COAL: 1981 Toyota Starlet – ‘A’ or ‘B’ List?

Seriously?  A Toyota?  Is this what the world had come to?

To recap our story up to this point, my odd European automobile predilection had reached a breaking point…the Lancia was eating us out of house and home at a point when we could ill afford it.  Our move to leafy suburbs of unincorporated King County, Washington brought us up short financially as we discovered the cash windfall we had recouped from the sale of our two year old house in the wilds of northern Utah was laughable when matched against home prices in the Pacific Northwest.  An extremely modest 1200 square foot 1940’s three bedroom, one bath fixer-upper cost double what our two-story late ’70’s cracker box palace had sold for.  Plus, mortgage interest rates in the fall of 1980 hit 18.4 per cent(!!!).  The night we moved into our new house, Linda sat down on the bare hardwood floor and wept.  Needless to say, an emotional attachment to a bank account draining Lancia could no longer be justified on any level.

So, it was either get rid of the Lancia Beta or enter a twelve-step program for delusional gear heads.  The only remaining question was what kind of replacement could I come up with that would ease our financial burden?  A used Chevy Nova, Dodge Dart or something of that stripe appeared to make a certain kind of sense, but in the midst of early ’80’s recession, gas prices had jumped all the way up to $1.30 a gallon, which of course we would die for today, but that was equal to around $4.50 in 1980 dollars, few of which seemed to be floating in our direction.  Furthermore, my daily commute was 40 plus miles.  Fetching my slide rule, I crunched the numbers and found that if I could find a vehicle that earned really good gas mileage, it might pay for itself in the long run.  Besides that, a new car with an actual warranty could be had for not much more than a low-mileage domestic with fair to middling fuel consumption.

At the time I remained a dedicated reader of Road & Track, for reasons lost in mists of time.  R&T rarely had anything good to say about anything manufactured in the USA and seldom doled out positive judgements for Japanese cars, either, except for perhaps the odd Honda or Datsun.  My next door neighbor in Utah had a 510 that proved to be the most unreliable car either of us had ever seen or heard of, surpassing even the Lancia.  By the same token, I had seen nearly new Accords rust away before my very eyes.  Plus, the dealers seemed convinced that they could only be sold at or above list price, plus the inevitable tacky add-ons.  Consequently, the Japanese seemed out of the question, good gas mileage notwithstanding.

But wait, the new Chevrolet Citation had just been introduced!  The usual suspects, Car and Driver and Road & Track were given some carefully assembled and massaged ringers (as they later admitted) that had been largely hand built for the occasion and promptly took the bait, responding with rave reviews.  Well, okay.  Perusal of the weekend ads in the newspapers (remember those?) showed that there were deals to be had, and the four-cylinder versions seemed to get decent if not stellar gas mileage.  I arrived on scene at the local Chevy dealer for a look-see and found that the advertised special was a bare bones, hair-shirt loss leader that was as appealing as a long wait at the DMV. A test drive revealed that the Citation’s handling verged on the frightening, as the front and rear ends seemed determined to go in opposite directions, plus the rear brakes locked up in alarming fashion.  The interior furnishings looked like their life span would be measured in months if not weeks.  Could this really be the same car they’d extolled at C and D and R&T?  My gearhead faith began to waiver.  On the plus side, the salesman seemed eager to wheel and deal.  I told him I’d think about it…

Please god, no…

I returned to the now suspect ravings of the enthusiast tabloids to see what alternatives might exist and my attention was grabbed by an ad.  What’s this?  A Toyota Starlet?  I’d never even head of it.  But there in large print were the EPA estimated fuel figures:  52 highway/38 city!  I did a double take and then quickly made some mental calculations.  The car could practically pay for itself.  But, it was a Toyota, and Toyotas were generally agreed to be as appealing to enthusiasts (if, in my penury, I still was one) as a donkey cart.  Nevertheless, there in the august pages of Road & Track, was a road test of the subject in question and the consensus seemed to be that it was an honest attempt to produce a fuel-sipping subcompact aimed at a non-Corolla demographic, with full instrumentation, a five-speed transmission, and a solid rear axle located by four trailing links and coil springs (like an Alfa).  And the price was well below a stripped Civic and almost $2000 less than a Golf diesel.  What’s more, the R&T editors were perhaps off their meds that day and actually liked it.  A Toyota!  Hmmm…couldn’t hurt to take a look.

