A 1989 Corolla sedan would have normally been a pretty good choice for a first car in 2002, when my stepson bought one. But this one looked like it had been to war, with badly faded and peeling light-blue paint and a number of rust holes. Someone had used wood screws to attach a garish and enormous chrome luggage rack to the roof. It sounded wheezy, buzzy, and just tired when he pulled it into the driveway for the first time.
I’m not sure what the appeal was. Maybe it was because his mom drove an ’89 Corolla SR5 coupe and he figured the same near-faultless reliability would rub off onto this sedan. Maybe it was because he had $700 burning a hole in his pocket and this was the first car he found that he could buy, insure, and plate for that sum.
What baffled me, however, was that his mom went with him to look at the car and they came home with it anyway. She’d bought and sold several cars in her lifetime, and she was not a dumb woman. How could she not see that this car was used up?
“It needs a tuneup and a muffler,” she told me, “and I promised him we’d pay for that as his birthday present.” Whoakay. But when our independent mechanic tried to put the car up on the lift, he found that the undercarriage was too rusty to allow it. He also discovered several problems with the front end. “This car is unsafe. It’s a basket case, actually,” the mechanic told us. “I can make a couple inexpensive emergency repairs that will hold this car for a couple weeks at best while you figure out what to do. But this car is done for.”
It will tell you a lot about the pecking order in my former marriage when you learn that my now-ex immediately assigned me this car, gave her car to the boy, and drove my car. I was all, “The boy can walk and catch rides from us, like he’s been doing all this time anyway,” but I lost that argument.
Fortunately, at the time I worked about five miles from home; the commute was short. Unfortunately, it was August, and a scorcher of a summer. Immediately, this car started overheating. I watched the temperature gauge like a hawk as I drove it gingerly to and from work. As soon as the needle approached the red, I opened the vents wide and turned the fan on full blast. It vented enough heat to keep the needle in the black so I could get to and from work. But even with all the windows rolled down, I arrived with a drenched shirt.
I drove the car that way for about a month while my wife figured out what she was going to do. Finally, she bought a little red Toyota Matrix. It had to be one of the first ones to roll off the assembly line, as they were brand new that year. We sold the Corolla for scrap. I was never so happy to climb back into the cabin of my unloved minivan.
I’d forgotten about this car and its story until I came upon this very similar 1991 Corolla the other day. It looks pretty tired, but not nearly as tired as my stepson’s, and it’s a lot older now than my stepson’s was then. Regardless, I’m glad that this car is somebody else’s problem.
My two cents… If someone said to me, “It needs a tuneup and a muffler”, on an obviously worn out car. I’d be wondering about their ability to objectively evaluate the roadworthiness and reliability of a car. It’s almost like they are trying to convince you. When someone says, ‘tuneup’, it’s such a vague term. It raises red flags for me, about their car knowledge. An admission they know it’s not running properly, but they don’t necessarily know why. And unless I know someone is mechanically inclined, I don’t feel they would know enough to evaluate the state of a used car, without a mechanic’s inspection.
In rust country, I tell anyone I know, to never use the state of a car’s exterior as a judge of it’s condition. Even if it doesn’t look that bad.
Their intentions may be good, but their limited evaluative skills leave them very vulnerable to buying a secondhand car.
Back in 1997, I got a low mileage 1984 Corolla from someone I know. he had bought the car new and didn’t drive it much. It had only 92,000 kms on the odometer but the floors were rusted badly and the body was also starting to rust.
It needed brakes and a few other repairs but it ran fine for a while. I patched the floor several times, even replaced the part of the floor that holds the rear control arms from another used car in junkyard as I noticed mine was pretty bad when I replaced the fuel tank! And while I was getting the floor of the parts car (a 1986 Corolla LE) I noticed that it had a much nicer interior than mine and that the rear seat folded down so I got the complete interior, the 4 speaker double-din radio and the door panels and installed them on my car. I welded the brackets to hold the folding seat and I almost had a Corolla LE!
Previously, I only had my 1968 Buick Wildcat so this car saved me some gas when I used it. As the body started to look very bad, I replaced both front fenders, installed patch panels on the rear quarters and replaced the windshield.
