Cars Of (Another) Lifetime: 1974 Toyota Corolla – Nothing Quite Like The First Love

[ED: Len Peters (Canucknucklehead) has agreed to take over the Sunday Cars Of A Lifetime slot. We’re still mulling over the title of the series: keep it or change it?]

This is a story of a car that is wrapped up in all kinds of things but in many ways it is a story of my Dad, who was a most unique character. He was one of the most intelligent men I have ever known, capable of many things ranging from how to build a house to how to grow a great garden. Dad liked many things but there was one thing he detested: buying gas!

Note the model year of the subject car: yes, it is 1974, soon after the first big gas crisis. While we in Canuckistan didn’t have the kind of panic that went on in the USA at the time, prices did rise a fair bit, to the area of, heaven forbid, sixty cents a gallon! And them were the big Imperial gallons, a full twenty percent larger than those piddling little US gallons! This coincided with Dad’s company transferring him to a hick town north of Montreal, which necessitated a grueling eighteen mile drive, each way. Dad was used to walking across the street to go to work for much of his life and this commute seemed horrendously long and expensive to him. Thirty-six miles a day in a Pontiac Strato Chief that got, on a good day, 15 mpg? The cost was ruinous, a good $1.20 a day! Clearly, something had to be done about this!

This is where the Corolla came in. Dad wasn’t about to go to the poor house paying like $24 a month extra for gas, which translates to today’s money at all of $120. No way he could abide driving the Poncho, which was paid for long ago, by the way. He started looking for something cheaper to run and this led me, at the age of ten years, to accompany him to all the brands’ dealership. I remember the Vega test run, he panned it as a complete dud, the Pinto was too small and the stuff at Chrysler too weird. Toyota was really advertising at the time with a campaign of a Scotsman speaking of how thrifty Toyotas were with the catchy jingle, “See how much car you money can buy, run Toyota!”

So one Saturday morning we arrived at the local Toyota dealership, where dad spied a 1974 Corolla in dark blue, two door sedan, with the 1600 cc engine. The car was a total stripper, all it had were the aforementioned 1600 motor in place of the wheezy 1200 and AM radio, with the volume knob on the right, for the Japanese RHD models, of course. It had one innovation that was really ahead of anything any of us had seen: and electric rear window defroster. That was really a step forward in Quebec winters and showed Toyota had its priorities right. Anyway, Dad drove the car and loved it; the 1600 2T-C motor was legendary in its time for making lots of power (for the day), and in the light, four speed manual car, it went very well indeed. There was one catch, however; Dad thought the $2700 on-the-road price was way to high and he wanted to pay $2500, which is $13,300 in today’s prices.

Word soon got out that dad had been looking at a Toyota and the extended family went into panic mode: how could Jack do something so stupid! The chorus railed in unison: “IT’LL NEVER START IN THE WINTER!” This was a major issue in Quebec at the time as -30’F was not unknown and the American stuff was often very hard to get going if the block heater had been interrupted for even a short period of time. Really, nobody took Japanese cars seriously and considered them manifestly inferior to mainstream, Big Three, stuff. Of course, the skeptics had never driven a Toyota, either. After a month or so, the dealer finally acquiesced to dad’s demands and the Corolla came home. It was February of 1974. Would it really start in the winter?

Well, it did, first shot every time. What impressed me as a kid was how well built the car was and how many little touches it had, like a good tool kit. It was also exceptionally reliable. Nothing broke while under warranty, a rarity for us used to GM cars of the era. The little car was reliable, economical and fun to drive. At about age eleven, dad started to teach me to drive in it and by twelve, I was tooling around the countryside with him regularly. “Just a small fine for driving without a license if we get caught, so don’t worry!” he reassured me.

In 1976 the Corolla came West with the family and it ended up on Vancouver Island. Dad and my older brother drove it from Montreal in two and a half days, a real achievement for a car that was louder on the highway that just about anything but a Bug. I was now living in the country and the folks would disappear for long periods in the GMC truck they had bought (so much for gas savings), so I would grab the keys to the Corolla, at all of age 13 or so, and do the tour.

