Toyota Corolla: The World's Favourite Car

It's anonymous, unambitious and totally lacking in personality. But in its 40-year lifespan more than 32 million Toyota Corollas have left the production line - making it the biggest-selling car of all time. Now, the company that put Japanese motors on the map is to consign its most famous model to the scrapheap. Sean O'Grady celebrates the Corolla's charmless appeal, and owners from around the world describe their lives behind its wheel

No son ever begged his dad to buy a Toyota Corolla. No one ever put a poster of the Corolla on their bedroom wall. For petrolheads the world over, the Corolla has always been the ultimate anti-car car, if not the anti-Christ.

Judged against the more interesting machinery available at the time it was launched, in 1966, it was dull indeed. By comparison with the Mini, say, or the Citroën DS, or virtually anything from Italy, the Toyota was automotive grey porridge. It was conventional, it was anonymous looking and it was completely unambitious in design. It has remained so ever since.

Despite its huge popularity, the Corolla doesn't have, and never did have, much of a "personality". It has inspired neither art nor anthropomorphosis. Would The Italian Job have been quite so much fun if they'd tried to rob a bank in three Corollas? Could Herbie ever have been a Corolla? Would Thelma and Louise have been seen dead in one?

Even car fans have some difficulty in remembering more than one or two of its many incarnations over the years. Being inside a Corolla has never been a treat for the senses. Early versions had a certain period charm, but the overwhelming use of brittle grey plastic and plain grey velour in its later guises have been narcoleptic, reminiscent of the John Major Spitting Image puppet. The Toyota Corolla never had the cute baby-like "face" of the Mini or Fiat Cinquecento or Beetle; it was a hard face to fall in love with.

Nor has the Corolla ever been much fun to drive. It's not difficult to drive, in the way a Citroën 2CV or a Renault 4 might be with their gear sticks sticking out of the dashboard, but it isn't very "involving", as the motoring journalist usually puts it. A Mini, an Escort or a Golf offers an entertaining driving experience, but not the Toyota.

Yet for all its boringness, the Corolla is the biggest-selling car of all time, at least in terms of its nameplate. OK, Anoraks may argue that the best-selling car (as opposed to nameplate) is in fact the VW Beetle, which, during its 60 years, has seen some 21,529,464 models rolled out. But the fact remains that, over the course of four decades, the name Corolla has been glued to some 32 million vehicles.

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the Corolla built both the mighty Toyota Motor Corporation of today and the reputation of the Japanese industry. "Corolla" - a botanical term meaning the crown of a flower - and the car have crowned Toyota's rise to dominance. Toyota is the only large mass-market car-maker in the world to make money, and it makes lots of it. It has overtaken Ford, the world's number two, in production and is not that far behind General Motors. And it has done so without much recourse to mergers. And while numerous Honda Civics, Nissan Sunnys, Mitsubishi Shoguns and Suzuki Swifts have also done their bit to secure Japan's position as the second largest economy in the world, the Corolla is the biggest single Japanese automotive success story. In 2005 alone, 1.36 million Corollas were produced in 16 plants, from Burnaston, Derbyshire to Phuc Thang Vietnam. By the end of June this year, cumulative worldwide production reached 31.6 million units. That represents more than 2,160 cars every day - 90 cars per hour, every hour, for 40 years.

The commercial success of the Corolla can be summed up in one word: reliability. More than anything, the Corolla's simplicity and its manufacturer's attention to mundane matters of engineering have created an outstandingly dependable vehicle. It changed motoring for ever. Before the Corolla, you could argue, the motor car was the stuff of dreams, a glamorous, slightly temperamental creature in which every journey was to be something of an adventure, where you couldn't quite be sure if you were going to make it - even in a VW Beetle. The Corolla turned the car into just another domestic appliance, something functional, something that shouldn't be given a second thought or endowed with much sentimental attachment.

Yet as owners have come to appreciate the Corolla's robust qualities, many found have beauty under its unprepossessing grey skin. And, to be fair, most Corollas are easy to drive, with light clutches and a steering system that has helped cabbies the world over get through their day without too much exertion. They are also well equipped. Once upon a time, roughly when the Corolla was launched in fact, the idea of fitting a car with a radio as standard was the height of marketing nous, something buyers valued far in excess of its real cost. British makers resisted the temptation to please the customer in this way, and Japanese car manufacturers capitalised on that characteristic ineptness. That is how Corollas started to push Cortinas off our roads.