Around 2003, with an extra 100,000 kms, the head gasket failed and I didn’t fix it. I gave it to a friend who had it replaced for $400 and his girlfriend used it to commute to her new job out of town daily for 2 years. I had to do a few repairs on it while they had it as she hit a deer with it and I had to replace the passenger side fender again and fix the passenger side door. When she got a much newer 1999 Corolla in 2006, he asked me if I wanted the car back for $250 and I said not really but I bought it anyway and gave it to my uncle who’s 1991 Plymouth Sundance was worse! He managed to drive it until the fall of 2010 when somebody tried to steal it (!) and did minor damage to the both doors, broke the passenger side window and the steering column! he drove it like that for a few more weeks then he decided to buy a new Kia!
This picture is from 1998 or 1999.
This is how it looked like in 2009 with about 260,000 kms. My uncle was fixing something on it that day!
he kept driving it for another year after that.
I still have the 1993 Toyota SR5 pickup next to it. Back then it had 124,000 miles now has 206,000 miles (this one was sold new in the United States so it has an odometer in miles). It’s still clean and every accessory still works, from the power antenna to the A/C!
Phil, you sure know how to eke every ounce of life out of a car!
I like to think that your stepson at least learned a valuable lesson about cheap old used cars. Even the cars with the best reputations can be a worn out POS. My college roommate and I fell under the spell of a 71 Duster with less rust than usual. We ignored the high miles, the blue cloud, the bad paint, and the funky feeling column shifter. And all for only $400 (in about 1980). His father (my car mentor Howard) was quite displeased with us, and for good reason.
I tried explaining that my Mustang used some oil and that it was only valve seals. I will never forget him looking at me and sighing “this car doesn’t have valve seals.” All I could come back with was “Oh.” I guess it’s true. Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.
I dunno, there’s a fine line between learning that lesson and learning “I can do something dumb and Mom will bail me out”
If I had failed with my first car the result would have very simply been that I would go back to bicycles and buses. I’m trying to pass on similar values and lessons to my kids (13 & 11) but as we know parenting isn’t aways black and white…
Yeah, see, I wanted the boy to feel this consequence: $700 gone and nothing to show for it. Instead, he got his mom’s car. Not much impact to him for his poor decision. Actually, I felt the impact: now I had another car payment.
” Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”
_THIS_ ~ being as I have spent my entire life working on junked vehicles , I’m still too damn stupid to figure it out and last year bought a *cherry* V6 1991 Toyletta Camry LE with ice cold AC and a new radiator , 110,000 non smoker miles…..
Yep , the engine was junk even though it ran perfectly and whistled through the smog test .
$4,000.00 + later , it ran less than a year and blew a head gasket , off it went to the junkyard again , this time with new tires , fresh paint and so on…
I’m an idiot just like your Stepson , I have no excuse .
I’ve never been a fan of front-wheel drive cars. The Toyota Corolla is no exception, however reliable they may be.
Me either but I’ve had a Lemon in both front and rear varieties. Both GM though, a Saturn Vue and an Olds Bravada. Until I read this who knew that Toyota made lemons too? Good thing I didn’t know that before I bought the 4Runner.
I bought a’91 Corolla new. Kept it until it was old enough to live on its own and sold it 2 years ago for $500 with 155 k on the clock. The only problems I ever had with it were electric (Delco electric parts). By the time I sold it, the paint was faded and it had been in a couple of minor fender benders. The kid I sold it to planned to spend about as much on a new sound system as he did on the car.
I saw it on the road a couple of months ago.
My first college girlfriend had the wagon version, also a ’91. Same wheel covers as yours, dark gray rather than dark blue. Her mom bought it new and she got it in ’98 when she went off to college. (According to her description, since she was awarded a scholarship and didn’t have to pay for schooling, they gave her the car instead…) Rock-solid reliable, if a bit spartan. She upgraded a few years later to a late 90’s Camry, so that Corolla definitely made a Toyota person out of her!
My daughter’s first car, a ’95 Corolla bought from a little old lady, is still working so far. She intends to keep it as long as possible. Not having to worry about rust is a big plus around here. In the Sunbelt, it’s the soft bits which wear out first.
