The Neon was pushing towards 130,000 miles and beginning to show its age. The head gasket and paint had been replaced mostly on Chrysler’s dime, but I was beginning to get some failures in ancillary systems like air conditioning and other “minor” things. (Somehow the driver’s side rearview mirror experienced a failure that caused it to vibrate, making it practically useless. Never did figure that out.)
Anyway, a very nice couple who were good friends with my parents came into an unexpected inheritance and decided to upgrade from their pair of early 90s Toyotas to a pair of new Mercedes-Benzs. A friend of our family took their white Camry, and I thought their 1992 Corolla SE sedan would be a good, practical choice for me. It had 40,000 miles on the clock, had always been serviced at the dealer, gently driven (the owner had never even used the cruise control) and parked indoors. It had alloy wheels, the factory AM/FM/Cassette sound system and a sunroof. He’d sold the Camry for $3,700 and even though I pointed out that the value of the Corolla was much higher he refused to take any more than that amount for it.
It was, to use an old expression, a “creampuff.” It did, however, signify a shift in direction for me as it would be the first car I ever purchased exclusively for my use with an automatic transmission. (Yes, pun intended.) I sold the Neon as-is to a kid who wanted a solid car to build into a street racer and took possession of the Toyota.
This was the last year in the U. S. for the sixth generation Corolla and while it was my first experience with a Japanese car, it was now the fourth in a line of transverse mounted front-engine, front wheel drive compact cars, continuing in the spirit of my “Live large, drive small” mantra. Although to be honest, I wasn’t living very large at the time.
A digression; it’s not that I had any issues with Japanese cars, per se. My very first up close experience was with the extremely weird and memorable (at least to me) Subaru 360 at the local “all kinds of foreign car” dealer that was a short bicycle ride from our home. When I was around ten, another dealer that was a short bike ride away, Barton Pontiac, began carrying Toyotas. Of course I thought the Land Rover was a cool variation on the theme of the Land Rover, and the Celica a unique take on a 2+2 coupe. One of my good friends in high school, later my brother-in-law, had a 1972 Datsun 510, which compared to my 1966 Beetle was practically a race car. But by 1976, it actually had rusted perforations around the wheel wells. By the time the Corolla came into my hands it was around six years old, and already the “tin worm” had begun its work. There was visible light rust around the front right wheel well, along a body/bumper seam in the rear, and somewhat strangely at the edge of the sunroof panel.
But the interior was spotless, appearing to be nearly brand new.
Compared to the previous cars I’d owned, as far as drivability was concerned the Corolla would have ranked fourth on the list of four. The handling was tight and only required a light touch, but the suspension and 13” tires just didn’t have the grip to deliver decent lateral acceleration. Not that the linear acceleration was all that great either. That year’s model was equipped with a 1.6 liter four, and with fuel injection it was capable of delivering slightly over 100 hp. But it lacked the low-end torque that the GTI and Neon had managed to produce. (To be fair, the Neon I had just sold had nearly a third more horsepower and was coupled with a nicely ratioed five-speed manual.) Overall it seemed tinny and buzzy. However, it was smooth. I used to joke that it was as smooth as a sewing machine and almost as powerful.
That said, it had a crisp shifting four-speed automatic transmission, a spacious interior and the car drove as if it had just been taken off the “new inventory” lot. (I’d had a lot of experience driving late 80s to mid 90s Toyotas beginning in the late 80s when I would regularly rent the lowest priced cars at LAX from Bob Leech Rental Cars.)
I’d long had a reputation as a car guy and had many cars that started conversations, but having this Corolla was like becoming invisible. Even car people really couldn’t crack the code. Was it a Mazda? Nissan? Chevy? (At this point there was a joint venture with Chevrolet selling re-badged Toyotas.) I surprisingly enjoyed the distinctive anonymity it bestowed upon me. And while it lacked the performance I usually sought int a car, in a way, it was exactly the kind of car people who don’t really like to drive would like to drive. It didn’t take much effort at all to get you from point A to point B (which despite our obsessions really is the point) and it was easy to park when you reached your destination (although as I have always done and continue to do with any vehicle I always sought out the furthest and/or most protected parking space). I nicknamed it the “urban assault vehicle” as it was pretty much theft proof. (You could probably have left the key in the steering lock and no thief would have given the car a close enough look to spot it) and had you committed a crime with it there’s be a 90% chance no one could even describe the make, much less the model or year.
And being a Toyota, it was relatively bulletproof. One of my co-workers at the time had actually been an amateur racer and was even more of gearhead than me. His commuter car was a late 80s Toyota Tercel. Turns out he had a buddy who owned a messenger service and had bought it used from him with over 200,000 miles on it. At the time we worked together he had over 300,000 miles on it and it was still doing its job without fail.
I did have one very bizarre malfunction when the starter solenoid failed in the engaged position and after shutting off the engine one day at work the starter continued to crank a “dead” engine until I was able to remove the positive battery cable connection. Ironically in the bottom feeding part supplies I was utilizing at the time a new starter/solenoid combination was cheaper than just the solenoid.
I more than doubled the miles on it, and having landed a new job went on to purchase a new Chrysler PT Cruiser. True to form I cleaned it up and sold it at asking price ($3,200) to the first person who showed up with the deposit. As mentioned in the title, I did notice a high percentage of Corollas at that time with the lighted logos of various pizza chains mounted on their roofs. I like to think it’s still out there somewhere, delivering a relatively warm, mediocre pizza to someone. However it’s just as likely in these climes that the rust may have claimed it.