Curbside Classic: 1981 Toyota Corolla Wagon: It Could Have Been My Previous Car

I drive a fifteen year-old Toyota wagon (Scion xB), and I intend to keep driving it for another ten, or twenty years. Who knows, it may end up being my last car, as was the case with someone I knew, the driver of a red Corolla sedan of this vintage. It suits my needs and usage patterns, and is of course durable and dead-reliable. And if I had needed a car when we moved to Eugene back in 1993, this is what I would have likely bought: a used Corolla wagon from the last of the RWD generation. Durable and dead-reliable. And if I had, I might well still be driving it today.

I have a lot of deep personal history with the Corolla, and it’s invariably been good. Some of it stellar, even. But then they tended to involve women, in a good way. It started with the first generation: Shortly after moving back to Iowa City in 1971, I met a girl that was driving a ’69 wagon like this survivor I found a couple of years ago at Big Sur. She was a student from the Chicago area, and her parents had bought it for her. I seem to remember it starting a couple of rust spots already, even though it was only two years old.

I won’t go into the details, but we had some fun with (and in) the Corolla, and I drove it a number of times. And I fell in love with her it. What a terrific little car: the four speed stick was so light, crisp and effortless. The gutsy little 1.1L four ran perfectly, always eager to rev up to its…whatever its redline was; there was certainly no tach. That was something for fancy imported sports cars and such. You just knew when it was time to shift, and if in a hurry, a little past that time.

It handled like a toy, given that my frame of reference was mostly my mom’s ’65 Coronet wagon and my dad’s ’68 Dart. It reminded me a lot of my dad’s former 1965 Opel Kadett, although I had never driven it. Classic old-school RWD light car, and utterly tossable. As was the relationship.

Then I met the Ferrells, through one of their three lovely daughters. They were a faculty family; he was a professor of violin, and drove a ’71 Mark II (Toyota, not Continental!). And Elinor, who became something of a second mother to me, drove a ’69 Fury sedan, in which I had a most memorable high speed dash from Iowa to Colorado with two of the daughters. After he got involved with a student (just like Stephanie’s professor dad) they got divorced. The hobby farm and horses were sold, Elinor bought a house in town, and traded the Fury in on a new gen2 1973 Corolla 1200 sedan. And I drove that a few times, mainly out to the various quarries-turned-swimming holes. It was a lot like the gen1, but just a bit more refined.

One day Elinor and a friend with a big International Travelall swapped cars for some reason, and sure enough, he had a crash and the little Corolla was totaled. So a new 1975 replaced it, and this one with the sweet little 1.6 L hemi four, which made it considerably faster than the old 1200. I borrowed it once to drive to Indiana to tow back my ’63 Beetle when one half of its crankshaft decided it couldn’t get along with the other half anymore, and they got a separation. I blame it on the eldest Ferrell daughter, with whom I was involved with at the time, as she drove it through some steep sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway in a heat wave in fourth gear the day before, and I felt like the engine was getting too hot. It is possible too overheat an air-cooled VW engine if it’s being lugged and the fan is not turning fast enough. But I had no way of knowing that for sure, and I never said anything to her. But it was generous of Elinor to lend her Corolla for the purpose.

I rented a bumper hitch and flat-tow bar, the kind that was made to attach to a VW’s front torsion bar housings. Yes, they used to make (and rent) special tow bars for VWs, given how many there were at the time, and how they did break down from time to time. Or needed to hitch a ride behind a U-Haul truck. The Corolla towed the dead Beetle the 500 some miles home without breaking a sweat; of course it was mostly flat. But that endeared me to it (and Elinor) even more.

But perhaps my moment of greatest Corolla rapture came on an epic sunset drive to Death Valley, a few months after we all moved to San Diego in 1976. As we rolled along the endless (and deserted) straight stretches of CA Hwy 127, I steadily increased its speed…to 85…90…95…100. Yes, I drove a Corolla 1600 at the century, or at least that’s what the speedometer said, and neither Elinor nor Susie ever seemed to notice. Such is the hypnotic effect of endless desert vistas and straight highways penetrating them. Or they just didn’t care.

