COAL: 1992 Geo Prizm – The Last Car of a Lifetime?

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It was December 1991, and Mom decided it was time to get a new car.

There was nothing major wrong with her 1976 Vega, but it was starting to have the kind of little issues that made my non-mechanical mother a bit nervous. It had been a good, relatively trouble-free car that did not live up to the infamous Vega Legend, but Mom was ready for a change.  My repeated attempts to talk her out of getting rid of the Vega were in vain.

She wanted her two children to help her pick out her next car, which took a little planning.  My brother and I lived up in Seattle, but Mom still lived down south in our home town of Raymond, a two and a half-hour drive away.

We rented a white 1991 Corolla to make the trip. I don’t remember why we didn’t just take either my 1966 Pontiac Catalina or my brother’s 1979 Volkswagen Rabbit. Perhaps the Rabbit was in need of another clutch cable, and maybe we were afraid that the old Pontiac’s starter would give out. The Catalina went through a series of cheap reconditioned starters before I eventually had the sense to ask a gas station mechanic where he got starters for his customers.

All the way down to our hometown, we bemoaned our mother’s taste in cars.  She had her heart set on a new Chevy Cavalier, a car neither of us cared for.  But, in our mother’s world view, there were only two cars worth buying: Chevrolets and Ramblers, and Ramblers were no longer an option.  However, when we finally made it down to Raymond, Mom took an instant liking to the Toyota.  In fact, she was beaming.  This was HER kind of car.  Everything had a purpose, and there was a purpose for everything; form just simply followed function.  It’s hard to adequately describe just how much she liked that Toyota without making it sound like a silly joke.  After all, it was only an appliance-white Corolla 4-door!  But some people aren’t impressed by a Turbo-Super-Mega-Charged GSXZX or a Supreme Brougham D’Pretentious.  They want a car that fits like a good pair of shoes, and Donna Hayes was one of those people.  Whenever someone started bragging about their fancy luxury and/or performance car, she’d invariably shoot them down by saying in a perfect deadpan: “A car’s just basic transportation.”

She liked the Toyota so much, she elected to travel to the Chevrolet dealership in nearby Aberdeen with my brother and I, while her boyfriend at the time, a courtly gentleman named Sterling Andall, followed us in his two-tone 1975 Camaro Rally Sport.

My brother and I were very happy that she liked the Corolla.  Everyone knew that Toyotas were the most reliable cars on the road, didn’t they?

Mom’s only objection was that the Toyota was a “foreign car.”  At this point in the proceedings, my brother’s subscription to Consumer Reports came in very handy.  He patiently explained to Mom that the Corolla was actually assembled in California, in the same factory where a very similar car called the Geo Prizm was also put together, to be sold at Chevrolet dealers.  Of course the Geo was little more than a Toyota Sprinter Sedan with a Geo globe emblem tacked on, but Mom liked the idea that the Geo was “a Chevy,” and we all three liked the fact that you could usually get a better deal on a Geo versus an equivalent Toyota.

Such was the marketing power of that Toyota tri-oval badge.  Call a car a Toyota, and people will automatically assume that it’s made in Japan and therefore superior to any domestic brand.  But in our particular case, Mom’s bias in favor of an American brand worked very much to our advantage.

The story of the NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.) plant where Corollas and Prizms were assembled was covered quite well by Jeff Nelson in his article on the Prizm’s predecessor, the Chevy “CorNova”:

http://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-american/automotive-history-1985-chevrolet-cornova-%E2%80%93-lessons-not-learned/

While I’m at it, for another good article on a NUMMI-built car, I recommend Paul’s piece on a very inexpensive used 1992 Corolla:

http://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-asian/curbside-beater-1992-toyota-corolla-the-almost-free-almost-perfect-beater/

Once we made it to the dealership and had a chance to look at a couple of Prizms, Mom was quick to decide that the Geo was even better than the Corolla.  In fact, you could almost say that Donna Hayes was in love. And that was a huge problem.  My mother had many virtues and many talents, but she couldn’t dicker and she couldn’t deal.  The salesman knew he had a live one on his hands.  Our Geo price advantage was evaporating.  This was where my brother and I came in.

I tried to interest Mom in a silver 1991 Prizm that had been repossessed and only had 10,000 miles on it, but she wanted nothing to do with a used car.  Besides, it had a cassette deck.  SHE DIDN’T WANT A CASSETTE DECK. A radio was good enough for her!  I remember thinking that the only person who would benefit from my mother’s insistence on getting a new car would be me.  “Someday, I’ll inherit a car with 10,000 fewer miles on it.”  I hit it right on the nose, but I’m glad I kept that thought to myself.

