Curbside Classic: 1981 Toyota Starlet –The Last Of The Littlest RWD Toyotas

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(first posted 12/26/2012)     Discovering the RWD Toyota Avanza in Mexico recently made me consider how relatively long Toyota hung on to RWD in their small cars. The last such car was the Starlet, which wasn’t replaced by a FWD version until 1985. They’re not exactly common on the streets anymore, but that has nothing to do with their reliability–which was legendary, thanks to their well-proven and simple drive train. And they’ve become cult-mobiles in the eyes of their loving owners for the obvious reason of their “right-wheel-drive”.

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Honda redefined the mini-hatchback market (in both the U.S. and Japan) in 1973 with their seminal Civic. Toyota’s first major foray into FWD was the Tercel, in 1978. But the even smaller Starlet hung in there with its old-school RWD and leaf-sprung rear axle, the same underpinnings that Toyotas had worn when they were known as Toyopets.

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Why? It’s likely Toyota was just being cautious, not wanting to repeat GM’s mistakes in that company’s rush to embrace FWD. The FWD Tercel was born a paragon of reliability, and the first FWD Corolla in 1983 was equally bulletproof from day one. The Starlet could wait. And it did.

The Starlet, slotted below the FWD Gen-1 Tercel, played an outsider’s role during its U.S. sales run of only a few years, and its successor, the FWD Starlet 70 Series, never was offered here. Maybe the Starlet was intended to be the Tercel’s backstop in case the latter had teething issues.

I know a guy who picked up a Starlet over twenty years ago and still uses it as his daily driver. Even after well over 300,000 miles, it’s never had a significant mechanical issue. It’s the only one in Eugene that I know of (I shot this fine little yellow one in Portland).

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The Starlet developed a cult following very quickly. Not everyone was overjoyed by the switch to FWD, and the Starlet was the last connection to old-school RWD–a tossable mini-AE-86, if you will. I’m not sure exactly what “Starlet Unlimited” is, but I’m guessing it’s some sort of enthusiast’s entity. Indeed, from very early on, there was plenty of enthusiasm about the Starlet’s racing, rallying, and drifting potential.

YouTube has many tributes to the Starlet’s prowess in all manner of speed thrills. One could hop up its little push-rod four (available in 993, 1,166, and 1,290 cc versions), or drop in one of the bigger Toyota DOHC fours, a process as easy and common as dropping a big-block Chevy into a ’57. Or for that matter, almost any other engine that pointed rearward. The sky’s the limit. Well, maybe the rear tires were.

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I’m not exactly suggesting that the Starlet was a drifter in the form that it left the showroom of your friendly Toyota dealership. The U.S.-spec 4K 1,290cc four was rated at either 58 or 62 hp–but the curb weight was all of about 1,600lbs. Keep the engine on the boil with the slick-shifting four- or five-speed, and it all worked reasonably well for the times. And keep in mind that a contemporary VW Rabbit/Golf had about 70 hp and weighed a fair amount more.

It’s a bit ironic: In the seventies FWD was the hot new thing, with the Golf and Civic as its new standard bearers. But for a certain contingent, the loss of small, RWD cars was lamentable, and for a few more years Toyota gave them a chance to enjoy one before the inevitable switch–or to buy one durable enough to still be on the road thirty years later, as this one is.

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