The Toyota Corolla is much more interesting than it seems

How this family car became a JDM Icon, motorsport sensation and global bestseller all at the same time.

15w ago

It is arguably one of the most notable marques in the automotive world; the Corolla has sold 50 million units globally from 1966 to present day. However, the story of this iconic nameplate is much deeper than just a simple and affordable family car. From motor racing showstopper to tuner culture legend, delving into the change in the persona of this model will be quite intriguing.

The beginning

This car's story begins, strangely, with a different car. It was called the Publica and was created as an affordable car in a post-war Japan where cars were mainly built in small numbers for the middle class with little regard for mass production. Toyota saw a business opportunity and built this small, slow but superbly attainable vehicle. The response to this tiny 2-cylinder was noticed by fellow Japanese car makers, Datsun and Subaru who jointly created the 1000 (Datsun Sunny) which sported a bigger engine and better technology. However, they were still only 1000cc meaning they were in a cheaper tax bracket for customers.

This meant that Toyota had to fight back with a new model - the Corolla was born. More accurately, it was called the KE10 domestically and Corolla for foreign consumers. It sported a larger 1.1 Litre pushrod engine and newer technology which was designed to triumph over its rivals. It was marketed as modern and stylish - the American market in particular was bombarded with rhetoric of better fuel economy; it would fight the large-engined cars of the USA like the Ford Falcon.

Though it doesn't sound like much, the 60HP sub-compact was remarkably light and was paired to a manual transmission making for a surprisingly enjoyable driving experience. Furthermore, it sported those three little words which make enthusiasts' eyes widen with lustful thoughts of tire squeal and smoke trails: Rear-Wheel-Drive. It didn't set the world alight but definitely made an impact on the car community.

The 1973 energy crisis aided in the sales of the second generation of the Corolla. It got an engine upgrade by a whopping 100cc; there was also several sporty upgrades and trim levels like the SR5 with new body styles, engine power increases and the introduction of the Levin and Sprinter Trueno brands. Toyota's sportier model, the Celica, donated its engine to the Levin - it had dual overhead camshafts with sporty carburettors and 115HP. Blending this with the lightweight design was perfect for racing and rally.

The most famous Corolla

The 1980s saw a change in design - the boxier styling defined the era and the Corolla was no exception. The 5th generation changed the drivetrain layout to Front-Wheel Drive meaning that the sportiness of the base Corolla was all but lost. This was not the end, however, as Toyota still saw the need for something exciting that also goes sideways. This was when we saw the birth of a Japanese staple car: the AE85 and AE86.

The two models were the final RWD Corollas and had two very different purposes. The 85 was devoted to economy driving so was far from enthralling with its detuned engine. It's the AE86 that we should be looking into - this was the most exciting car in the range and used a completely different driving setup to any other Corolla. A Limited-Slip-Differential, 5-speed manual transmission and 4A-GE twin-cam engine revving to 7800RPM were some of the highlights with this car. Despite the fact that it wasn't hugely powerful, the lightweight design and near 50-50 weight distribution made it balanced and agile at speed. The Levin and Trueno models came with coupe and hatchback body styles making it both practical and attractive.

Modified Toyota AE86 Levin Hatchback - Courtesy of SpeedHunters

Modified Toyota AE86 Levin Hatchback - Courtesy of SpeedHunters

Most importantly to its popularity, the AE86 was intensely tuneable so the modifying and aftermarket community loved it. The highly reliable internals of this car made it easy to work on and cost effective too; whether it be a street car build, aesthetic modifications or even a full-on race car, the "Hachi-Roku" (86 in Japanese) could do it all.

The JDM revolution

The AE86 was not the sportiest or fastest car in the Toyota lineup; it was overshadowed for a long time by the likes of the Celica Supra or the MR2. That was until it began to gain a following in several types of automotive media. The car featured as the protagonist in the famous manga and anime series Initial D which instantly made it famous and it gained a cult-like following. In more recent times, it has featured in the Fast and Furious series and has gained traction on social media, which opens up this vehicle to a whole new generation of enthusiasts.

One of the most important people in this car's story is a prominent Japanese racing driver and drifting superstar known as Keiichi Tsuchiya. He started his career as a street racer who honed his skills on the mountain roads of Japan. His weapon of choice was the AE86 and he would go on to race with this car and Toyota as a professional driver for years. Not only did he popularise drifting as a sport through his profile as a racer, he created a legendary 2-part video series produced by Pluspy entitled 'The Touge' which depicted him displaying his drifting skills on the famed Touge mountain road in Japan. This low-budget yet highly popular film raised the profile of both drifting and the AE86 and influenced modern automotive media like the Gymkhana series. Tsuchiya has also worked as a consultant and coordinator on both of the aforementioned films.