I drove all over the place in that little car and it ate up all the abuse I could attack it with. Dad knew full well because he always memorized the mileage when he got out of the car; but he was happy that I was teaching myself how to drive. He often accompanied me, too. Between the ages of 13 to 16 the Corolla and I spent many the hour together and it always impressed me just how good the car was. It was as reliable as  an anvil; in fact, the entire time we had it it never failed to start, had any repair or did anything unusual. Quite the record for the time and really exceptional even now.

In 1979 Dad bought a new Impala (so much for gas savings, again) and Mom was supposed to drive the Corolla but she always hated it. Dad then told me I could have it for my own for $1000. Being all of 15, I had no idea the car was worth about $750 and I was being ripped off, but all that year I worked for the local farmers saving money for the car. By the time my sixteenth birthday came along, I indeed saved the money for the car and the first years’ insurance, which to no end impressed dad. I was now highly mobile.

My next purchase was a canoe and a set of roof racks, and a fishin’ we did go! That little car went over hill and dale, loaded for bear with all the camping and fishing stuff you’d need. Eventually, as the trips into the bush got longer at about age 18, a hitch and utility trailer were added. I packed on mileage on that little car, taking it all over British Columbia and even to the Yukon and it never, ever missed a beat, even hauling the loaded car and trailer up roads like the Salmo-Creston Highway, often in second gear at 30 mph, pedal to the metal. Didn’t faze it a bit. The 1600 was indestructible; in fact the abuse it could take led me to destroy lesser machines in the future.

Motorcycles were my real fancy and the Corolla was my Fishmobile as we now called it. By 1985 the Corolla was getting rough looking. It was eleven years old and had 150,000 miles on it. It still ran like a top; never had a repair except brakes and tires but the rust bug was hitting it pretty badly. I was sad to think of its demise and in 1986, my final year of my undergrad studies, my buddy and I loaded her up for one last fishin’ trip to a lake accessible only via logging road, an then over 100 km in. It was too rough for the trailer, so we planned only for a few days. On went the canoe, in went the gear and with it 48 cans of beer, of course. I knew that the rust was getting serious but that didn’t stop me flogging the Corolla as hard as I ever had, for old times’ sake.

Well, about halfway to the lake, my buddy and I were having a fine time, sucking back the cold Kokanee and listening to AC/DC at max volume when I saw a particularly large pot hole. It was more like a moon crater, in all reality. I tried to miss it but it was too late. I nailed it dead on; the right front strut proceeded to punch right through the hood and steering wheel went nuts. The car was spinning and then CRASH! The car hit a tree backwards, followed by a rain of splinters from my antique wooden canoe. Both were trash in an instant!

At that moment, we did all we could do: we opened our lawn chairs and proceeded to drink beer until a ride came along. About four hours later a Ford truck came along, surveyed the scene and offered to drive us to the highway if we shared the beer. I took the registration papers, license plates an all my gear, sans canoe, of course, and went to the main road. I called Dad and he picked us up in his new 1986 Jetta GL Turbo Diesel ($18,000, $33,750 adjusted), which he’d had bought because the (paid for) Impala was too hard on gas! Things had come full circle.

There are very few of these Corollas left these days because it is a long time ago now and they have all rusted to pieces. They were cheap cars and never designed to last long. What impressed me was how well built they were; little things, like the under-hood arrangement, had obviously been carefully considered. When this car was new, Toyotas were reviled as trash, and when it died, they were so good that governments had to limit their sales. Cheap little Corollas gave way to loaded Camrys. That’s how far Toyota had come. My little Corolla succumbed to my abuse at 160,000 with only regular maintenance in an era when 100,000 miles was considered exceptional. We saw, first hand, how much car that money could buy because that little car ran a whole lot of miles for very little money.

Would I drive such a car today? Well, the answer to that is obvious, I am too old for a harsh little car like that. It was loud, rough and tiring to drive; but I still think back fondly about it because that little Corolla was much more than just a little car. It was many things rolled into one.

Pictures by Paul Niedermeyer