COAL: 1987 Toyota Corolla FX – Certainty in Uncertain Times

She wanted me tag along, to go and together to check out a Corolla FX on Craigslist. Could I look it over? Make sure it was in sound condition?

Sure, why not? By that point I had endured so many mechanical failures… If someone was to know, shouldn’t it be me?

So, she wanted a Corolla; actually, she just wanted wheels. An ’87 you said? I remembered those, sure. The FX moniker didn’t bring anything to mind, but yes, the overly squarish mid 80’s Toyotas. I recalled the notchback sedans, more or less fondly, from my Puerto Rican teen days.

A few bumpy months had passed since losing my job and selling my GTI, all topped by a rough breakup. Still, life went on, and I started dating a Spanish girl not long before the end of ’99. We spent New Year’s Eve together, waiting for Y2K (remember that?) with some of her friends. The world didn’t end and now, with the planet still spinning, I had to worry about finding work in an increasingly tough job market.

Now she wanted my advice… Would I screw up this purchase too? Careful what you pick boy, or this relationship might end rather soon.

The FX, ready to sedately ride into the sunset.

 

We arrived at the seller’s house. The whitish-square hatchback was on the sidewalk, not pristine, but in decent shape. Now, what kind of Corolla is this? The truncated tail FX had never registered in my mind. Where did it come from? A car so anodyne it completely slipped under my radar. This on a mind that remembered Charades, Nissan Marches, and even Altimas. Had I crossed through some space-time portal? Was I now in a parallel universe where this car had always existed? That might explain why I never saw it before. Either that or it was just too PLAIN to register.

The FX was one of many Corolla variants. What was the thinking behind it? In the US, to replace the rear drive Startlet. The pundit’s choice had been the peppy FX16, with a hot mill that found its way into the revered MR2. Good provenance. Instead of that appetizing version, I was to test the snooze version; full harmless vanilla, FX sans 16, complete with the dreary automatic.

I jumped in the driver’s seat and tried my best at proving I knew a thing or two. Going for a 20 min. test ride, I drove the vehicle on tight circles, went up and down hilly SF, sped up (as much as possible) on the avenues, made a few panic stops, and tried the electronics; wipers, lights, you name it. After half an hour, I declared the car ‘sound’ and it was soon in her possession.

Not the most exciting drive. The FX sans 16.

 

Car at her disposal, it was time to enjoy the Bay Area’s scenery in romantic outings. Wait, that costs money… Better deal with that job situation soon. She, herself, was actually starting to have concerns about said situation. No kidding… I had them too! Even my ex-classmates were wondering what I was up to (most of them would be jobless by mid-year).

In those idle days I would take short walks in an effort to clear my head. In one stroll, I came across a line of cars going up the hill, towards my apartment. Latino drivers were arriving, in fairly significant numbers, to a spot where a young couple had recently been shot. Some lady had sighted the Virgin Mary where the star crossed lovers had lost their lives. I would walk by and think–I could use a little miracle myself. Then, further down the street, a sign on a wall: the US Gov. was looking for temp workers.

Can’t quite recall if the contract I signed precludes me from divulging information about what the job entailed. Let’s just say it is a job that occurs only once every TEN years. To be safe, let’s also say that all you’re about to hear is fictional. (If the entire CC editorial staff is taken away by the Men in Black, you have me to blame).

16th & Mission in SF. Time to hand out flyers.

 

We went through a short training phase. On the first day, one coworker resumed my generation’s dilemma: “we’re over-educated and underemployed”. Nice summary, can I trademark that? Mother bought her first house on her secretarial salary back in the 60’s, in a nice neighborhood. Me, 30 years later, owned a ’68 Beetle and not much else. My classmates? They had leases, so…

The job switched priorities every two weeks or so. The first few were aimed to ‘recruit’ more temps. My mission? To take my ‘over-educated’ self to the metro station, post flyers and hang around looking for victims… sorry, temps. Lots of walking, a nice change.

