What's in a name? - Corona in motorsport

3d ago


In the sixties the Japanese economy was rapidly recovering from the post WW2 traumas. As a result the previously frivolous activity of motor racing was now an national morale boosting phenomenon. The first annual Japanese Grand Prix in 1963, which wasn't an F1 race but rather several sports car races spread across two days, was a very successful publicity boost for Toyota as three of their cars each won their respective classes.

In 1964 the grid got even stronger as literally every single Japanese manufacturer had entered the event. Toyota was once again present with their models including the brand new generation of their mid size sedan. The now unfortunately named Corona. This new model was very much an answer to its rival, the Nissan Bluebird.

The new generation Corona was an almost instant success and gave Toyota their much wanted international breakthrough. Press from all over the world were thriving about the new sedan that could match, and in most cases even surpass, the performance and quality of its now international rivals.

One major turning point of the Corona's success was the 1965 Armstrong 500, the precursor to the now iconic Bathurst 1000. Toyota entered three Coronas in the race hoping to gain as much positive publicity as possible as Japanese cars were still seen as crude, outdated and unreliable.

To Toyota's delight the Coronas did not only finish the race, which was a feat in and of itself, they managed to almost dominate their class by finishing P4, P3 and P2. The only car faster was the already proven to be potent Ford Cortina. Toyota had their Australian breakthrough and the rest of the world was to follow.

Throughout the years many new body styles were released ranging from sedans, station wagons and even a pick-up. Several more powerful engines were added as well. By 1967 a truly special version of the Corona was released, the 1600 GT. This striking new 2 door coupe featured the 120 horsepower 9R 4 cylinder engine which had close ties to the straight 6 engine found in the elusive Toyota 2000GT sports car.

The little brother to Toyota's flagship sportscar was quite potent on track beating many of its contemporary rivals. During the 1969 Japanese Grand Prix the Corona even managed to hold its own against the Bluebird's big bad brother, the Skyline GT-R.

But the Corona didn't just stick to circuit racing. One type of motor racing that was rapidly gaining traction was rallying. The sport was in a transitional phase. Traditional rally racing used to be about covering long distances on open roads in relatively stock cars. However, in the 50's the Fins and Swedes had the brilliant idea of closing of certain sections of road from the public.

The special stage was born and now competitors were truly able to drive all out without having the risk of running into some a random commuter on their way to the grocery store. The stages became faster and so did the cars.

The biggest and most famous of them all, The Monte Carlo Rally, took some time to adapt to this new format but in 1968 the organizers finally transformed their event, which used to be an astronomically complicated affair with dozens of performance handicaps, into a more straight forward and modernized rally. The fastest car over 13 special stages would win.

The big, powerful and fast ford falcons were one of the many cars that suffered from Monte Carlo's handicap system

The big, powerful and fast ford falcons were one of the many cars that suffered from Monte Carlo's handicap system

Manufacturers used to stay away from the rally because of its daft and complicated set of regulations. But with this change the floodgates were set wide open again for new specialized rally machinery.

Toyota toughened up a 1600GT GT5-LM for the 1968 edition and managed to convince South African ace rally driver Jan Hettema to take the wheel. Hettema already had three South African Rally Championship titles to his name so he was more than capable of flinging the Japanese coupe though the Monte Carlo mountains.

What Hettema wasn't capable off though was driving the car in sub-zero conditions, as would anyone. The windshield had been smashed to pieces due to a stray bolt from a car in front. And since the rally took place during cold January nights the decision was made to retire the car before any frostbite related incidents took place.

Toyota was back in 1969 with an upgraded 1600GT GT5-RM, again with Jan Hettema behind the wheel. This time Hettema didn't have to brave the cold weather but the car still ended up retiring due to a broken gearbox.

One final attempt at Monte Carlo glory was made in 1970. This time Toyota went all out. They prepared not one, but two brand new Corona Mark II 1900 GSS models. The Mark II models were slightly bigger versions of the Corona with added luxury and bigger engines.

Jan Hettema, who by now had won two more South African Rally Championship titles, was back on board. The second car was driven by "Quick" Vic Elford. A man who already won the Monte Carlo rally just 2 years earlier with Porsche and had close ties with Toyota as he was one of the few that drove their mad V8 powered Group 7 race car.

Unfortunately the all star line-up still wasn't able to create any success as now both Coronas were forced to retire with differential issues. It was to be the last official entry of the Toyota Corona in rallying as the new and Celica took over its rally duties.

The Toyota Corona then proved to be an important cornerstone in Toyota's history. It gave the brand their international commercial breakthrough and opened the door for future motorsport adventures. Toyota's motorsport branch TOSCO who were responsible for the Corona's succes went on to become Toyota Racing Development, better known as TRD.

Toyota's various wins in SuperGT, rally, endurance racing and so much more all trace back to the Humble beginnings of the Toyota Corona. Turns out the word Corona stands for at least one good thing after all.

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