But the Corolla has become a victim of its own success. Now that the rest of the world has caught up, to some extent, on reliability, Toyota has discovered high styling and good taste. The Corolla name isn't especially associated with those qualities, it would seem.

So when Toyota comes to launch its new mid-sized car at the Paris Motor Show later this week, this time it won't be badged as a Corolla. Instead it's going to be called "Auris", a Latin word that means ear. Not quite as nice as a flower. It has a hard act to follow.

Toyota Corolla: A life story

1966: The original first-generation Corolla is introduced in November 1966 as a two-door sedan.

1967: In May , a four-door sedan and a three-door wagon are added to the Corolla range.

1968: Corolla Sprinter, a two-door coupé, is introduced. Exports to the United States begin at about $1,700. The car has been popular ever since.

1970: In May, the second-generation Corolla 1.2-litre appears.

1974: By April, the third-generation Corolla 30 Series is introduced.

1976: In January, the Corolla and Sprinter Liftback are added to the range. In the same year, the five millionth Corolla is produced.

1979: The fourth-generation Corolla, with rear-wheel-drive, appears in April.

1982: Corolla wins the first of its British Touring Car Championships.

1983: Ten millionth Corolla produced. In May, the fifth-generation Corolla is introduced, with a sporty Corolla Coupé joining the range. This became today's iconic "drift" car.

1987: The sixth-generation Corolla is introduced in May, which sets the standard for today's Corolla. It has an airbag for the driver and a 1.6-1.8-litre engine.

1991: By June, the seventh generation is on the market.

1995: The eighth-generation Corolla is introduced in Japan in May. The car hits Europe in 1997, when the 20 millionth Corolla is produced. It becomes the world car of the Nineties, with production in Japan, the US, Britain, Turkey, Thailand, South Africa and Brazil.

1998: UK production begins at Burnaston, Derbyshire.

2000: The ninth-generation Corolla arrives. The range includes the four-door sedan and a five-door wagon, called a Fielder. The ninth generation Corolla's engine has VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence) to maximise output torque with minimum fuel consumption, while simultaneously reducing emissions.

2005: The 30 millionth Toyota Corolla is sold.

The Owners:

Akio Matsuda is 63 and married with a grown-up daughter:

I retired from a full-time job as a salesman three years ago. I've driven Corollas for a quarter of a century around Western Tokyo, the world's biggest metropolis. I used to put 140,000km on the clock every year.

They're a solid, reliable car. I used it all the time for work because it was easy to drive and I didn't mind if it got a scratch. If it was an expensive car I'd worry about it all the time. I always buy second-hand Corollas because they're reasonably priced and they never break down.

My wife bought our first Corolla years ago. She liked it because it was such a comfortable car and I grew to like it, too, so I bought my own. Now she drives something else! The Corolla isn't a super-luxury car or a mass-popular car; it's somewhere in the middle. What I care most about is safety, comfort and reliability, not something flash.

After I retired I moved further west, to the mountains of Kanagawa Prefecture (the next prefecture to Tokyo), because it is pretty and boasts more open space. You need a car around here because it is in the country. I bought this one three years ago. Most days I drive it to the local coffee shop to have a cup of coffee and read the paper.

I knew about the 40th anniversary. Am I proud it's a Japanese car? A little, I suppose, but I never really think of it like that. The fact that it has become such a famous car, and that everybody knows the name, proves it is a good car. I'm just happy I made the right choice.

Antoinette Abboud, teacher, Sydney:

I was looking for a car, and a cousin kept suggesting a Corolla, telling me it was a good car for someone like me. I bought it second-hand and it's six years old now. It's still in good condition, although it's got a few scratches and dents. I don't really look after it.

It's been incredibly reliable, but I guess my relationship with my car doesn't go further than that. It's a "get me from A to B" thing. I've tried to get to know it a bit better, but there's not much to it. It's a white Toyota Corolla. On my first road trip in it I tried to give it a name, but it has no personality.

Sometimes I wish for something a little zippier and smarter, but my Corolla has never let me down.

One night as I was stopped at traffic lights, someone opened my passenger door and grabbed my bag off the seat. At the police station, the officer told me: "You're the third woman in the last 10 minutes to report the same crime at that set of traffic lights." He asked me what car I had. When I told him, he laughed; the other two also had white Corollas. I get teased a bit about my car. Some people joke that they wouldn't be seen dead in one. To me, it's just a generic car. It doesn't have any sentimental value.

