The Corolla Tercel was the first front-wheel drive car Toyota sold in the US, and its straightforward styling and design underlined its utilitarian mission.
The 1970s in the US market saw a shift from rear-wheel drive to front. In the middle of the decade, Volkswagen introduced the front-wheel drive Dasher and Rabbit, and 1978, Chrysler was the first US brand to offer it in the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon.
When it became Toyota‘s turn in 1980, the company chose the safe route of applying the venerable Corolla name to two different little cars – a smaller one with front-wheel drive, and a slightly larger one that was driven from the rear. With a “C” name already in the badge, Toyota started with the letter “T” to distinguish its front-driver, and so it became the Corolla Tercel.
The Corolla Tercel departed from the prevailing trend of front-wheel drive cars mounting their engines sideways; Toyota mounted it longitudinally, as was typical for rear-wheel drive cars. This approached made it easier to later bring a four-wheel drive version to market, but the penalty was a higher-than-normal hoodline.
This made for styling that is resolutely utilitarian. The hatchback injected some flair with its glassy rear, but you can practically feel your back ache after imagining lifting up a heavy suitcase over the license plate.
The Corolla Tercel’s beak was mildly tweaked for 1982, with wraparound signal lights and a more sculpted grille.
From the rear, the Corolla Tercel looks utterly straightforward, which is underlined by the thick rubber gasket surrounding the rear window. The sedan improved on the hatchback’s cargo access with a trunk that opened at bumper level.
The Corolla Tercel had very little in the way of tumblehome, which refers to the side window’s curvature. A car with more tumblehome usually looks sleek, while a car with less will appear boxy and upright, as we see here.
Toyota did manage to add a rounded contour down the Tercel’s flank, and this one has three flavors of horizontal trim – a pinstripe and two rub strips.
The hockey-stick curve of the C-pillar adds a little angle to the shape, enough to give the Corolla Tercel a whiff of jauntiness.
The side mirrors merge boxiness and teardrop aerodynamics in a unique shape.
Dents and dings are normal for city cars, and it looks like this one is a product of a mild rub against a pole.
This was the last year of the Corolla Tercel, as it was redesigned for 1983 into a hatchback that fell in lockstep with the styling of the Rabbits and Omnis around it. No longer needing the Corolla association, the 1983 was simply called Tercel.
The goofiness of the first generation found a place in the second, with a four-wheel drive tall wagon that attracted a cult following and was later made famous as Jeese Pinkman’s ride in Breaking Bad.
And while this first-gen version has mostly been forgotten, it appears that Corolla Tercels are still out there on their utilitarian missions.