Non-gearhead young people need to learn at least the basics about cars so they won’t get ripped off by unscrupulous mechanics. As a fundamental, I’ve been trying to impart my “Fluid Theory”: Cars have fluids which must be pumped & filtered: oils, coolant, electricity (analogically), gasoline, even air.
Also the coolant hoses don’t last forever. I have not replaced any since the 76 Riviera blew a hose. But I was getting concerned about how much longer hoses might last on my 2007 SRX which had over 90,000 miles on it. I figured that if I kept it past 100,000 miles I would need to keep it till it had 130,000 to 150,000 to make it worth while, figuring that there would be a lot of maintenance to do, starting with new spark plugs.
Thanks, although I’ve never had coolant hose trouble so far with 100Kmi+ cars. Might be worth mentioning to her, however.
An issue with older cars in hot climates is A/C; R12 is expensive to recharge, yet it’s also expensive to rebuild for R134. I found that out with my beloved ’88 Accord; going for the latter made it more marketable in the end.
I’ll probably hear about this from somebody but all I did was throw a vacuum on the system and add 134. There are folks on the internet that will sell you r12 replacement that is essentially propane. Some is more top shelf. I just went with 134 and forgot about it although I think I changed the orifice on one of them.
The stationary HVAC industry has gotten smart and the lubricating oil won’t work and, in fact, may react with the old stuff. To the best of my knowledge (on cars that is less) the biggest thing is the reduced efficiency when you go to 134. The wholesalers recommend a bigger condenser coil.
My girlfriend’s ’95 Corolla started life as an Enterprise rental car. It survived 100,000 miles of L.A. freeway commuting and at least one attempted break-in, along with almost no maintenance. I pulled the air filter when we first started dating, and it was a solid mass of oily dirt. It was traded in a couple of years ago, but I have no doubt it is still earning its keep somewhere in Los Angeles.
Following a divorce in the late 90s I jumped on a 1992 Corolla owned by a family friend to replace my ’94 Neon which was pushing past 130,000 miles and while a solid car was going to need some things like a clutch and struts that I just didn’t want to invest in. The Corolla was “cherry” as we used to say. Top of the line model with a sunroof, cruise control and allow wheels. I replaced the factory AM/FM Cassette (!) with an aftermarket Pioneer unit and doubled the 40,000 miles that had been on the car in short order. The only issue I had was relatively easy to fix (albeit uncomfortable during the winter) when the starter solenoid began to stick, so when you shut off the car the starter would crank until you unhooked the battery. Never had that happen before.
As I recall I paid about $3,700, put a new starter and new tires on it and sold it for the same price with 83,000 miles after about three years. The only thing that was disturbing is it was garaged practically its whole life yet was beginning to show rust bubbles around the wheel wells and on the sunroof panel.
I saw about 2 weeks ago a red North-American version in a parking lot in Belgrade with all red rear tail-/turnlights and with those big bumpers. Probably it was a Prizm by Geo… A real rarity…
The great contributors on this site have taught me about the condition that never sleeps: rust. I grew up in Texas, served most of my USMC career in California, & now live in S Flo-ri-‘duh. I have well less than 1000 miles of snow & ice driving.Prevously, I knew of a few coastal cars with upper body rust, that was only cosmetic, and leaky.Few bubbles- big deal. Before, I vaguely knew of road salt and sand from skiing trips. I have great sympathy for those of you that have had treasured rides turn to brown flakes, and not driving your favorite all winter. Now I see the occasional snow bird car in FL with rust: looking at you W220 S Class Benz.
The road salt cars can get so cancerous, structure and all, amazed me. Before having had learned, I probably would have bought that Corolla, doing my own inspection- compression, fluid condition, tires matching, etc., without looking at the underside. That rust just being poor cosmetics.
My first car bought with my own money was also a folly- a ’70 Torque-Drive semi-automatic 2speed I6 tired Nova, from a Juniper berry breath salesman in a plaid leisure suit, gold chains & white shoes. Within months I broke the transmission by too many forced hard downshifts, and the old six blew blue smoke after the first oil change. (Car lot heavy viscosity). Had the bank of Dad help me into a clean Mercury Monarch, that he choose. I still hold ill will and dark ally fantasies for that salesman taking advantage of a naive high schooler earring $3.xx per hour.