Might it? Maybe!

I checked the ads and found a Starlet advertised (at list) at a Toyota dealer way down in Burien, south of Seattle.  We prayed the Lancia would get us there and back without any new ailments, found a car on the lot as promised, and upon close examination it proved to pretty much match (unlike the Citation) the positive R&T description.  A non-predatory salesman seemed to be an encouraging sign, as well.  But as a newly coined Careful Consumer, I determined that in the interests of objectivity I should take another look at the Citation.  After all, it was at least a size and a half larger than the Starlet, more along the lines of the Lancia and Saab.  The Toyota was more than a bit cramped by comparison.  I found my way back to Chevyland and was met by a salesman determined to beat me into submission.  When asked, I admitted I was looking at another car but hadn’t quite made up my mind.  What was I looking at?  A Toyota, I confessed, which was all the information I deemed necessary to divulge.  A Toyota, I was somewhat shocked to find, was something the sales guy seemed to take as a personal affront.  “One of those *** ****boxes?  You don’t want to risk your life in one them tin cans.  You’ll get yourself killed, is what you’ll do.”  Well, do tell.  He then claimed he could match the price of the Starlet, which I tended to doubt.  I asked for the deal in writing so I could discuss it with my wife.  “Oh, the wife runs things, does she?”  Needless to say, insulting my wife and me, not to mention the entire nation of Japan, seemed like a questionable sales strategy and whatever small trace of lingering appeal the Citation may have possessed quickly evaporated.  I left, shaking the dust from my feet, and swore never to return, a promise I have kept for the ensuing forty-plus years.  (The dealership now sells KIA’s alongside its Chevys, some of which are also assembled in Korea, so go figure.)

And that is how I dodged that bullet.

We made a beeline back to Burien the same day, bade farewell to the Lancia with somewhat mixed emotions, and picked up a Starlet, brown with tan interior like in the photos.   The little Toyota proved to be a buzzy little ****box, but it did have a certain character, and it did sip gasoline like a sedated hummingbird.  Also, it proved, dare I say it, fun to drive, given that you could go flat out at literally all the time, if not by choice, then by necessity.  It was a well put together little spud and actually pretty comfortable, albeit with proviso that you weren’t going to haul four adult for a long duration.  I even liked the way it looked with its inflated Mini-esque architecture and open greenhouse.

Before Costco was invented, thank goodness

No wide angle lens necessary

Strapping the kids in the back proved to be a bit of a chore, what with two doors and limited available space (see photos above and below), but the rear seat did fold down should the need to carry something bigger than a breadbox arise.  Long trips were not in its résumé, though.  I mean we definitely made them, but thankfully not so far as the East Coast, even though we could have made the trip for a hundred bucks in gas.  But R&T was spot on about its commuting abilities especially given that it came with an AM/FM cassette deck, which for an old guitarist such as myself proved to be a step above even the Blaupunkt AM/FM in the Lancia. Tunes made the dreary commute somewhat bearable.

Pretty nice dash for a **** box

Linebackers need not apply

Despite the positives, Toyota immediately had second thoughts about selling the Starlet in the U.S.  Maybe it was deemed too small for the American Market–there were times when surrounded by lumbering semi trucks on the 520 bridge that thought occurred to me as well.  Possibly they didn’t make enough profit from it to bother, or maybe the import restrictions of the day played a part.  Whatever the reason, the little Toyota only lasted a few years on our shores, no matter what its virtues might have been.

On a side note, all questions of the Starlet’s suitability for American road aside, the need for more than one vehicle in our household became apparent and I began my money-misering calculation once again.  A friend happened to have a Suzuki 400E for sale and he raved about never having to put gas in it.  I fell for the bait, perhaps without thinking through the implications of all season riding in the Pacific Northwest, chief of which is the fact that, at least in the days before climate change, you were going to have precipitation more days than not.  A forty mile commute on a motorcycle sounded like a whole lot of fun until you added in the unpleasant details of rain, wind, and snow, not to mention the traffic on I-5, SR 520, and I-405.  Nevertheless, with calculations once again in hand I bought the Suzuki, blind to the consequences.  I lived to tell the tale, but often just barely. Nevertheless, I learned a few things in the bargain, one of which was you do not want to commute by motorcycle in the snow, nor do you want to commute by motorcycle during Seattle rush hour.