As the hours mounted on the dodgy surroundings of the station, the postcard image of the city I had up ‘til then peeled away slowly. Around the metro entrance, close to dusk, one homey walking angrily in circles, talking on his cell phone about ‘popping someone’. A couple of days later, three dudes casually chatting:

  • Man, have you been in jail?
  • Yeah, yeah I was in… for car robbery.
  • Oh yeah, I was into car robbery too… Not that I needed the money. I just broke into cars to ride to my girlfriend’s place. I would see a car I liked, break in… go to her house and leave it somewhere…

The Beetle remained a companion to the FX. Talk about different genes…

 

Good thing that in those trying times the Corolla was giving no trouble… almost. A few days after purchase, while I rode on the passenger seat, a strange noise appeared as the steering wheel turned. It sounded like shifting sand?

  • Well this is new. It must be a new tech issue, some item that neither the Beetle nor my ’80 Rabbit had.

Not the greatest of insights. The FX, not being a technological juggernaut, left me to consider the narrow scope of ‘emissions controls’ and ‘power steering’. I tackled the second, being easier and cheaper. I added fluid to the power steering reservoir and the noise went away, never to appear again. It was the only ‘issue’ we ever had with the car.

Brain refuses to accept video evidence of me at the wheel.

 

The car was in good hands, its used innards pampered by the sedate and calm driving of the Spanish girl. Good thing, as the car itself didn’t invite extroverted driving. This I knew personally, from the occasional instances I found myself behind the wheel. That said, this is one car I DO NOT recall driving, at all. Everything on it was distant and antiseptic, the opposite of the FX16 version.

The automatic probably had a lot to do with this. The only nebulous memory? Me pressing the gas pedal and feeling a much delayed response. As if each piece in the drive train had to wait for red tape matters to clear before acting, and the approving bureaucrat had gone to take a leak. Few years later, I found a Corolla FX review on R&T suggesting to stay away from the automatic. I could see why. The car was nothing but an appliance in such a form.

The car’s frigid ways had me, for the first time, being the one to bestow a moniker on it: “The Fridge”. Not very original, but rather fitting.

“Can I come in? We’re hiring!”

 

Frigidness aside, I was thankful not to attend to car matters. The days were too dreary otherwise. My boss had assigned me, along with a small crew, to spread the “we’re hiring” message to residents of low income projects. Once the real work started, people on foot would be needed to do Uncle Sam’s job. The ideal was to have locals doing the trudging as much as possible.

I had to give kudos to US city planners, where cities like SF could have low income enclaves like those we visited, and common citizens never know of their existence. One could ‘drive nearby’ for ages and never learn of their presence. It was some kind of sinister mastery. The projects connected to nowhere and there was nothing of relevance there, except housing for the poor.

On the first visit, on a street corner, the usual group of youths engaged in suspicious activities. Shifty eyes, baggy clothing, some smoke fading into the air. After parking, we walked from building to building, handing out flyers and attending queries (very rarely).

One of my new co-workers, a jovial fellow, had a full grin as we proceeded.

  • I grew up here. I’m glad you came. From the office, you’re one of the few I would like to have by my side in here.

I felt… obliged?

Just a few more blocks…

We kept walking, across the rundown structures, the solitary parks, the unkempt streets. He kept giving hellos, giving away flyers, being the jovial fellow I knew at the office. It was his turf, after all.

  • You see that back there, that green area that overlooks the bay? Man, that to us was the world back then! That’s where we played, it was the greatest thing.

Green area? Didn’t look that green, nor too nice to me, but I could see he had a point. Strange to think I had seen the Golden Gate Bridge on more occasions than some of the kids playing around us.

A middle age lady, sitting outside her apartment, extended her hand asking for a flyer.

  • You hiring?
  • Yes ma’am, we sure are!
  • Good! It’s hard to get a job after jail time.

