Curbside Classic: 41 Years Of 1980 Toyota Corolla Ownership – 261K Miles, $500 In Repair Parts

Over the ten years of CC, I have heard endless sad stories here of old car ownership woe: Expensive repairs, headaches, frustration, regret. Meanwhile, I’ve been peppering you with an endless stream old Corollas from Eugene, including one I picked up for almost nothing eight years ago and which is still going strong. They are the ultimate Eugene-mobile: Cheap, reliable, durable, economical, easy to fix. If you were going to buy a new car and keep it 41 years—or forever—it’s simply the best choice, whether that was in 1980 or 2021.

I’ve long wanted to find an owner of an old one-owner Corolla, to get the inside scoop on just what it takes to keep one on the road for over 40 years. I’ve finally succeeded, and am going to share all the details with you here. But I have to warn you: no offense to John, the owner, but it’s a pretty boring story. No wonder Toyotas have a rep for being boring: one might as well be asking what it’s like to own the same toilet for 41 years.

I’ve seen and shot this same Corolla Liftback—as well as a white one just like it driven by an older woman—for years, but never wrote either of them up. Something told me to wait until I could catch up with their owners and get the straight scoop, although I could have predicted it anyway.

A few weeks back, my wish became true. I offered to volunteer for a tree planting day by a local non-profit, Friends of Trees, which involved driving the trees and tools to various addresses—including one of my rentals—and helping to plant them. When I saw one of the other volunteers drive up in this Corolla, I knew I’d scored. See; it pays to volunteer!

John—who didn’t care to be photographed—is probably about my age, retired, and fits the profile of what I would have roughly expected of an owner of a forty year-old Corolla or so many other old Eugene-mobiles: He’s thoughtful, deliberate, community-oriented and environmentally responsible—he has an LTD transit pass and uses the bus whenever it’s feasible. Undoubtedly the Corolla’s 261k miles were racked up more in its early years than later ones. That comes out to an average of some 6500 miles a year, which is of course less than half of the average mileage racked up by Americans. This alone explains why there’s so many old Corollas and other old cars on the streets here. Their owners only drive when there’s a real need or good reason to.

Enough of the preamble; let’s get to John’s description of his ownership experience:

1980 Toyota Corolla hatchback purchased new in Feb. ’80 at Vic Alfonso in Eugene.  It has a 3TC 1.8L engine with standard automatic transmission, heater, radio, and (empty) tape deck slot (never used).  It came equipped with seat belts, but no airbags or anti-lock brakes.

I do routine fluid & filter checks/replacements myself (oil, battery, coolant, brake), excepting transmission fluid.  Apart from usual maintenance/replacement of tires, shock absorbers, brakes, sparkplugs, fuel & air filters, etc., the car has a relatively uneventful repair history over 40 yrs., except as noted below.

In 1996 its rear end was rammed above the bumper, collapsing the rear hatch area, but leaving the chassis unbent.  The insurer declared it a total loss after over 5 weeks of delay, although I continued to drive it in daylight hrs. using hand signals.  The insurer’s agent, however, had the car termed “undriveable” and secured for me a per diem rental car allowance spanning the five-weeks unexcused assessment delay, although I never actually used a rental car (such are the ways of insurance companies).

I used the insurance settlement funds to reconstruct the car’s rear end.  The repair shop simply found a similar car with no rear end damage at a local salvage yard, sliced off that end, and attached it to my vehicle.  The bill for that, including painting to match, was less than the insurance settlement payment!

In 2013 the radiator was replaced along with the rest of the cooling system (water pump, hoses, fanbelt).  Later there were a few other oddball repairs, such as replacing the heater core, carburetor (Weber aftermarket) plus air filter system, and a worn out ignition cylinder.

Because there have been no major problems or repairs involving the engine, transmission, or suspension, I continue to drive the car into its fifth decade.  Current odometer reading is 261,300 mi.  It’s now lightly used 3-4 days per wk. since I retired and acquired a LTD senior pass.  Before the pandemic I was driving it some 4K mi. per year; in 2020 even less than that.

So there you have it. Just how much did these replacement items cost? He didn’t say, but today, on Amazon, here’s what they go for: radiator: $108; water pump: $42; radiator hoses: $25; heater core: $88; Weber carb: $170; air filter kit: $35; and a new ignition key cylinder: $28. Total: $496.00.

Of course that doesn’t include labor and regular maintenance/wear items. But still: $500 in parts to keep a car running dead-reliably for 41 years is extremely impressive. And extremely cheap. No stories to tell of engine swaps, blown head gaskets, pulled cylinder head studs, blown automatic transmissions, dead starters, etc., etc..

Toyotas are so boring…