Meanwhile, Mr. Andall was looking at a new white Trans-Am.  (Yes, they sold Pontiacs, too. Small-town dealers are like that.  They even sold Toyotas, but they didn’t have any Corollas in stock.)  Needless to say, he and my mother did not see eye-to-eye on cars, but he came along for moral support and to share in the occasion.  There was a real gleam in his eye when he looked at that Firebird, and for a moment, I saw a much younger man.

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Of all the men who passed in and out of my mother’s life after Dad died when I was four years old and my brother was six, Sterling Andall was by far my favorite.  He was an unpretentious fellow, but that majestic movie-star name just seemed to suit him.  And besides, he had good taste in cars.  In this old snapshot from the late 50’s he poses proudly in front of his flower garden, while a 1955 Chrysler waits patiently in the driveway.

Mom was very specific about what she wanted: a base model Prizm painted either white or light blue, with an automatic transmission and nothing else that she would have to pay extra for.  The dealer didn’t have any of the 130-horsepower GSi models for her to look at, but the rear spoiler on the GSi would have elicited a derisive snort from Mom in any case.  She always referred to rear spoilers as “basket handles,” a little bit of sarcasm that I believe she picked up from me.

Regarding the available options such as air conditioning, power windows and those annoying cassette decks, she flatly stated with a dismissive wave of her hand, “I don’t need all that nonsense.”

You’d think that someone so particular about the specifics of a car would also drive a hard bargain, but in the case of my mother, you would be wrong.  She would have paid list price for the Geo if my brother hadn’t done her dickering for her.

Since they didn’t have the exact car Mom wanted on the lot, the salesman called around to several other Chevy dealerships until they came up with a car that was dark metallic blue, but otherwise fit her specifications.  Mom decided that she could live with a dark blue car, and the deal was made.

Later, when the salesman called Mom to discuss the delivery of the new car, he made the mistake of calling her “Hon.” Why did he call her ‘Hon?’ What was she, some little old lady?  It annoyed her no end.  As a result, calling each other “Hon” quickly became a running joke in our family.  One can’t help wonder what she would have done if he’d called her “Hon” before the deal was closed.

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When the car arrived, the salesman insisted upon a commemorative photo.  What you see here was my mother’s “grin and bear it” face.  Astute car-spotters will of course instantly identify the lawn-ornament Vega station wagon in the background.

Mom drove that little car for the next 19 years, until November 2010 when a massive stroke left her paralyzed on her right side and greatly affected her ability to speak.  When she passed away seven months later from complications of that stroke, Betsy officially became my car.

Yes, her name is Betsy.  Plenty of people have a name for their car, but Mom took that point of view a step further.  In her universe, darn near everything was alive and had a personality.  She could get anthropomorphic with the best of them.  She didn’t just open the dryer and take out the clothes.  No, the dryer happily opened its mouth, and the clothes danced out into the laundry basket, happy to be warm and eager for you to wear them.  It was rather like a Disney cartoon.

I supposed she could have picked a more imaginative name for her car.  Calling your car “Betsy” is rather like naming your son “Michael.”  It’s not a bad name, but it’s a trifle obvious.

But what the heck.  She’s Betsy.

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And she’s looking good.  This picture, taken last summer in the same spot where Mom shook hands with a man who had the temerity to call her “Hon” shows how little the car has changed.

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Speaking of running jokes, the handshake photo op quickly became a family favorite.  When I ended up buying the Vega from Mom, I insisted that Sterling take a commemorative photo.  I’m scratching my bald head right now as I look at that picture.  Is that guy with the full head of hair and the Joe-College outfit really me?

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This shot, taken in the summer of 1992 right after Mom and Sterling painted the house, shows Betsy in all her youthful glory, and not yet sporting her Dairy Queen Blizzard antenna topper.

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This picture from last summer reveals the fact that Betsy’s dark metallic blue finish has faded a bit.  But it’s a nice effect; like a movie star with a touch of gray in her hair, Betsy is still looking good.  Mom always parked Betsy in the garage, and although the garage had no door, Mom would drape old towels on the back of the car on sunny days to protect Betsy’s finish and interior.

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The DQ Blizzard is firmly in place on the end of the antenna, where it has been for several years.  I’ve given up on trying to remove it.  I’ve decided that it’s a “period correct accessory.”

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The interior is in good shape, original Delco AM/FM radio and all.  And that odometer reading is no joke; Betsy only recently hit 70,000 miles.  That’s just a little over 3,000 miles a year.  Since Mom had recently retired when she bought Betsy, the car never had to endure a daily commute.  The low mileage is in spite of the fact that Mom was fond of driving for the heck of it, or “taking the scenic route,” as she liked to say.  A 50-mile round-trip to go shopping in Aberdeen was a monthly ritual for her.  This is one of the keys to Betsy’s good overall condition.  Mom drove the car just enough to prevent a lot of the issues that seldom-driven cars tend to have.  She was also fond of saying, “a car shouldn’t just sit.”

