By on March 8, 2008

For me, driving bliss is all about the setting. Give me an empty road, spectacular scenery, good company and the freedom to explore without an itinerary or time constraints, and I’m in Heaven. Sure, a nice set of wheels enhances the pleasure. But if it came down to it, I’d take an inexpensive reliable car and an endless open road over a garage full of under-used toys that never really get off their leash. I knew the basic formula intuitively in my youth.

As previously chronicled, I rambled around the eastern side of the Continental Divide for years in my (free) Corvair and (cheap) VW Beetles. At twenty-two, I almost lost it. Driving a transit bus in Iowa paid a living wage, and I was sorely tempted to follow my cohorts to the car dealers and sign my freedom away. Luckily, I instinctively knew that I needed a different role model. And I found it: my girlfriend’s mother.

After her divorce, Elinor sold the farm, the thoroughbreds and the big ’69 Plymouth Fury that pulled the horse trailer. The former Studebaker dealer– who’d started selling Toyotas out of desperation– had just what she was looking for. It was a Corolla 1600 sedan.

Elinor and the little Toyota hit the road. The wide-open spaces of the southwest beckoned them, and they rambled through the deserts and canyons, eventually settling in San Diego.

When she was ready to reclaim her furniture, we offered to recover it for her in a U-haul truck. And when she rolled-out the welcome mat, I quit my job and made it a one-way trip. Although the San Diego area was gorgeous, too many others were having the same idea. It turned out to be a temporary idyll…

One day, out of the blue, Elinor said, “Let’s go for a drive up north”. Near the end of what was supposed to be a day trip to Redlands, she said “let’s keep going, to Death Valley.”

It was hundreds of miles away, and we hadn’t even brought toothbrushes. But why not? And there, on that impulsive drive to Death Valley, in the early evening twilight somewhere north of Shoshone, I found nirvana.

California Highway 127 runs straight as a draftsman’s line for twenty, thirty or more miles at a time, in the broad desert valley between the hulking backbones of the Greenwater and Nopah Ranges. The ribbon of road was utterly deserted on this weekday evening in October.

As we rolled northwards alone on the high seas of the Mojave, the usual cues to gauge time– distance and speed– began to melt away. We sat gazing, mesmerized by the Technicolor sunset unfolding all around us; the naked mountains turning obscene shades of scarlet, ruby and purple.

Imperceptibly, the little Toyota’s speed increased: eighty, eighty-five, ninety and still it crept up. Somewhere north of ninety-five, the Corolla entered warp speed; simultaneously, we were hurtling down the road and yet not moving at all. Everything associated with driving a car was now transcended, and the Corolla became a space probe, guided by the stars that appeared with surreal intensity through the last fading purple glow.

Who knows how long did we floated, all thoughts utterly suspended, until a curve finally brought me back to the reality at hand?

And when conscious thinking resumed (a sudden curve at high speed in a Corolla will do that), my only thoughts were this: I will never live more than a few hours away from the deserts, mountains and canyons of the West. I will always heed the call of the road. And I will always keep a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a change of underwear in the trunk.

For the next couple of days, we roamed through Death Valley, and then headed west. And where Highway 190 crests the Panamint Range, one of the all-time mind-blowing views suddenly appears: the whole Sierra Nevada range, rising like a wall 10,000 feet straight up from the floor of Owens Valley. You’d be hard pressed to find the equal of it in the Himalayas.

I’ve made good on my promise. Even when we had kids, a demanding job and a shiny Mercedes, more than once, a day trip turned into two or three (“I won’t be coming in the office today”). The stash of diapers and dirty underwear I found in the 300E’s spare tire compartment as I was cleaning it out for the last time was the smelly proof, and brought back a flood of memories.

And when the paycheck suddenly ended, I never considered the job offers from Dallas and Chicago. I just moved on to the next level of driving nirvana: Oregon. These days, I’m driving a Corolla in disguise. And I’m still ready to answer the call of the open road.

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40 Comments on “Autobiography: Corolla Memories...”