Racing successes

Tsuchiya wasn't just a drift icon. His underground racing status was just part of the story; he became a professional racing driver primarily for Toyota and spread his talents in several series, amassing an impressive career. He participated in racing for decades with sports car racing being a priority - he primarily drove touring cars such as the Sierra Cosworth and Skyline GT-R. He would drive the AE86 in both the Fuji Freshman series with 6 wins and the All Japan Touring Car championship with a first in class overall. Though it wasn't in the Corolla, he did also score a class win and overall second place at the Le Mans 24 hours in the Toyota GT-One. He was well-known for adding a drifting flare to his driving which made him all the more noticeable and successful.

The AE86 was raced in multiple touring car championships, its own championship, drifting and even rallying. It is still one of the vehicles of choice for Privateer race teams due to its lightweight design, tunability and inexpensive running costs. In the late '90s, there was a factory-made WRC Corolla which won four rallies and the 1999 Championship - this continued the legacy of rally which started with the second generation of the car.

To this day, the Corolla name is still seen on the race track. Partially because of its continued prominence in drifting and also because Toyota's Gazoo Racing still race the twelfth generation of the car in the BTCC Championship. The British Championship has already seen two championship wins with the AE86 and with the current two-car team still challenging for victories, we may see the team win again shortly. The change in regulations next year means that the Corolla will have to be hybridised and we've already seen this car be presented at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and the latest BTCC race at Silverstone.

Dullness ensues

The change to FWD was just the start of the decline for exciting Corollas. From then on, the Corolla name was a shadow of its former self and we saw a line of drab sub-compacts which went back to their old principles of being fuel efficient and practical. Toyota wanted to build an affordable luxury car to take them into the twenty-first century, and they did just that. The Corolla was a good quality vehicle and most people would be happy to own one, but it just didn't have an incentive for enthusiasts anymore. There was a brief excursion with the 10th generation being given the XRS model. This carried a high-revving Yamaha collaborated engine and the gearbox from the Celica and Lotus Elise of the time. But alas, It wasn't to be - they axed the model not long after release.

The present and future

Today the Corolla is trying to regain its flare; there are several projects in recent years which have been directed towards making the brand engaging for car fans again. Firstly, Toyota released their GT86 (also called the Subaru BRZ and Scion FRS) which was the modern reincarnation of the now legendary AE86. It was lightweight, rear-wheel drive, reasonably priced and, though not hugely powerful, could battle with its rivals on the road. They have just released the newly reworked GR86 which is built in conjunction with the Toyota racing team, Gazoo Racing.

As for the current Corolla, the twelfth generation has a GR Sport line which uses a hybrid drivetrain for extra power from both 1.8 and 2.0 litre engines. This is the sportiest of the range and has ample prowess with up to 184HP, but this isn't the best that this car can offer. There are rumours of a full GR Corolla which will utilise similar internals to that of the GR Yaris; this includes its 260HP 3-cylinder engine and we'll probably see bodywork and interior changes as well.

Hopefully this article has helped to further explain this car and highlight the fact that the Corolla isn’t just about its sales figures. I‘ve thoroughly enjoyed researching and articulating how Japanese tuner and sports car culture affected this car‘s life. Be on the lookout for similar articles in the future which will further explore the Japanese car culture and the cars/characters involved. Thanks for reading.

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Comments (16)

  • My favorite is the ae86 levin, its all the hatchback I'll ever want

    Im also very glad theres a gr corrola coming!!

      3 months ago
  • Ever heard of an early 80's Corolla 1.8SE Liftback TRD ? This was a South-Africa only rally homologation special complete with Dual Dellorto carburettors, high lift camshaft and extractor manifold to get decent power out of the pushrod 3T engine. Only 300 were built of which most ended up on the rally scene and even on race tracks. I owned one in the early 90's. They are extremely scarce nowadays and thus worth a fortune.

      3 months ago
    • I hadn’t heard of this, it’s very impressive! I’m sure it was great to own.

        3 months ago
    • Still was no match for a 4AGE and it was extremely heavy on fuel. Had a lot of character though. Those dual sidedraughts made a lovely snorting sound as it drank its way through the fuel tank.....

        3 months ago
  • this arrived at work yesterday :)

    1966 KE10 auto.

    Was originally sold by the dealership.

      3 months ago
    • Wow, a really cool story. Great to see classics like these still on the road and in a good condition!

        3 months ago
    • unfortunately "Kevin" needs a bit of work. He has no brakes at all and is in need a a good tune etc. It's a good 10m car, any closer "his" faults start to show.

        3 months ago
  • There was corrolla that was supercharged at one point

      3 months ago
  • The AE86 Trueno as it's known in in Japan (Gran Turismo teaching's) is a wicked car, and if you mod it right can look truly bad arse 😎😎

      3 months ago
    • The modding community really have come up with some weird and wonderful ideas!

        3 months ago