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.