COAL: 1993 Toyota MR2 – A Father-Son Project


(Please welcome our newest COAL series author, James Pastor)     A couple of years ago, when my son was about 13, I noticed his addiction to video games was getting intense.   He enjoyed a variety of video games, but especially a racing one where the gamer selected the car and its modifications prior to each race.  Apparently automatic transmissions are popular.

As a little boy, I built model cars, hundreds and hundreds of them.  When I was a teenager, about my son’s age, Pac Man and Asteroids intrigued some of my peers, but you needed a stack of quarters and a ride to the arcade.  A lot of us worked on real cars in High School auto shop class, and our modifications were not always well-thought out, nor helpful – but at least they were not virtual!

I decided that a father/son project could get him out into the garage and we could spend more time together.

I scanned the Craigslist ‘autos for sale’ section, knowing I didn’t have much of a budget.  I came across a rather ambiguous ad, with no photo, it read: “93 MR2 bad engine, no key, $1500.”   That one would be sitting a while, I thought.   In our visual society today, pictures are crucial, so this car would probably be sitting for even longer.  Sitting for a while translates into the price going down, maybe even down into triple digits, which would be in our price range!

The second generation MR2 was slightly larger than the first gen (1984-1989 car), but was a similar car yet more rounded and less angular.  It’s exterior dimensions were virtually identical to the Ferrari 308.  Toyota offered Ferrari-like handling and sportiness mixed with Toyota reliability and price.  It was a fairly popular car, but this version was only on sale in the US from 1991-1995.  I was not a huge seller, and Toyota probably lost some sales to Pontiac’s Fiero.

When we arrived, the white car looked gray, and sat with a couple flat tires and piles of leaves all over it.  The seller grunted and motioned more than verbalized, so I could get no further information about the “bad engine” mentioned in his terse ad.   A quick glance through the filthy window (and purple window-tint) revealed an interior full of empty fast-food containers, but a stick, a five speed manual transmission!

$800 plus a tow later and the little Japanese import was in my garage.   A quick trip to the Toyota Dealer and $12 and we had a key!   My son liked “exploring” this car.  It held many firsts for him:  He had never been in anything but a front-engined car, he had never been in a car equipped with T tops, and he loved turning lights on and off, because he had never been in a car with pop-up headlights.  We did a lot of vacuuming and washing, but when we tried to start it, we had no crank, nor start.

These cars are also very low.  It is impossible to get underneath them without jacking them up.  We found a spot on the rear crossmember and barely slid the floor jack under and raised it.  After we shoved ramps under the tires I slid under to discover a hole in engine block.

So the engine was bad, really bad.  A quick Google search revealed that a quarter million or so Toyota Celicas used the exact same engine, so one was located in a salvage yard a few towns over.  Over the course of a couple weeks, we removed the drivetrain.   Like an old-school Beetle, it is easiest to raise the body and leave the heavy parts where they are.  We swapped in a mystery Celica Engine of unknown provenance, and it fired right up!

We learned that the temperature gauge on the dash was kaput, and speculated that the engine might have survived if the driver had known how hot it was, or could see steam ahead or could have even whiffed burnt engine, again, ahead of him or her.


We buffed it out and waxed it and threw on some cheap tires.  We splurged and added an aftermarket temperature gauge too.  It was such a fun little car to drive.  After some practice, my son learned to “drive a stick”. It was the first manual-transmission car he ever drove.

After we were done fixing it up, a local kid three or four years ahead of my son saw it at the end of our driveway with a FOR SALE sign on it.  $1800 later, he was driving away with a smile on his face and the sound of grinding gears in his ears.