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 The seats show very little sign of wear.  I usually use Hawaiian beach blankets for makeshift seat covers, but I removed them for these photos.

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One of the few flaws in the interior is this cigarette burn on the passenger-side door panel.  It dates back to the only time anyone ever smoked in this car, when Betsy was less than a month old.  Mom was driving Sterling to a doctor’s appointment when he absent-mindedly lit up.  My militantly non-smoking mother was not pleased.

I see things a bit differently.  Whenever I get in the car, I look over at that cigarette burn and it reminds me of a good man who treated my mother like a lady.

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One minor problem that has cropped up lately is a bad case of sagging headliner.  That will be my next project.

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Here’s an idea:  Why not have a Geo Prizm Turbo Limited Edition?  The emblems are available at your local department store!  I was going to give these faux emblems to my brother as a joke, but I lost them when I drove away without first taking them off of the bumper.  These things are pretty common.  I was starting to wonder why so many different makes of cars were using the same script for their “turbo” emblems.

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But who needs tacky stick-on emblems?  The simple addition of a bike rack turns Betsy into a hybrid; a much more sensible upgrade.  This picture was taken last year when I picked up my new bike at Free Range Cycles.

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The car came with a space-saver spare tire, but Mom got a real tire and wheel to use instead.  Although it takes up a lot of trunk space, I agree with that choice!  And put the blame on me for those marks on the bumper; that’s where the left bike pedal always made scratches, until I started putting a sock over the pedal.

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A profile shot makes me say that the Prizm is one of many cars that owe a stylistic debt to the NSU Ro80.

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The ’89 to ’92 Prizm was based on the JDM Corolla Sprinter Sedan, as this photo of a Sprinter (from the Japanese car export website www.beforward.jp) clearly shows.

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This shot of a Corolla illustrates some differences between what you got from a Chevy Dealership and what you could get down the street at the Toyota store.  In the USA, the Sprinter Sedan body style was only available as a Geo.  Those who insisted on a car with a Toyota badge had to settle for the regular old Corolla, without the Sprinter’s C-Pillar windows and that little hint of a spoiler on the trunk.  Such are the small details that can make a big difference in the appearance of a car.

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But it’s only a hint, and not a full-on basket handle.  Thank goodness for that!  I really like this particular little detail.

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No car is perfect.  Although Betsy’s rear windows do open, they don’t roll down all the way.

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I’d actually prefer the 5-door hatchback version of the Prizm, which was based on the JDM Sprinter Cielo, but the hatchback was discontinued after the ’91 model year.  It’s a bit more practical, and I like the oddball bubble-back design a little more than Betsy’s conventional layout.  Don’t tell Betsy I said that.

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One thing you won’t hear me complain about is the motor.  Betsy just has the standard 102 horsepower engine, but that’s plenty of power for the way I drive.  Note the conspicuous absence of the word “Toyota” on that valve cover.  I find it amusing that nowadays we consider a car that has a 4-valve-per-cylinder electronically fuel-injected motor to be a ‘dull, boring appliance.’

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After all those years of having a garage to herself, I imagine it was a big adjustment for Betsy when I took over as her driver, and she moved into the dormitory-style accommodations of a condominium parking garage.  Oh man, am I ever my mother’s son!  I’m turning the simple act of parking my car into a Disney cartoon.  And don’t ask me why they gave me an extra-wide disabled parking spot when I’m the able-bodied driver of a very narrow car.  Just lucky, I guess!

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I’ll also have to admit that my choice of parking spots is sometimes based on how well I think my car will get along with the other car.  Here, she’s parked next to a co-worker’s 2nd-generation Prizm.  Although Betsy might envy the newer car’s voluptuous curves, the later-model Prizm is probably jealous of Betsy’s complete set of original wheel covers.

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I look at this photo I took the other day when I was visiting my brother, and I wonder:  Will I ever need another car?  My current job commute is ten miles round-trip, and I usually just ride my bicycle to work.  The car gets driven one or two days in a typical week, and a high percentage of the driving is in the form of easy highway miles.  Riding a bike to work makes the commute fun, and it also prevents driving from feeling like a chore.  I’m 53 years old, and based on my lifestyle and family history, I can expect to live another 25 to 30 years.  So by then, the car will have what, 200,000 miles?  So what?  We’re talking about a Toyota here.  Sure, I don’t have the most exciting car in the world, and she’s not the sort of car that gratifies the Male Ego.  My Male Ego would love to have a car with a stick shift, but what happens the next time I crash my bike and have to walk around on crutches or do everything one-handed for a while?  The delicate dance of driving a stick shift would be difficult.

After Mom had her stroke, I looked at the Geo and thought of Jay Leno’s old saying, “The car needed me.”  Well, maybe the car did need me, but I also need this particular car.  Perhaps the next owner of my Geo hasn’t even been born yet.  Like I said in the title, she’s a keeper.