Curbside Classic: 1981(ish) Toyota Corolla SR-5 – So, Do You Want It Now Or After Breakfast?

(first posted 7/5/2017)        Once upon a time, Corollas like this roamed the land.  They were durable little boogers, providing thousands of miles of happy motoring to the folks who owned them.

So while the third generation Corolla, the predecessor to the fourth generation seen here, was the best selling car in the world (sayeth Toyota Global), my exposure to them was minimal as we in the Midwest did not imbibe as heavily from Toyota’s crown of flowers.  Those vast and wonderful differences found throughout not only this country, but the world are something to behold.

Instead of Corollas, we generally preferred a car that dug deep into a happy spot in the soul and still provides warm memories three decades later….

….the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.

Despite its relative lack of popularity in the Midwest, these Corollas can still be found.  This is the second one of this generation I have seen in the last twenty-seven years, so isn’t like they are nonexistent.

So it was a joyful occasion to find this Corolla, a creature which appears to have been roller-derbied with house paint.  My unmitigated euphoria in finding this Corolla also triggered an abundance of long lost memories, memories that (tangentially) relate to that other 1.8 liter Corolla from long ago.  But we’ll get to that.

It would be remiss to simply jump into random Corolla memories without giving recognition to Fumio Agetsuma, the gentleman who was the chief engineer during the development of this fourth generation Corolla.  Having begun his career at Toyota in 1955, Mr. Agetsuma would also serve in the same capacity for the fifth generation Corolla.

Mr. Agetsuma was obviously very good at what he did, demonstrated by his developing a car that would surpass the VW Golf in worldwide production for the period of 1979 to 1982 and which would be exported to 116 countries by 1983.

This is a claim the Olds Cutlass Supreme couldn’t quite match.

So while there wasn’t a Cutlass Supreme parked at our neighbor’s house, there was an Oldsmobile.  Mary Jean and Steve were excellent at finding older, low mileage cars for a pittance.  When they moved to the house nearest us, sometime around 1982 or 1983, they had a 1974 Cadillac Coupe Deville that made way for the ’73 Olds Delta 88 that went away for a loaded and pristine 1972 Pontiac Bonneville with a 455 V8.

Yet always parked near their latest GM capture was their 1981 Corolla 1.8 SR-5 which was driven primarily by their son.  Mary Jean preferred her V8 engines, so she was always drove one of her big GMs while Steve was away at work piloting boats on the Mississippi River.  However she did drive the Toyota on occasion although it never gave her that “Oh What A Feeling” Toyota was touting in advertisements at the time.  Rather, she would smile while mentioning there were malnourished squirrels under the hood.

If you are thinking their driveway presented a dollop of cognitive dissonance, that would not be an inaccurate assumption.  However, Mary Jean and Steve did fall nicely into two of the areas in which Toyota researchers found Corolla buyers often landed – they had a taste for genuine articles and would purchase what they liked even if it was expensive.

What Toyota research could not capture was she had a killer sense of humor and it complemented his naturally drier personality.

Having had their son quite young, Mary Jean and Steve were approaching empty nest-hood in their late thirties.  As is the case with many people, having his fortieth birthday looming before him presented Steve with considerable angst.

With his birthday approaching, the thought of hitting such a formidable milestone was daunting.  It was so bad he told Mary Jean to just shoot him as he simply couldn’t face such a monumental birthday.  A year younger, Mary Jean looked at him and simply said “okay”.

The fourth generation Corolla was designed to provide a distinctive shape.  An attractive car, the Corolla was also deceptively aerodynamic.  With a coefficient of drag of 0.35 (in European guise), it was much slicker than many cars of the time.

Intended to be powered by the 1.5 liter 1A-U engine found elsewhere in the Toyota range, Agutsumo took a shining to the 3A-U engine that was in the prototype stage.  Still at 1.5 liters, Agutsumo was   smitten with the vigorous power band of the 3A-U and decided to use this in the new Corolla.

Doing so presented two problems; the 1A-U and 3A-U engines were not easily interchangeable and Agutsumo decided to do this only six months prior to the introduction of the new Corolla in early 1979.  Compounding this were cracks being found in the heads during early production trials.

Working around the clock, Agutsumo and team were able to overcome the cracking issues in time for the start of production.  Agutsumo’s change of heart was also a wise move longterm as Toyota decided to cancel the 1A-U engine only 18 months after the fourth generation Corolla came to market. (Editor’s note: US Corollas came with the well-proven 3T-C pushrod hemi 1770cc engine as used in its predecessors. Some sources suggest the 4A-C 1587cc SOHC engine was also available in the US, perhaps in the last year or two of this generation)

The four-link coil with lateral rod rear suspension was introduced on this generation of Corolla, a suspension design that continued for successive generations.  According to Toyota Global, the inspiration for this suspension came about when Agutsumo made a trip to Holland.  When it was pointed out the third generation Corolla had the same rear suspension as a horse drawn cart seen going down a street, Agutsumo would later say this realization was “a major shock”.

Introduced in five body styles, the fourth generation Corolla also introduced a new interior design element.  The Corolla’s instrument cluster was an early adopter of having all gauges under a single transparent cover.  Intended to provide a television-like appearance, this presentation is being used almost universally in current times.

All of these various innovations provided another Corolla that grew upon its already rampant popularity.

Steve and Mary Jean’s son would, over time, personalize and enhance the appearance of that Corolla in some very tasteful ways, such as darkening the windows and painting the rocker panels to contrast with its factory applied silver.  While Toyotas consistently fail to excite me, their Corolla is the exception as it’s the only Toyota I’ve ever been enamored with.

Then again, this Corolla had a lot going for it in addition to triggering memories.  Not only is it still chugging along after 36 years, it made me think of a neighbor’s fortieth birthday and how he was catapulted out of his age-related stupor.

On the morning of Steve’s fortieth birthday, Mary Jean woke up early and left the room.  Walking back in, she woke Steve up as she was loading their 0.38 caliber Smith & Wesson.  She looked down at him upon finishing and asked “So, do you want it now or after breakfast?  I’m ready for all this pouting to be over.”

There was no more moping about his age.  And Steve would go on to buy more Toyotas.

Thank you, little Corolla, for making my day when I found you.

Found April 2017

Jefferson City, Missouri