the equivalent of a reliable, decades-old refrigerator.
It may very well embody mediocrity, but it didn’t become the bestselling car in the history of civilization by disappointing its owners.
Corolla’s unassuming story
By the 1960s, Japan had risen from the ashes of the Second World War to make an astounding economic recovery driven by technological innovation. Transistors, high-quality cameras and brilliant colour televisions were exported widely and transformed Japan’s middle class.
Like everyone else, the Japanese desired wheels and Toyota was keen to motorize the island nation. Still, the automaker had set its sights higher: its new small car was primed for international sales from the outset.
Engineers wanted an overhead-cam engine for more power from 1.1 litres of displacement, but had to settle for an overhead valve (OHV) layout. At least the five-bearing camshaft was mounted higher in the four-cylinder block operating shorter pushrods. A lightweight MacPherson-strut front suspension lent the car a decent ride.
The all-new Corolla – which means “small crown” – was released in 1966 and arrived in Canada in 1969. It launched as a two-door sedan, soon followed by a four-door sedan and two-door station wagon that doubled as a commercial van.
The Corolla was a relatively modern design that no longer resembled the ancient British Austins that dominated the Japanese market for years. The cabin had features that were normally found on more expensive cars, such as a centre console, armrests, a radio and, well, a heater. Front disc brakes arrived halfway through the production run.
Toyota introduced larger 1.2-litre K-series engines in the first-generation models, making at least 67 horsepower – a welcome boost over the 59-hp 1.1-litre engine. Buyers could choose from three transmissions: a steering-column-mounted four-speed manual, a fully synchronised four-speed manual stick on the floor, and a two-speed automatic – the latter two being firsts for a Japanese car.
With a sales hit on its hands, Toyota introduced the second-generation Corolla to market in 1971. New T-series four-cylinder engines upped the car’s performance, thanks to hemispherical combustion chambers and crossflow intake and exhaust ports, good for 73 hp and up to 88 hp in some models. An optional five-speed manual gearbox graced sportier Corollas.
The redesigned models were larger with more rounded bodywork, while the new coupe had a longer hood and fastback profile. High-back bucket seats featured integrated headrests that offered better safety and comfort. New options included an AM/FM stereo and even air conditioning.
Oil embargo fueled Corolla sales
With the energy crisis taking hold in North America, the Corolla was becoming a common sight on Canadian roads by 1974, the last year of the second-gen models. For 1975, the Corolla took on a boxier appearance with an ergonomically friendly interior that was better isolated to reduce noise and vibration.
Safety became an overarching concern, prompting Toyota to engineer an impact-absorbing structure with crumple zones at the front and rear. Door thickness was improved to give better protection against side impacts, and three-point retractor seatbelts became standard.
Inventive engineers at Toyota’s technical centre perfected a catalyst-based exhaust system that would become widely adopted by the industry to address harmful emissions. Still, smog controls sapped horsepower and the car’s 1.6-litre four-cylinder churned out just 75 hp.
The fourth generation, released for 1980, wore crisp, unadorned styling shaped in a wind tunnel to further bolster the Corolla’s international appeal. A longer wheelbase and new five-link coil spring rear suspension gave the redesigned Corolla more polished ride and handling characteristics.
A new 1.6-litre four cylinder released for 1982 revealed fresh thinking: the 90-hp 4A-C engine with its single overhead cam (SOHC) architecture and aluminum cylinder head proved that Toyota could build a sophisticated four-cylinder powerplant on a budget.
Up until 1983 all Corollas were rear-wheel drive, but that changed with the arrival of the fifth generation (1985-1988) when most Corollas adopted front-wheel drive, yielding more generous cabin space and lower weight. The performance-oriented AE86 coupe and hatchback retained the rear-drive chassis, powered by a fuel-injected version of the 1.6-litre four-cylinder making 112 hp. The cars’ sleek lines were the product of Toyota’s new computer-aided design studio.
Softer aerodynamic styling and 16-valve DOHC engines graced all sixth-gen Corollas introduced for 1988. The car felt markedly upscale as engineers quieted the interior, improved air quality and made the seats and steering wheel more adjustable. The suspension geometry was optimized and even the sound of the engine was tuned to convey quality.
Despite the fact the sedan was styled a little too conservatively, it sold like proverbial hotcakes, necessitating the opening of Toyota’s first Canadian assembly plant in 1988 in Cambridge, Ontario. While the rear-drive models were retired, Toyota unveiled a quirky all-wheel-drive Corolla “All-Trac” wagon that predated the RAV-4 sport-utility crossover by a decade.
Further refinements were made to the seventh-generation Corolla in 1993. High-tensile steel, stiffer subframes and suspension mounting points enhanced the car’s chassis and body rigidity, which dampened noise and vibration. Both 1.6-litre and 1.8-litre DOHC four-cylinder engines were offered in the Corolla, which was starting to resemble its bigger brother, the Camry.
Eighth-gen Corollas (1998-2002) saw more advancements: computer design and extensive use of high-strength steels optimized the body structure for both stiffness and lighter weight. A new all-aluminum 1.8-litre DOHC four-cylinder engine debuted the Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i) system that delivered 120 hp along with higher fuel economy ratings.
Injecting some luxury
The ninth-generation Corolla (2003-2008) was the first to benefit from Toyota’s Interior Study Team, which examined future trends in interior finishes such as soft-touch vinyl in place of hard plastics. Premium features, including a soft-close glovebox, migrated to the Corolla’s interior from the Lexus brand. As a foil to the mini-Lexus, Toyota spun off a wagon variant called the Matrix aimed at younger buyers.
The exterior design of the tenth-gen Corolla (2009-2013) was more evolutionary rather than a revolutionary. Stylists gave it a more rounded appearance, while engineers upped the sophistication – it was called the quietest car in its class – and the technology, such as Bluetooth connectivity, an optional intelligent parking-assist system and a standard backup camera in some models.
Stung by criticism that the Corolla had evolved into a dull econobox, product planners vowed to reinvent the Corolla for the 11th generation released for 2014. The chiselled, hard-edge styling gave the wallflower Corolla a more aggressive appearance, punctuated by angular LED headlights. All models featured eight standard airbags, including a new driver’s knee airbag. The aging – but durable – four-speed automatic transmission was finally retired in 2017, displaced by Toyota’s own continuously variable transmission (CVT) for better fuel economy.
The Corolla gracing showrooms since 2019 represents the 12th generation of this enduring compact car. New levels of refinement, agility and safety were achieved with the introduction of the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform. A sporty hatchback returned after a long absence, effectively replacing the Matrix that bowed out in 2014. Both the hatch and the sedan could be fitted with an optional 169-hp 2.0-litre four-cylinder and six-speed stick that upped the fun quotient. And for the first time, Toyota offered a high-efficiency Corolla Hybrid model.
Tracing the Corolla’s history serves to illustrate that careful planning and research can pay big dividends. From the outset, Toyota wanted a car that appealed equally to young and old, that was impeccably finished yet built on a budget, and was tested in harsh climates – including Canada’s – to deliver faultless durability.
There’s a 1991 Corolla on display at a Toyota dealership in Georgia with more than 1.5 million kilometres racked up by a U.S. postal worker. It’s hardly a headline story and the car barely gets noticed anymore. Millions of Corolla owners are preoccupied logging their own histories.