We didn’t feel like bursting her bubble yet. Jail time precluded her from employment at the office, but well… Why get into such details?

As we finished the last complex, a coworker walked out from one of the apartments. Had she come with us? Nope, this was her home. She said hello and walked away, on her way to the office. I had talked to her a few times at her desk, she was cool headed, professional and somewhat distant. I would have never suspected her of being a ‘projects girl’.

Blurry lines suggest speed. Don’t be deceived.

 

Meanwhile the Toyota was doing what they’re known for, to service dutifully in trouble free manner. It was a vehicle one could trust. The outing I remember most, to Monterrey, when we stayed with some acquaintances of my Spanish girlfriend. Once again, I can’t recall driving the vehicle. But we did arrive on the Corolla, not promptly, but surely.

We spent the weekend in the calm surroundings of Monterrey, hanging around the beach and visiting sights. The city’s aquarium being the highlight of the trip, the jellyfish tank bringing an eerie and beautiful calm to this one spectator. A nice change from the rough surroundings I had been subjected to.

Not that clouds of gloom completely disappeared on that visit, as our host made a brief mention of being a Vietnam vet. Said info coming after me commenting on the Salvadorian civil war. Lots of things to discover, if one reaches a bit beyond the surface.

Corolla FX, the car you KNEW America could build!

 

Beyond the surface of our Toyota was US assembled, out of the NUMMI factory in the city of Fremont across the bay. Throughout our ownership the car proved as reliable as any Japanese import. This from what had been originally a GM factory known for really poor workmanship. “Worst assembly plant in the US” in the words of some. And yet, by the 80’s, under joint US-Japanese management, the car was put together perfectly.

All throughout the 80’s and 90’s, Detroit’s headquarters blamed ‘regulations’, ‘consumer changes’, ‘worker issues’, etc. for US carmakers woes. But, if Japanese models were as reliably assembled in the US… who’s to blame? Should we point the finger at those finger pointing Detroit execs?

Talking about management, my last few months improved greatly as I found myself ‘promoted’ to supervisor. I would perform my duties from the comfort of a nearby cafe, where I would review paperwork, sign forms and sip coffee, as operators came to drop by their paperwork. Now I experienced grimness through hearsay: Some operators were hounded by proprietors who wished no intrusion from Uncle Sam; others, had lengthy stays filling questionnaires in houses filled to the rafters with inhabitants (sometimes up to 25 people), sharing beds and tight quarters.

Our future in the city was hard to discern.

 

Looming deadlines approached and Uncle Sam pushed us to put more pressure on street operators. It was time to leave behind this peculiar chapter of my life. Not long after resigning, I took a walk around the neighborhood and noticed the car queues to the Virgin’s sighting place had disappeared. Miracles are rare and few in between, better to have assurances in an uncertain world.

The FX had certainly been assuring in those trying times. It’s true, I don’t commend its driving dynamics, being dull in the extreme. To this day, I prefer more ‘engaging’ vehicles. But sales numbers show that mine is minority thinking. The world belongs to dull-appliance-like transport, and their days are certainly guaranteed. Who am I to dissuade their minds? The world is too stressful to worry exclusively about loose carburetor springs on an MGB.

All seemed to be hardening those days. First recession, as the Dot Com Bubble popped, and then…2001.

By mid-2002, after some debate at home, we decided prospects were not improving. She would move to Spain and deal with some medical matters, while I would take a sabbatical and go to El Salvador, to see my father. The Toyota was placed on sale and it went away, for exactly $1,700. Not a cent lost.

Plans set, there was only one matter left, what about the Beetle? El Salvador was big on grey imports. Salvadorian entrepreneurs had made quite a living visiting the US, buying used cars, drive down south, and make a profit. Seemed doable. What if I took their example as a guiding light?

More on the FX:

When Corollas Still Induced Lust 

1985 Chevrolet CorNova – Lessons Not Learned