COAL: 1989 Toyota Corolla SR5–Flying By You

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“The red was so bright and shiny,” she said, “it was hard to look at.” But when I met her, four years post-purchase, the red finish on her 1989 Corolla SR5 coupe had oxidized to pinkish dullness.

It was a common affliction among red Corollas of this vintage. But she loved her car, and it suited her. It was a lithe little car for a lithe little blonde. And she drove it like she stole it, with her foot always deep into the gas pedal and the front bumper right on the tail of anyone who wouldn’t go her speed. She always wanted (but wouldn’t pony up the extra dough for) a custom license plate that read FLYNBYU.

And why not? Its 1.6-liter, DOHC, 4A-F engine might have generated only 95 hp, but in such a light car it felt like a lot of punch. And it was low-slung and tightly suspended; it felt good to throw it into a corner. That it was manually shifted through its five gears only added to the fun. Really, this was no performance car, but it was still a hoot to toss around on city streets.

With driving habits like hers, she attracted plenty of attention from the authorities. But she had a perfect record–every cop let her off the hook. They were suckers for a pretty face.

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She even got me out of a ticket once. We passed through tiny Thorntown, Indiana, on our way to a camping trip. I drove my Beretta and she followed in her Corolla, as we needed both of our small cars to haul all the gear. I didn’t see the speed-limit sign at the edge of town, and a police car quickly pulled out of somebody’s driveway with lights flashing and siren blaring. I pulled over and the officer, a big Sheriff Buford type with a buzz cut and mirrored aviator sunglasses, proceeded to give me a chewin’ out. His face pinched, he wondered with considerable volume if I had skill enough to read speed-limit signs when my girlfriend pulled around in front of me and stopped. Sheriff Buford seemed annoyed and waddled purposefully toward her car. He was gone for quite some time, but when he came back, he was chuckling and smiling. He told me to just take it slow through town and wished me a good weekend!

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Since this happened before everybody had cell phones, I had to wait about two hours until we reached the campsite to ask just what the heck happened. She said, “When he came up, I rolled down the window, batted my eyelashes at him, and said, ‘If you give him a ticket, you have to give me one too, because I was following him!’ He laughed and laughed and I guessed when you drove off that he let us off the hook.”

This did nothing to improve my opinion about Thorntown. But it did improve my opinion about the girl. I married her, and a stepson and the Corolla came with the deal. Her little Corolla trudged on reliably for through most of our marriage, except that it ate mufflers and required a new one annually.

One day I was driving the Corolla down a narrow road near our home. Something distracted my attention, and in the half-second I looked away from the road the car drifted slightly to the right and a utility pole at pavement’s edge violently removed the passenger-side mirror. I found a replacement mirror at a junkyard and attached it, but the used mirror’s finish hadn’t oxidized as much as the rest of the car. My wife was sad enough that I’d damaged her baby; that my repair didn’t quite match only mounted her disappointment. Having spent almost everything left in our checking account on the mirror, my options were few. So I bought a can of polishing compound and buffed the entire car by hand so the entire finish matched. It didn’t restore the fabled hard-to-look-at luster, but it did brighten the car considerably.

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About the time my stepson reached driving age, she reluctantly admitted that she needed a larger car for our growing family, and bequeathed the Corolla to him. Predictably, this hastened the little coupe’s demise; shortly after, he ran it into a post. The front-end damage was slight, but the hood latch was weakened. He didn’t realize that until a few days later when, at 40 mph, the hood flew up, smacked and cracked the windshield, and then flung itself off the car. He managed to jury-rig the hood back on–bungee cords were involved–but the battered Corolla had lost its allure. Using his savings, he upgraded to a used but cherry Mustang GT. And then we had no more need for the little Corolla.

With that body damage and 175,000 miles on the clock, my wife thought her 13-year-old car couldn’t be worth anything, so she sold it for scrap. It was a sad day for her when we left it in the scrap dealer’s hands with just $50 in ours. She kept the shift knob as a memento.

We thought that would be the end of the Corolla’s story, but a month later we got a letter from the police stating that it had been found abandoned on an I-70 overpass in town, and if the car was still ours we could find it at the impound lot. That overpass is where it breathed its last. It was such a sad ending for that great little car.

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(curbside photos by Paul Niedermeyer)