  • avatar

    The most fitting paean to road culture since Kerouac

  • avatar

    In spite of the many faults of California (not the tectonic ones), it is the place of a thousand landscapes. Living in Sacramento, if I feel like a twisty drive in the mountains, a straight shot through a valley, or a meandering drive along a coast, I’m never more than 2 hours away. From ancient redwood forests to scorching deserts, mountain lakes or endless miles of beaches, we have something for everyone’s interest.

    Best of all are the generally well-maintained roads that criss-cross the state. My favorite drive? Mormon Emigrant Trail off US-50. Here is a motorcycle enthusiast site with great photos:

  • avatar

    lucky guy… someday I hope my wife and I can do the same… thanks, Jim

  • avatar

    This story 100% true and to this day I still can’t believe it.

    A few years ago (about 3) we had a 16 year old Toyota Corolla 1.6 Executive SE. It had certainly seen better days. Faded paint, rust starting to show and scraped alloys. It wasn’t worth sending it in for servicing as it would have cost more than the car was worth! But one day we got a new neighbour and he was a certfied Toyota mechanic and lived and breathed Toyota cars. He took a special interest in the Corolla and offered to take a look at it. 3 hours later he asked us “Erm….when was the last time this car was serviced?”. My dad replied “Erm…..probably about 3 years ago. Why?”.

    Turned out the car’s engine was running on 1 litre of what used to be oil but was now a thick black sludge and virtually no coolant for almost 8000 miles!

    Now compare that with a friend’s Audi whose engine seized up after 20 miles when he didn’t put oil in the engine.

    To this day I had total respect for that Corolla; it was beat up, rusted and its engine had everything thrown at it and it still kept coming back! We nicknamed it “Rocky” after that! ;O)

    I loved that car……

    • 0 avatar

      I have about the same story, although it was a 1986 Corolla that my mother took when my parents divorced. She didn’t do a thing to the car from 1995 to early 1998.

      Comparatively, my Saab was on the way to sludging on a diet of 5000km synthetic oil changes.

      Toyota’s strength has never really been absolute, W123/240DL-style durability, nor has it been (outside of Lexus) interior perfection, performance or even safety. People forget this in the insanity that is Pedalgate, but the reason people flocked to Toyota (and, to a lesser degree, Honda) was that they made acceptable cars that cost less to own than the competition, especially if you knew nothing about cars.

      They still are, too. That’s the killer.

      The American marques were easy pickings at the time, but even the vaunted W123 Merc had care and feeding bills and wouldn’t be nearly as friendly to the average owner as Corolla or Crown. People who call them “appliances” with derision are accurate, but missing the point.

  • avatar

    I’ve got my California driving memories, nights driving up the PCH on the one side, and tooling around the deserts on the other. I recall heading out of Lone Pine along 190 to see Death Valley, and along the way pulling over and sitting agape at the rim of some canyon that probably would have been famous if it were located near human beings. Those memories sometimes seem like they may have been only a dream.

  • avatar

    I’m envious. Elinor was certainly an excellent role model.

    But 95mph in one of those ’70s vintage Corollas???! I had a ’77, and I think I pushed it up to 75 once, but the car sure didn’t feel very stable over the double nickel. My Accord feels more stable at 90 than that thing did at 45.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    David, In Germany, cars were routinely driven at or near their top speed. And the Corolla with the 1600 could top 100. Out in the west, we rolled along at 75-85 for hours on end. Maybe yours was out of alignment? Of course, “stable” is a relative term.

  • avatar

    What an inspiring article! My car is a MB E320 AWD that never gets off its leash. You made me think. Thank you.

