COAL: 1983 & ’87 Toyota Celica • What’s the Plural of ‘Celica’?


We’re now up to 1983 in my Cars of a Lifetime series. It’s time to talk about my first new car. By that I mean a car bought new from a dealer, not a vehicle that is merely new to me. By 1983 my partner Rick and I had owned Darren, the 1973 Pinto wagon, for six years. The Pinto had
given (mostly) reliable and useful service. I had driven it across the country four times, plus trailered it once from Seattle to Kingston, RI when we moved there in 1980. During that time, I had to have the throwout bearing on the clutch replaced once. And from time to time the distributor would act up, causing strange surges and stumbling as the timing went off. Aside from those two maladies, the car had given pretty reliable service.

However, starting in 1983 we began to have real trouble. The upholstery was getting tattered, with a ripped seat bottom on the driver’s side. I bought a new seat from a junkyard, but it was from the wrong year so the mounting bolts didn’t match (I was able to return it). The anti-backfire valve (part of the smog control) was leaking air and causing a rough idle, and that was fixed with duct tape. When it was rainy or wet, the car refused to start, which I traced to a pinhole leak in a coolant line which sprayed water on the ignition wires. But the last straw was when the throwout bearing went bad and the clutch went out when Rick was driving home from work in Providence. He managed to get home, but was not at all pleased. We got the clutch fixed, but decided it was time to think about a new car. The decision was made when we were driving to the annual auto show in Providence to look at new car options and the timing belt gave out. Apparently Darren Pinto knew he was going to be replaced, and acted out.

By this time, Rick had finished his nursing degree and had a job as a neonatal intensive care nurse at a hospital in Providence. With two incomes, we now could afford to splurge and buy a new car—a first for either of us. Reliability was paramount; Rick worked the 11 PM-7AM shift, and we didn’t want a car breaking down in the middle of the night or the early morning. He’s not anything near a car buff like I am, so he left the choice to me. We had a strict limit on what we could pay, which meant we were looking at low-end vehicles. Here were my choices:

My first thought was a Renault Alliance. It had gotten good reviews, it was economical, it came with a stick shift, and I was a longtime AMC/Nash/Hudson/Rambler fanboy. However, it was in its first year on the market, and my inner car guy whispered “never buy a new car the first year it’s on the market. Let the bugs work themselves out”. So I decided to pass on the Alliance, which was probably a wise move as things turned out.

Next we test-drove a Chevy Cavalier Cadet. When originally released for 1982, the Cavalier was considered overpriced and underengineered compared to its imported competitors. In ’83, they brought out the Cavalier Cadet, a de-contented stripper model at a lower price. I thought the car was slow and wheezy (with its dorky and gutless 1.8L pushrod four), and the interior was just a few steps up from Studebaker Scotsman level. In other words, a dreary car with a dreary drive and a dreary interior. Bleh. I thought if was gonna spend all that money for a car I’d knew we’d keep a long time, I’d want something better.

Which led us look at Toyota Celicas…or is the plural of Celicae? Who knows?

I’m holding our one-year-old Mini Schnauzer I named Packard Patrician. Am I a car guy or what!

As things turned out, the local Toyota dealer had an ST model in stock. This was the era of ‘voluntary export restraints’ on Japanese autos, negotiated by the Reagan administration. It was intended to help shield the Big Three domestics from competition with Japanese automakers. It’s economics 101 (something I knew about) that such restraints would cause prices of Japanese cars to rise and that Japan’s automakers would ship higher-content, higher-profit cars to us. So it was very unusual to see a stripper ST model in stock instead of the pricier GT or GT-S models. But the price was right, and although basically equipped—no A/C; low-end sound system, plain interior—it was much nicer inside than the strippo Cavalier or the Alliance. So we took every penny we had saved up, and bought it.