That is one reason I left Central New York. UV damage, light surface rust, and damage from everyday life I can live with but not road salt. NYSDOT usually adds water to their road salt so basically they are spray salt water on the roads.
I almost bought a Corolla of this generation about 6 years ago for 700-800 bucks, but passed because money was short, the clutch was beginning to slip, and no one could get the oil pressure light to turn off. Other than it was a car in good condition for living about 20 years in Central New York. I finally ended up buying a Caprice for cheaper my senior year of high school, but could not afford the fees so it sat in the driveway for months.
I bought and sold a 89 1300cc 5 door last year its still running reliably 5 speed manual in XL trim with factory wider rims and stiffer suspension it was a fun little car to drive.
I love these cars. I drove a ’91 Corolla for 5 years. It was a hand-me-down from my brother, who bought it as a 10-year-old used car, simply because it was cheap and had a manual transmission, which he wanted to learn to drive. Two years later, my then Mitsubishi crapped out and I got the Corolla, also promptly learning to drive stick. During the 5 years I had it, about the only problems were a rusted-through exhaust pipe (repaired) and a driver’s window that kept falling into the door (never fixed). Never once let me down. The car had 280,000 miles on it when I finally sold it to some Mexicans who took it south of the border. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s still running somewhere in Mexico.
Driving near the Mexican border around El Paso, I often see caravans of older Japanese sedans heading towards Mexico, each of them towing another Japanese sedan. Someone is picking these up for a song in places like Colorado and Kansas and selling them to people needing reliable transportation in Mexico. Some of the towed vehicles are most likely used as inexpensive sources of parts.
That’s a sad story, Mr. Grey. By the time your ex bought that poor old Corolla, it was merely a car-shaped object; a mirage made of hopes, promises and ferric oxide. It’s sort of the flip side to Paul’s post from a couple years ago about a $300 Toyota.
My mother bought a 91 Corolla in 94. It was a great car for 10 years until it mysteriously caught fire as my sister drove it down the highway to work. Here it is in its final resting place.
I sold Toyotas back in the early 90’s and man did I dislike these cars. After a couple of years in the heat of the South, the A/C units would get that moldy, musty smell almost without fail. For a place that had stellar roads (with regards to smoothness) these cars seemed to drive like the shocks were filled with cement and the seat cushions, too. Brakes were spongy and the steering feel was non existent. The original Hyundai Excel had better steering feel (but not much else).
I know there’s legions of fans for these things, but I never found one I was comfortable with. The Tercels and Paseos were worse, if that was possible, but we shifted a lot of these Corollas and I spent a lot of seat time in them showing them to prospects. I was always happy to show someone a Camry or a truck or some other used car than I was showing the terrible two from Toyota…
I had a couple of Corollas during my college years, a 1993 base model and a much nicer 1995 DX. I hated the 93 as it was very plain, and no where as comfortable as my old 1985 Buick Skylark. The 95 went with me from Florida up to Michigan for a year. 34 mpg, regardless of how you drove it. It served me reasonably well aside from rear brakes wearing out a bit fast. The car was a lease, and the week the lease was up it had a number of electrical woes. Oh well. Looking back, I should have just bought out the lease and had it repaired.
Fast forward to this year. I decided it was time for a new car and I decided to look at the new Corolla. I really liked it! It fit me well and just seemed like a lot of car for the money. The bad part? The dealer! The salesman drove me crazy! I kept saying I want an out-the-door cash price, and he kept insisting on trying to sell me a payment! I ended up going down to the Honda dealer, where the MUCH nicer sales staff showed me a lovely new Civic, and made me a VERY nice deal. So yeah, I own a Honda now…but that Corolla was really nice.
My aunt still has her white ’92 LX with blue interior and dual speaker cassette deck radio. It doesn’t drive well. It doesn’t handle well. It is harsh on the bumps too. But that little engine is peppy and gets very good mpgs. It’ll cruise at 75 all day long and it is kinda cute. The a/c still works and so does the power windows and locks. It’s like a go cart but with smaller tires and I really like it. Granted, my grandfather purchased the car because it was very affordable and had a reputation of reliability. Probably paid no more than 12 or 13k for the car new. Granted, it’s no Lotus Cortina but it always makes it home filled with cheap gas, regular oil and a barbara streisand cassette in the dash.