  • avatar

    I enjoyed a journey of the same Kerouac-ian parameters in a cherry 1952 Hudson Hornet. It had a 308 flat six with Twin-H-Power-two one barrel carbs and a three on the tree with electric OD. That car, in addition to being able to run railroad tracks, could cruise 100mph, comfortably, while getting 20 mpg. I enjoyed the same vista in the Owens Valley, and I had great difficulty reintegrating after that idyllic summer (1971). However, our journeys are made up of component parts, and the next part (working 70+ hours weekly at Varian for the $$$), was remarkable for the great music I experienced at Winterland and the Berkeley Community Theatre, et al, throughout 71-72. The offshoot of that was my first new car- a 1972 240Z- and 150,000 miles of new memories. That, of course, is another story……………

  • avatar

    I have lived most of my life in Colorado and Wyoming and have grokked the road culture and mind-blowing views. As of late, however, a mind-blowing view is a well-stocked bar and Sports Center.

  • avatar

    I agree. As long as it’s reliable and reasonably comfortable, the type of car being driven makes only minor contributions to the pleasure of the journey.

    Turned out the car’s engine was running on 1 litre of what used to be oil but was now a thick black sludge and virtually no coolant for almost 8000 miles!
    Now compare that with a friend’s Audi whose engine seized up after 20 miles when he didn’t put oil in the engine.

    You should try running that engine on no oil and see how far you get. A litre of sludgy oil is a helluva lot better than no oil!

  • avatar


    It wasn’t out of alignment. But the shocks weren’t much good. I replaced them once at Merchants, and the new ones were no good within about six months. The car was 8-16 years old when I had it, I probably replaced the shocks in the middle of that time, and I just didn’t bother to replace them again. But even durin gthe short period the new shocks were good, I don’t thiknk the car was that stable.

    Mine was a 1.2 liter. I don’t think it would have broken 85.

  • avatar

    Great reading! I felt like I was reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha on wheels – a very spiritual nostalgic wistful review. Sometimes I feel like I spend much of my life trying to recapture that magic from some nirvanic experience of my youth – usually with dissappointing results. Part of the original magic in moments like that is that I wasn’t expecting it when it happened and was thoroughly enchanted when it did.

    I took MANY road trips in my Lieutenant-mobile, my first new car, a blue 1989 Corolla SR5 – the last year for the Corolla with a carburetor. These road trips varied from Atlanta, GA to Quantico, VA to Camp Lejeune, NC to Harrisonburg, VA to Kingman, AZ and Las Vegas, NV. The petrified forest and meteor crator in Holbrook and Winslow, AZ was a memorable trip.

    I got rid of that car prematurely in August 1994 when I got my first SUV, a Mazda Navajo (badge engineered Ford Explorer). I wish I still had that Corolla. I was single at the time and didn’t want to pay insurance for and maintain two vehicles. But I lost some of that sporty and inexpensive carefree fun when I got the SUV.

    By the way, reading Katie Puckrik’s story about her old Corolla on 1 liter of oil reminded me of a story that happened to one of my Marines at Camp Lejeune. This Corporal who drove a small 4 cylinder Nissan (I forget the year and model) had just broken up with his girlfriend and one day noticed that his car was running really hot. So hot in fact that the plastic oil fill cap on his engine had partially melted. Upon pulling the dipstick, he saw that there was NO oil at all. None! Turns out his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend had drained this guy’s oil and replaced the drain plug to leave no outward signs of foul play. Maybe there was just enough oil left in the filter to keep the engine from seizing up.

    He told me that he had recently treated his engine with Slick50 – I’m not sure if that stuff helps or hurts. Anyway, he filled up his crankcase with 5W30 and was on his way like nothing had happened. As far as long term damage? I lost touch with that guy so I’ll never know.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    olddavid :
    March 8th, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    I enjoyed a journey of the same Kerouac-ian parameters in a cherry 1952 Hudson Hornet. It had a 308 flat six with Twin-H-Power-two one barrel carbs and a three on the tree with electric OD. That car, in addition to being able to run railroad tracks, could cruise 100mph, comfortably, while getting 20 mpg. I enjoyed the same vista in the Owens Valley, and I had great difficulty reintegrating after that idyllic summer (1971)
    OOOH man, you gotta finish the tale. Hudson’s were a great marque and were main characters in 2 great American novels and 1 minor one. Grapes of Wrath, On the Road and, Moonshine Light, Moonshine Bright by William Price Fox.
    A rather unique feature was the wet clutch, which was cork lined and never wore out if the oil was changed occasionally. In early NASCAR days , they were hard to beat.

