COAL Update: 1989 Toyota Corolla 1.8 D – The Almost Perfect Beater for a Crisis

My last update indicated that my garage had gotten some new members, partly due to necessity and partly due to my seeming inability to keep cars for long. Well, the first of these was certainly driven by pure necessity, given the state of things in my country at the time. At this point in early 2022, things were looking problematic, especially when it came to the availability of fuel, as fuel stations were constantly running short, and lines were starting to get longer. When it seemed like the E30 had found a serious buyer, I started looking at options to ensure that my family would be mobile in a fuel shortage. The Mazda 2 needed premium fuel and while the Surf ran on regular petrol, it was pretty thirsty and anyway whether petrol would actually be available was looking like a concern.  So I figured something diesel-powered, economical, and cheap would be the most useful. Part of the reasoning was that standard diesel, being used for public and goods transport, would probably be the fuel that would be available for the longest. A bit of looking around led to the conclusion that a diesel Toyota Corolla would be the best choice I could make in the circumstances. They had an excellent reputation as being capable of taking abuse and basically any shade tree mechanic could keep them going. Even CC seems to agree with this, with plenty of stories over the years confirming their good reputation.

So the day the E30 was collected, I took some of the proceeds with me and took a cab to see a likely candidate, this particular 1989 station wagon (or “van” if we use the JDM description of this particular spec). It wasn’t a minter by any means, with some visible surface rust, flat paint, and some fender benders that had been repaired but not painted. On the plus side, it seemed solid underneath and the test drive revealed nothing concerning. The owner needed funds in a hurry so he was open to negotiation and I got it for what I considered a decent price, but it was by no means a bargain because demand for cheap diesel cars was starting to increase due to what was in the wind (and I don’t mean their tailpipe emissions!)

The drive home was about 50 kilometres, and the car made it back without any issues, but I booked it into a workshop to have a thorough going over. The previous owner had used it as a daily driver and claimed he maintained it as best he could, but I assumed it would need at least a little bit of work. It took them a couple of days to be done with the inspection, which was concerning and the reason it took so long was revealed when the estimate arrived: it was quite a LOT. Corollas are renowned for their ability to keep running with deferred maintenance, and it appeared that quite a lot of maintenance on this car had indeed been deferred! It needed basically every suspension component, along with brake work, oil seals, wiring, a new radiator, and several other things besides. The good news was that the engine and transmission were in generally good health, and there didn’t appear to be any severe structural corrosion. So I gave them the go-ahead for repairs, which ended up costing about one-third the purchase price of the car, and within a couple of weeks, the Corolla was ready to roll.

Once it was out of the shop, I started getting acquainted with basic motoring, early 90s style. This car (which was christened “Roland the Rat ‘Rolla) is a JDM import and is about as basic as Corollas could get back then, which is to say a fair bit more spartan than even base model examples in the US. About the only thing that Roland has that could be considered a convenience is air conditioning (basically an essential fitment in our tropical climate). The windows are hand cranks, the mirrors need to be adjusted by hand, and it had no central locking (though I got a system fitted out of necessity), or even power steering! The only gauges in the instrument cluster are the speedometer and fuel and temperature dials, even a clock was only fitted to trim levels higher up than this “DX” (which apparently stands for deluxe, go figure!). Upper trim levels of this generation had padded vinyl door panels and nicely trimmed seats but in this case, it’s all painted metal and base level vinyl. It’s all extremely durable though, even with nearly 400,000 Km on the clock the interior trim is in basically the same shape it would have been in around 1994.

As you can see, I’m not kidding about it being spartan. Even the high-trim GL doesn’t really have anything much!

Under the faded hood is a 1.8 litre, naturally aspirated, four-cylinder diesel (called the 1C-II by Toyota). When new it put 64 Bhp at 4700 rpm and 87 lb/ft at 2600 rpm to the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox. Even after all these miles under its wheels, the little diesel still doesn’t seem to have lost much of that small stable. Roland honestly feels a fair bit livelier than the on-paper figures would suggest, in fact. No doubt the fact that it weighs under a ton contributes, but the little Corolla does not feel particularly slow, especially at everyday speeds. The engine seems to be in good health overall, with not much smoke even under hard acceleration, and no vital fluids leaking or anything of the sort. The manual box is also fairly pleasant to use, with a short throw and precise action. The unassisted steering is direct and responsive when on the move, but a bit of a nightmare in tight places and when parking. The driving experience is not at all unpleasant, although it certainly isn’t particularly refined, with a lot of engine noise at all speeds and a fair amount of vibration.

I don’t particularly want to revisit the specifics of how we got through 2022, other than to say I’m grateful to have at least had the resources to keep my family fed, housed, and mobile, which is more than quite a lot of my fellow Sri Lankans could manage during that terrible year, but the Corolla certainly did everything that was asked of it and demanded nothing much in return. When driven gently, it can return astonishing fuel economy, routinely managing 15 or more kilometers per liter of diesel in the city. The ability to do 600 Kilometers or more on a full tank (42 Litres) was a lifesaver during times when we were lucky to get 15 litres of fuel after waiting in line for a full day, you can be sure. I was right in assuming that diesel would be available longer than petrol, but it too ran out and we had one entire month where there was no fuel in fuel stations country-wide! Thinking about it now, it honestly seems like a half-remembered nightmare, but it actually happened, and barely a year ago at that.

No matter how outsized the load, the little Corolla would somehow lug it!

Anyway, thanks to the intervention of friendly countries and the International Monetary Fund, things started to turn for the better towards the end of 2022, and by now we are back to some semblance of normalcy. Roland is still technically owned by me, but I haven’t had it in my physical possession for a couple of months as a friend of mine has been using it while his small fleet of older euro cars breaks down in interesting and creative ways. He likes it enough that he has made me an offer and will take it off my hands sometime soon. Basic it may be, but it certainly isn’t a penalty box, and it was definitely the right car to have on hand at a very difficult time. The only thing that prevented it from being absolutely perfect was the lack of power steering, because parking and tight spaces really can be a bit of a chore.

So thanks, Roland, long may you keep rolling on!