Yinka Babinson, health worker, London:

I've always had Toyotas in mind as the kind of car I wanted. Maybe it's because of the TV adverts - "The car in front's a Toyota". I guess I wanted to be in the car in front. Japanese cars also have a good history of efficiency and reliability.

When I went looking for a second-hand Corolla seven years ago, I was concerned with mileage, fuel consumption and durability. Mine had 7,000 miles on the clock, and now has 27,000. As a mental health care professional in central London, I love working in the community. That means driving about to see clients. We share a team car for work, but I don't use it much. I feel more comfortable in my Toyota.

My Corolla is a hatchback 1.4-litre. I love the shape - I definitely prefer it to the newer model, which is more boring. If you look at mine from a distance it seems executive, prestigious, smooth and curved. I love the shininess of the silver; very distinctive. People sometimes say Corollas don't have well-finished bodywork and can rust, but I haven't had that problem. I've never had any problems with mine. I look after it. What they say is true: "Service it and it goes; don't service it and it won't go."

I've had my best times in this car playing Barry White tapes. I've driven through France and Holland in it. My four children (aged four to 12) are getting bigger, so I'm thinking of upgrading to a Toyota jeep, which is exactly what the previous owner of this car did. He's a friend of mine who sold me the Corolla before moving to Johannesburg. It still has his personalised plate on, so I think about him each time I see it.

Adam Ayala, lawyer, Maryland:

I've got a 1994 Corolla which I've had since 1995. They call the colour champagne but really it's cream coloured. I bought it from my in-laws when it had 20,000 miles on the clock and now it's got more than 130,000. It's got a little bit of rust.

It does not need much upkeep. When the oil light comes on, I put oil in it. It's been bashed by tree branches... I love it because it just keeps going, it's like the Energizer bunny. It's not a very flash car but it's very reliable. I use it to drive to work every day. It used to be a longer journey but now it's just two miles. But I also use it for longer trips - to Philadelphia, to New York and to DC, or else to Pennsylvania's rolling hills. I have not been on any long-distance road trips in it but it has never, ever, conked out and left me without a ride.

Rodolfo Rosas, lawyer, B. Aires:

I bought my Toyota Corolla XEi new two years ago. I didn't know anything about it, I had no preconceived idea. I just chose it because it was a good price and it was Japanese. It cost me 69,000 pesos (about £12,000), and it has a leather interior.

I love it - the way it runs, the engine, the suspension. I've been all over the country in it. Last winter, I went up to La Quiaca in the north of Argentina, on the border with Bolivia, about as far north as you can go, and this year I went right down to Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost city in the world. In two years, I've done 50,000 miles.

I used to have a Jeep, but I needed something that was more in keeping with my age and my job. I'm 38, and I'm a criminal lawyer - I need my car to look the part. People pay a lot of attention to the car you drive. For me, my car represents sobriety. That's why I chose navy blue, a sober colour. If I weren't a lawyer and I had the same money, I might have an Audi or a BMW, but now I'm planning to buy another new Toyota next year, and I'll go for exactly the same one again, because it's so good. My wife loves it, too.

I'm surprised it's the most successful car; I only heard that recently. I suppose they've just done the marketing very well. The only thing I don't like about my car is the dashboard. It looks like it was made in 1996 - it looks really old-fashioned.

Nomusa Cembi, journalist, Jo'burg:

This is the fourth anniversary of my Toyota Corolla 1.4i. It's dependable, reliable, likeable. After having driven various cars, I'm never going to try any other choice again.

In all the years I have driven this car, I have never been reduced to standing by the roadside with something broken on the vehicle. It's very good on petrol and it is very spacious. My son, siblings and other members of my extended family can fit in for a joyride.

I bought the car during what was known in South Africa as the "Polo rush", a period when the VW Polo range had been released here and was selling like hot cakes. VW salesmen would rush from door to door in pursuit of customers.

But I would not be swayed by them. I knew where my heart was, and I still know where it belongs when it comes to cars.

I spent a hefty R110,000 (about £11,000) on the car when I bought it. But I don't regret it. My only worry is that I've bumped it on a few occasions. But it's still roadworthy. It's very resilient. And that's why I like it.

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