  • avatar


    Your story reminds me of the Geo Storm my sister had. It was her $500 backup beater that became her daily after somebody stole her Prelude. I had flown in to D.C. to visit her and while I was there, she asked me to give her car a once over, just to be on the safe side. She had been driving it around for at least a month, but she never had the time to let a mechanic give it a tuneup.

    So, I pop the hood and the first thing I do is check the oil dipstick. Bone freaking dry. I check the coolant. Bone freaking dry. Filled up the oil and coolant, changed plugs, etc., and it started up like a champ. To this day, I can’t believe that car stayed running.

  • avatar

    Maybe there was just enough oil left in the filter to keep the engine from seizing up.

    If there wasn’t enough oil to prevent starvation the oil pressure light would have been on long before the engine would get abnormally hot, if not immediately after startup. But maybe that car didn’t have an oil pressure sensor.

  • avatar

    Andy D: did the Joads have a Hudson?

  • avatar

    rpn 453:

    Or perhaps the oil pressure sending unit wasn’t working properly. I don’t know, I wasn’t there. I’m just relaying a story I heard in 1992, 16 years ago. Perhaps I wasn’t told all of the facts and/or I’ve forgotten something. Who knows?

  • avatar

    I remember that those “classic” Corollas rotted before the 36th coupon in the payment book got sent off. Only the Volare/Aspen rotted as fast, but Chrysler finally got a handle on that by the time the basic car morphed into the Gran Fury/ New Yorker 5th Avenue/ Diplomat.

    Toyota’s RWD Corolla was rusty junk its entire lifetime.

    Both Corolla and Chevy Chevette seemingly had all but a couple hundred pounds of curb weight at the wrong end of the car, as did the B210 Datsun. If those cars had possessed today’s crappy rear bumpers, they’d have gone nowhere on snow and ice as the only way to get one going was to find your fattest neighbors to sit on the back bumper.

  • avatar


    I know Hwy 190 very well. It caused me to stay in California for longer than I expected on my “Back from Iraq Cross-Country Blast” in my Porsche Boxster S. You crest the Panamints after a day of hiking the Race Track Playa, and you and your car are dusty, worn out, tired, but looking for more adventure, and you see the Sierra Nevadas highlighted by the setting sun.

    Moments to live for. Especially with the top down and you have Jimi Hendrix “The Experience” on the CD player.

    Kerouac has nothing on your stories. Look forward greatly to the next one, if only to inspire my next Roadtrip….. which will be out west… again….

    P.S. Grew up in Roswell, New Mexico, I know exactly what you mean about the deserts and mountains!

  • avatar
    H Man

    Paul, I’ve read you mentioning Oregon several times now, and Eugene once. Do you live in Eugene?

    Best driving road near here I can think of is the Mackenzie Pass highway. CLosed for the season, but damn it was a blast last summer in my 85 Faux Runner. A true corner-carving masterpiece, replete with a martian landscape up top. I can’t wait to take my Integra up there when it opens.


  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    H Man: Yes I do. And McKenzie Pass is a regular. We hike a lot up there, a perfect compliment to the drive. Check out Proxy Falls next time, just before the road gets really steep and tight.

    I did have a bad experience once there, a car club from Portland, kids with their tricked out Civics. But they must have been straight-line racers, because they couldn’t stay on their side of the road on those super-tight hairpins for anything. And the nightmare was, they just kept coming, one after the other, cutting blind corners and trying their best to run me off the road.

  • avatar

    There’s not question that Toyota & Honda build top quality automobiles in every class. They’re so far ahead of US automakers its scary.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    David Holzman :
    March 8th, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    Andy D: did the Joads have a Hudson

    YUP and John Ford was true to Steinbeck in the movie. In closeups, you can see the white triangle of the insiginia. One of my favorite movies.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    Gonna be hitting Highway 190, and a bunch of others, in the Nissan GT-R in April. Looking forward to it with even more anticipation now.

