Curbside Beater: 1992 Toyota Corolla – The Almost Free, Almost Perfect Beater

There are pros and cons to being a landlord. Let’s skip the cons, having just had to tear out a rotted bathroom floor. One of the minor pros (or cons, depending) is the stuff tenants leave behind. Need a microwave, coffee maker or air purifier? Brooms, mops, cleaning supplies and dustpans (all under-utilized)? Bottles of hair dye or boxes of feminine hygiene products? Got plenty. How about a Corolla? Yes!

This ’92 Corolla sat neglected and forlorn at one of my rentals for well over a year, with one tire almost flat. Its owners had bought a Volvo 740 turbo wagon, and I never did know why they abandoned the Corolla. But it always sort of spoke to me, whenever I saw it: “Rescue me! I still have life in me yet!”

Then just recently, they bought a slightly used Altima, and the Volvo started sitting gathering dust and weeds too. I do have a clause in my leases about abandoned cars, but they’re a nice young couple and didn’t want to get heavy with them. Then one day we struck up a conversation about the Volvo when it sported a For Sale sign ($600). It has a number of issues, including the turbo, and badly ripped seats.

Then the Toyota came up in conversation, and I asked how much longer it would be there. He said he was just about to call a tow truck to scrap it. I could hear it calling again: “Rescue me…”

And then I remembered that my younger son’s first serious girl friend, a wonderful and sweet young woman (way too good for him, but isn’t always the case with 20 year-olds?) was moving away from near campus into one of my little cottages, as a matter of fact. And some wheels would come in real handy, especially since my son isn’t currently licensed (don’t ask).

“Scrap? So what’s the problem?”

“The clutch got worse and worse, and eventually we couldn’t get it into gear anymore”.

Hmm. “But it ran last time you turned it off?”

“Yes it did”.

“How many miles on it?”

“219,000” Hmm. Just properly broken in, for one of these.

“How much do you want for it?”

“I’ll take two hundred”


We came back the next day with a bottle of brake fluid, a hose, and one of Stephanie’s canning jars. When we arrived, he said: “I’m sorry, but you’re not going to want it. We charged up the (almost new) battery, and it wouldn’t start. It spun and spun, but wouldn’t start”. You don’t have to honor the deal”

“Let me try it”. I got in and sure enough it spun. But a wee bit faster than I would expect. I could feel that it wasn’t totally not firing, so the ignition wasn’t dead. On a whim, I depressed the accelerator some, which is not SOP on a modern fuel injected car. It started spinning a bit faster, and then caught…in a noisy fart-can fusillade.

“Oh yea; the muffler is shot too”

Hmm. “Anything else I should know about?”

I checked the clutch master cylinder: dry. And the slave wasn’t moving. That was the problem. So we hooked up the hose to the highly accessible bleeder on the slave cylinder, and my son started pumping and I poured in fluid and bled it. Three minutes later, the clutch worked like a charm. I gave him his two Benjamins, and drove off, noisily.

The engine ran like a trooper. And it’s started instantly ever since. Even the oil was like new. The transmission shifts like a hot knife through butter; better than my low-mileage Xb, which has a rather weak first-gear syncro (since always). Got it home, took off the rear wheel and found that one of the flanges connecting the exhaust pipe to the front of the muffler’s pipe had popped or broken off. The muffler was rock solid. Has anyone replaced a muffler in modern history? Poor Midas. A guy I know in the neighborhood welded the flange and hooked it all up for a few bucks.

Popped off the front wheels, to check the brakes. Or tried to; two lugs nuts on one front wheel were badly cross-threaded, and just barely came off. Some idiot with an air wrench, probably. Bought two studs and lug nuts for a couple of bucks; the only parts I’ve had to replace so far. The brakes were over 50%.

One minor hitch: Eva didn’t know how to drive stick shift! But she was game. So off we went to the fairgrounds, and I quickly added her to my list of happy former stick-shift students (my wife is not on that list). The first ten minutes was spent by her just delicately “bumping” the car along the level parking lot with the engine idling. Too many folks think the clutch is an on-off switch. That notion has to be disabused from the very beginning. Then it’s time to add a bit of engine power, and eventually letting the clutch out all the way; but none too soon. Within a couple of days (and a couple of stalls), she was on top of it. Turns out most of those stalls were from her trying to start off in third gear. The lever is a wee bit floppy: “all the way over to the left.”

Another unexpected detail was the unassisted steering. Oh right; 1992… Not a problem. A bit odd though, for a car that does have air conditioning, which works perfectly. But Eva is liking driving a small and engaging car, quite different than her Mom’s Grand Caravan.

And that’s one giant piece of genuine padded vinyl on the dash, for those that care about those things. Old school Toyota. Just don’t ask about the damn seat belts, that are attached to the door. Hey, it is an official beater.

Now I should mention that old Corollas are the official Beater of Eugene. Volvo 240s are common, but they’re the official Cult Car of Eugene. You have to want one. The Corolla is the default choice, and I can’t tell you how many old Corollas there are in this town. But it suits the locale: folks want something smallish and economical and durable and easy to fix, should it actually need fixing. I’ve shown you some of the older ones. This one is in the middle ages. But there’s very few new ones; where will the future supply come from?

We may have to spend a couple of more bucks eventually. I didn’t notice any obvious leaks, but I just checked the clutch master cylinder, and the fluid was down a bit, after almost a month. And a new set of tires before the winter rains set in.  What’s a set of 175 70x13s run? $200?

Eva’s got the stick shift down like a pro now, and loves her Corolla. How many kids would be genuinely thrilled with a beater Corolla? Not as many as once upon a time. She’s a keeper.