The Celica was perfect for us. It was zippy with the five-speed manual transmission. It was good on gas. And in the four years we owned it, we never had a bit of trouble with it. I particularly loved the slanting pop-up headlights; I thought they were uber cool. The taillights reminded me a bit of late-1960s Dodges. The interior was comfy, especially the bucket seats, although the back seat was a bit of a tight fit. The dash was pleasant, and even though the ST was a low-end model it had a high-quality feel to it. Or perhaps it was the influence of the new-car smell of my first new car. I sold the old 1973 Pinto wagon to my department chair for his daughter for $300; she promptly wrapped it around a tree.

In 1985, I came up for my mandatory tenure decision, otherwise known as “publish or perish”: if you publish enough scholarly work, you get awarded tenure—basically lifetime job security. If you get denied tenure, your academic career is essentially toast because you’re unhirable at any major university. I was confident, but got a rude shock when the department chair engineered a decision where I was denied tenure with ⅔ of the faculty abstaining rather than supporting me. Something was fishy, so I hired a lawyer and fought back. It turned out a minority of the faculty were afraid of getting AIDS from me! Word got out that my “roommate” worked with HIV-positive babies in his nursing job, so I was axed, despite the fact that nobody was at risk of AIDS here. Eventually I won tenure on appeal. But I left for a better job in DC, working for the Agriculture Department—I was not about to work in a department of such narrow-minded people.

So in the Spring of 1986, we moved to Washington, DC. We bought a house ½ mile from a Metro (subway) stop, which was convenient since Rick needed the Celica to get to his new job at the hospital.

One thing to understand about Washington, DC is that for about five months of the year it is very humid. I mean, fish-swim-through-the-air-above-the-pond humid. I mean, walk-to-your-car-and-you-need-another-shower humid. They call the weather triple-H: hazy; hot, and humid. As a northwesterner from Seattle, I didn’t cope very well—and our Celica had no air conditioning. I was miserable that first summer; we’d sit in traffic jams with the windows open and and the fan blowing muggy air around us. I’d sweat through whatever I was wearing in a few blocks. All of our friends got annoyed when I would ask them to drive whenever we would hang out—they all had A/C in their cars!.

So, even though Sally the Celica was a perfectly good car with nothing wrong, in 1987 before the summer humidity hit she was traded in for another Celica, this time a 1987 GT coupe—with air conditioning!

This pic could have been our car on our street. We lived in a community of row houses just like this.

Our new Celica was this color, a sort of deep reddish maroon. It was a coupe, not a hatchback, so the back seat was a bit cramped, but most of the time we just had the two of us in the car, so it was fine in that regard. This generation of Celica switched to front-wheel drive, so the interior was a bit more spacious than our old ST. To be honest, since I’m not a vroom-vroom kinda guy, I never really noticed the driving difference between front and rear wheel drive. A couple of times we had to take our schnauzer Packard Patrician to the emergency vet in the snow, and the GT seemed to have good traction in slippery conditions.

Our 87 Celica gave us great service in the seven years we had her. Of course, we didn’t put much mileage on our cars, since Rick’s job was only 3 miles from our home and we seldom took long road trips out of town. Between 1987 and 1994 we put under 8,000 miles a year on our cars. We were very happy with this car—it was one of the best we’ve owned.

Then in 1991, something sad happened and another car came into our lives. More on that in next week’s episode.

COAL № 1: Buicks Aplenty; a Fiat, and a Pontiac • The Early Years.

COAL № 2: 1958 Plymouth Custom Suburban • Dad’s Biggest regret

COAL № 3: 1965 Buick Sportwagon • My first car

COAL № 4: 1967 Datsun 1600 • The first car that was legally mine

COAL № 5: A Pair of Pintos

Further reading:

1982 Cavalier: GM’s Deadly Sin #22

Jim Grey’s COAL about his 1983 Renault Alliance

Jim Grey’s feature on Where Alliances Go to Die

Willam Stopford’s QOTD: What is your favorite generation of Celica?