  • avatar

    This reminds me of my escapades in my 92 Chevy Blazer 2 door. Bald rear tires, leaking coolant inside at your feet, and the distinct smell of pipe tobacco the previous owner must have smoker religiously (no matter how many times I cleaned it, the scent remained). Routinely 14 MPG on the highway (being fresh out of high school, it was a bit of a tank), but, oh, the road trips! We don’t have the wide open spaces in Maine as you lucky ones on the west coast, but we have the Atlantic, and all the small town and local roads that snake along and away from the coast line.

    Maybe that’s what I need after the semester ends, a trip to nowhere in particular (in my Ranger of all things). Pack a tooth brush, change of clothes, and then just start driving. Thanks for the inspiration and the story. Now all I need is to find an old Corolla :P

  • avatar
    H Man

    Re: McKenzie Hiway…

    Cool! A local TTAC rep. Great story about the Rice Rocket Brigade. I had a similiar experience coming down the pass once, but it was a brace of classic Corvettes, so they weren’t going anywhere nearly as fast as the EEPROM chippers.

    I’d love to mount my hi def Canon camcorder to a the front of a fast car and film that drive. I’ll have to “test drive” a Lotus this summer…

    Oh, and my first car was an 81 Corolla. Dog shit brown, auto, am radio, no air-con. So of course my insurance listed it as the Deluxe model.

  • avatar

    I took my driving exam in the second gen Corolla. It was a lot easier to parallel park than my mom’s massive two door Grand Prix.

    What I learned was this ‘tin box’ of a car was well screwed together, comfortable, and of a different world than our detroit rides. Along with a friend who had a FRONT DRIVE subaru (1978) and used to burn out from the front, we knew that our old muscle cars were fun, the new iron sucked, but the Japanese and later German cars (Rabbits, etc) were the “new deal”.

    Thirty years later, while Detroit has built a few decent cars (amidst the chaff), our driveways are still full of….Japanese and German cars.

  • avatar
    Jordan Tenenbaum

    Great story, Paul. I just hope I can get out there once in my lifetime.

  • avatar

    I remember that those “classic” Corollas rotted before the 36th coupon in the payment book got sent off.

    In fact, my ’77 didn’t rust badly until it was more than 10 years old. When it got to be 15 yrs old the problem became serious.

    The car also, amazingly to me, did quite well in snow with a little bit of ballast in the truck. And it was incredibly durable. It didn’t have much power, so I was always flooring it, and revving it really high. The engine was still going strong when I sold it at 161k. The transmission was also doing OK despite my frequent clutchless shifts.

  • avatar

    I think one of the reasons Toyota and Honda caught on in places like California before the rest of the country is because the early (pre-1980 or so) models were rock solid-except for rust, which of course isn’t a problem in California. Obviously, they fixed the rust problem soon there after.

  • avatar

    You can write as flowery a story as you can, but it will never hide what kind of car those early 70’s Corollas were. Mine was a ’72 coupe and was complete junk. The electrical system was so bad that voltage regulators had to be routinely replaced, as did every light bulb in the car when said regulator died. Head gasket problems, choke problems and of course, you could practically watch it rust, were just a few more of the problems I had. Going over 95 mph? The writer was much more daring than I was! Today when people ask me what my first car was, I call it my Toyota Corroded!

  • avatar

    Since the prices of even used ones were driven up by the two 1970s gas crises, I’d missed out on the classic Corolla experience altogether.

    But in the late 80’s I got my shot.

    I’d always pestered my neighbor with the tired (170,000 mile) grey ’75 Corolla to sell it to me.

    One fine morning, she knocks on the door. Moving, she only wants a hundred bucks for it.

    Loud, slow, minimally comfortable (the broken driver’s seat didn’t help), but it just seemed right somehow, like an old airplane. I drove it everywhere.