Official wheels of the Tapioca Beach chapter of Satan’s Helpers.

On the other hand, there’s nothing like the almighty vibrations of a 400 cc single cylinder to keep you awake, and it’s true that it used minimal gas, chiefly because during the above mentioned rush hour I seldom reached 30 miles per hour.  The downside was my riding and driving soon became motivated by sheer paranoia, and even when piloting the Starlet I began to exhibit excess caution, assuming that no one was going to actually notice my Toyota ****box any more than they were going to see a little black Suzuki in the lingering PNW twilight.

Ironically, the Starlet’s demise came not on my watch, but at the hands of a distracted young driver of a Fox-based Mustang.  Linda was driving home from the Piggly Wiggly when the Mustang made a sudden left turn in front of her, proving once and for all the validity of my theory of the invisible little ****box.  I was actually at work at my new gig only a few blocks away when the boss’s wife came running in to say she’d seen the Starlet in pieces in the middle of Westminster Way.  I quickly arrived on the scene to find Linda and kids all unharmed, thus negating in one fell swoop the Chevy salesman’s doomsday prophecy.  On the other hand, the Starlet was toast, having given up its structural integrity to save our family.  Needless to say, it was completely totaled, a fact soon confirmed by the young Mustang driver’s insurance company.  Thus ensued a titanic struggle.  Car insurance interactions these days seem to be relatively painless affairs, but back in the dawn of time it was an entirely different matter.  I made innumerable trips to the downtown corporate office of the insurance company with receipts, documents, and Kelly Blue Book in hand, but the insurance minions remained unmoved on their very pessimistic valuation of the Starlet, which after all had less than 45,000 miles on it.  We fought tooth and nail for days until on the final meeting the agent in question informed me that they were giving us an extra grand for emotional duress.  I have no idea why they didn’t just say that in the first place.

I suspect that had the Mustang not intervened, the Starlet might still be running to this day as it shown no signs of mechanical woes during the two plus years we owned it.  I will admit that the interior had begun to show signs of wear, specifically the upholstery on the front seats.  At less than three full years the vinyl was already cracking and looking distinctly dog-eared.  Otherwise, everything was intact and in good shape, although I can’t vouch for an oft-rumored tendency for rusting as that’s not so much of an issue in our home environment despite the fact that we lived only a mile or so from Puget Sound.  At its demise the micro Toyota still managed to reach a high of 40-plus mpg on the freeway and only a few less in town.  Conventional wisdom says that generation of Toyota OHV four was essentially bulletproof and I have no cause to doubt it.  1300 cc’s might be considered marginal these days without a turbocharger hung on it, but back then we seemed to manage just fine.  In fact, we would acquire a car with an even smaller motor a few years in the future.  But even that didn’t beat the real world gas mileage of the Starlet.

Apparently it was good off-road, too!

When it came time to replace the Starlet with the insurance company’s money, I was in a different place so far as automobile enthusiasm went.  I’d started work at an auto restoration shop that tended to deal with high-end stuff, from Porsches to Jaguar, Mercedes and even Ferraris.  I hung out with automotive exotica all day long and subsequently began to feel a bit jaded.  When you drive a Dino at the office, who cares what the family car looks like?  And when you can take a 911 home for the evening, do the specs of the family sedan really matter?  As an aside, unbeknownst to me at the time but revealed years down the road, riding to soccer practice in those tiny rear Porsche jump seats proved a traumatic experience for the youngsters due to a combination of noise and proximity to a high-winding flat six.  As a result it’s safe to say that 911’s reside in the basement of their automotive wish lists.

This, sadly, was the case.


And with that note, I will the leave the revealing of my next COAL for another day.  In the meantime I will toast the mortally wounded Starlet and my dearly departed Lancia, mourning their demise while, with some hesitation, disclosing the fate of our long departed neighborhood Lancia dealership:  its grand showroom is today, perhaps inevitably, a marijuana dispensary.