That Corolla served Elinor for many more years.

The fourth generation Corolla arrived in 1979, for the 1980 model year. It was a somewhat bigger jump from its predecessors than the previous generations had been, being larger, looking more grown up, sporting a new four-link coil spring rear suspension, and a general air of refinement. It would also be the last generation to be strictly RWD, as the succeeding generations split into a FWD sedan and RWD coupes.

It also came in a remarkable range of body styles, with no less than three coupes. This notchback style also left a lasting impression, as a rental at the San Jose airport. Our two little kids had been great on the flight, but no sooner had I buckled son Ted into the back seat then he left forth a stream of vomit, which puddled on the Corolla’s seat cushion. The joys of parenting.

Once that was cleaned up, we hit the road in the Corolla, which had an automatic. That and the extra weight dulled the experience considerably, despite the increase in displacement to 1.8 liters. It felt softer and quieter too; the Corolla had grown up.

There was also this fastback coupe.

And the Liftback. There’s an older woman that drives one a white one of these around my part of town, and I’m dying to catch up with her and ask her how long she’s had it. I wouldn’t be surprised if she told me she bought it new. She keeps it in quite nice shape, and obviously loves it.

And of course the four door sedan.

And the two door sedan. I met an elderly Swiss gentleman who was the founding teacher of my kid’s Waldorf school after we moved to Eugene in ’93. He drove a red two door like this, having bought it somewhat used back in the late ’80s, and planned to keep it until he couldn’t drive anymore. Which finally happened some years back. But I used to love seeing his chiseled face, hawk-like nose and white mane of hair slightly hunched over the wheel of his red Corolla, his scarf around his neck. The two looked equally immortal. Sad to say, he finally passed away in 2017. I don’t know of what became of his red Corolla, but I’d like to think it’s still going.

And of course there was the wagon, the most practical of them all, and therefore most likely to outlive the others. If you’re going to buy one car 20, 30 or 40 years, it better be practical as well as durable. At least hereabouts, where this is the consummate Eugene-mobile. And as I said, if I’d moved here car-less and needed cheap wheels, this is what I would likely have gone for.

Of course it would have to be a stick. Preferably the five-speed, but it doesn’t really matter all that much, as we tend to avoid spending any more time on freeways than necessary. Toyota pioneered the use of five-speeds in mass-production low-end cars, for which it deserves kudos. They were always a joy to use, and never broke or even just wore out. Like the little pushrod hemi 1.8 3T-C mill under the hood. Yes, by now it made some 73 hp; not exactly nerve-tingling, but it always got you there, and back.

Speaking of back, the rear seat wasn’t exactly overly generous, but quite adequate to haul a passel of kids to wherever they were going. Not school, as we always walked.

And the way back was adequate too. Not Volvo 245-like, but adequate. Yes, that would have been the other alternative back then. And there were more of them at the Waldorf School parking lot than anything else.

Like all old red Toyotas, the paint is very dull, and has mostly faded away on the roof, although not on the hood, curiously.

The array of stickers in the back is a bit disappointing. Where’s “Visualize Whirled Peas”? Or “Coexist”?

This Corolla wagon is the Japanese counterpart to the venerable B-Body wagon, which I am saluting here as it’s the last one of its kind still being used as a daily driver in my neighborhood.

And I stand and give this Corolla wagon the same salute, paying my respects to practical, tough, simple RWD wagons. It’s just that I prefer mine a bit more on the compact side; and made by Toyota, please.


CC 1969 Corolla Wagon (E10) – Little Car With A Big Future   Tatra87

Auto-Biography: Driving Nirvana – In a 1975 Corolla    PN

CC 1980-193 Corolla – Doppelganger   Dave Saunders