    That first month, I visited a friend’s family grass airstrip. The grass was overgrown, so high you temporarily couldn’t fly in or out, so my friend and I ran the Corolla up and down the strip a few times at 65 mph. The grass was higher than the hood, so I was glad my buddy knew where the runway ended.

    On the way home I thought to check the oil at a gas stop, and raised the hood. Grass seed covered every horizontal surface, all those greasy little alcoves.

    Well, the next time I check the oil, there’s beautiful green grass coming up everywhere under hood !

    It had sprouted in the accumulated grease…

  • avatar

    I’m with Roadster. Those early Toyota’s were crap, right along with what Detroit was churning out in the early 70’s. The difference is Toyota/Honda/etc. worked on increasing quality & reliability while Detroit, well, you know.

  • avatar

    My Corolla memory was when my fancy-dan GTI croaked (again) in the late ’80s. I was about 50 miles away from home, and managed to mooch my stepdad’s 80-ish RWD Corolla SR5 Liftback. My brother and I had managed to talk him into replacing his bare-bones previous Corolla with the “sporty” version that had the “mag” steel wheels. Over 100k miles later, the ex-glamor chariot — now well on the way to rusting into powder — soldiered faithfully down the highway, having still never demanded a major repair of any sort in its life, carefully aimed by its white-knuckled driver along a highway covered in black ice as more adventurous souls spun out around me.

    A few generations and a world of refinement later, my wife’s mom got many trouble-free miles from her FWD ’90 Prizm, too. Yet, adjusting for the greater reliability of all new cars today, I don’t have the same confidence in the new Corollas as in those old ones. What a soldier that old hatchback was.

  • avatar
    johnny ro

    Hats off to attractive relationship stories- car, geography and female versions. Talk about synergies.

    BTW, no oil = no go on any plain main bearing car. That quart of sludge in somebody’s clunker must have covered the oil pickup at speed.

  • avatar

    I suspect that a lot of us have had memorable driving experiences in crap cars for the simple reason that great drives often happen on holiday, and the domestic rental fleet is teeming with dreck. So, the Canadian Rockies were in a Windstar, the American a Grand Am, Vancouver Island an Aztek (I know,I know, but our then pre-teen boys were thrilled), the Florida Keys an Astro, Maui a LeSabre, etc.,etc. One of the better experiences was the Tioga Pass through Yosemite and then Hwy 395 down the eastern Sierra Nevada and into Death Valley in a Town Car. Tres comfy and the windshield was a veritable IMAX screen.
    Best of all was spending the time together on the journey. As Neidermeyer says, what we were riding in never seemed much to matter.

  • avatar

    I miss travelling in one of those minimalist vehicles! Maybe it was my age (20-something) or the fact that I was in Italy but my Beetle was fun for road trips that never had an itinerary. Noisy, slow, and plenty of heat summer and winter but the car was fun. Working towards putting her back on the road her in TN.

    Several times rolling along some remote stretch if Italian highway or by-way I’d get this rush of excitement wondering what we would see down the next mile of road or around the next corner.

    Now back in the state 15 years later with a laundry list of responsibilites I don’t have as much fun driving the back roads like I did. I’ve thought alot about it and think that it is a combination of being over familiar with this area, a TN landscape which doesn’t lend itself to long views down the highway – always a curve or hill in the way – and the never-ending supply of modern day crap everywhere I look. Miles and miles of billboards, McDonalds, strip malls, and the same franchise storefronts everywhere we go.

    Gone are some of the interesting stuff left over from the early 20th century that seemed to be everywhere when I was a kid. Maybe it’s a regional thing, maybe I’m concentrating too much on the traffic and missing the good stuff…

    Whatever the case we gotta get out of town for a few days later this year!!!

    Dad had a series of Toyotas (3 Celicas and a Landcruiser) that were A+ back in the 70’s and 80’s. Never any real problems. Only the Landcruiser was as minimalist as the Corrolla was back then.

  • avatar

    Corolla in disguise, you say? Do you mean a Chevota? My mom has one, an ’02 Chevy Prizm LSi.

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