By on January 20, 2010

reliability starlet

Is this the most reliable car ever built? There are at least two very different but highly reliable  sources that suggest it may well be. One is of course its owner. And as we know all too well, one car does not make a proper sample size. But the other source does: ADAC: it has a virtual monopoly on responding to any and all breakdowns in Germany, sort of an Uber-AAA. Starting in 1978, in classic Germanic fashion, it fastidiously compiled Pannenstatistik on every Panne that ever stopped a car in the Vaterland. And the results? Let’s just say that at a time when Mercedes was considered the paragon of unstoppable German solidity and reliability, the Starlet smashed right through that reputation and drove the big-wigs in Stuttgart bonkers.

no stopping meThe very first year, in 1978, the Corolla jumped to the top of the list. But when the tiny RWD Starlet appeared in 1980, it took the top spot the first three years straight, and six firsts in the decade. At a time when the legendary W123 MB Diesel was considered the gold standard, the dirt-cheap Starlet rubbed the Germans’ and Mercedes’ nose in the statistical dirt year after year. And they were not at all happy about it.

It’s not just the RWD Starlet that made such an impact on the ADAC list each year, which is big news in Germany. Its successor FWD model, and numerous other Toyotas as well as Mazdas, Mitsubishis and Nissans that made the list regularly until just the past few years. The whole thirty years of winners and losers are here.

The Starlet was Toyota’s smallest and cheapest car, and it basically was an update of the gen1 Corolla 1200. As such, it had the mechanical robustness and un-complexity a Toyota Hi-Lux pickup. The little OHV four had been made for ages, and the rest of the mechanical components were tried and true. If you needed to pick one car to keep and fix for thirty years, this would be it.

spartan starlet

The owner of this car, who was Edward’s fifth grade teacher, has been driving it daily almost twenty years. In addition to being a part-time college instructor now, he also does carpentry work, and manages to fit all his tools in the back, and straps the ladders and lumber on the roof rack. Who says you need a Mega-cab 4×4 pickup to be a builder?

The little hauler now has close to 300k miles on it, and has never let its owner down once with an unexpected Panne. Other than replacing a few of the valve springs, it’s only required the normal maintenance and replacement of wear items. He says its good to go for…who knows how many decades more?

Obviously, the driving dynamics are not what the Starlet, and its early Corolla predecessors were all about. But if the priority was on just getting there, as cheaply as possible, the Starlet was essentially impossible to top or stop.

loaded up and ready for another decade of work

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

34 Comments on “Curbside Classic: The Most Reliable Car Ever Built? 1983 Toyota Starlet...”

  • avatar

    Wow, I’d forgotten about these.  Very rare in Canada, my Uncle had one.  He is a Toyota lifer since 1970, the Starlet replaced the 73 Corolla which died of terminal rust.  I remember liking it because of the manual transmission and RWD, but we used to make fun of the back bumper.  It stuck out so far you could have a picnic on it.
    It never died, never rusted out but it did last long enough for Uncle to eventually trade it in on a posher Toyota model.  Too bad you can’t get anything like this today. Thanks for the memory jog!!

  • avatar

    I don’t know about the Starlet, but as far as ueber-reliable basic Toyotas go, I can concur…my father’s 1981 Toyota Corolla ran without fail for nearly 13 years before they decided to upgrade to a new Camry.  And I am currently driving a 1997 Toyota Tercel (how basic can you get…5 speed, crank windows!) with 190k.  Other than oil changes and wear/tear items, the car has never broken down.  Period.  I keep waffling on replacing it with something newer, but it’s hard to argue with the peace of mind that little car provides!  It’s a shame our zeal for “bigger and better” has moved us away from gems like this…simple, rugged, tough and reliable…

  • avatar
    John B

    Several years ago I pulled up at a traffic light behind a rusty Corolla station wagon (gives you an idea of its age) in Toronto.  The owner had a sign in the back window that simply read “475,000”.

    I assume that was the kilometres on the clock.

  • avatar

    My father had an ’81 Starlet, equally red as the communist he was. And I concur, it was dead reliable. I don’t think it ever broke down. They used it daily for fifteen years, until his wife totalled it by running into a flagpole, head on. The front end was virtually bent around the pole.

    Mechanical simplicity, and small frictional and accelerational loads. It had a 1.2 litre engine whilst being RWD, so there couldn’t have been much wear and tear throughout the drivetrain. I guess being tried and true, it had a lot of inbuilt redundancy. Over-engineering doesn’t have to mean adding complexity, it could also be adding simplicity and redundance capacity. It was a really nice car…

    • 0 avatar

      Incidentally, my father became an unknowing gun-runner with that car. My elder brother was a little criminally bent. He was not a particularely bright kid, criminals seldom are, and he died at young age, only 24 years old, by asthma. Anyway, he had got his hands on a handgun that belonged to my mother, and he used it for holding  up convenience stores and such.

      My mother had got it from her uncle, who was a soldier of fortune some hundred years ago. He travelled around the world and made good pay leading forces in different wars, among them the Mexican Revolution under Pancho Villa. He used to get home to Sweden now and then, and he had a big stash of guns and rifles at my mothers place when she grew up. When she was a kid, some of the kids in the neighbourhood got their hands on them, and the local police officer, who knew my grandfather personally,  forced him to have them destroyed. He and my mother went out to sink them at sea, and they did, but my mother made my grandfather save one of them, an old revolver.

      And that was the one my brother had stolen. When his mother (we have different mothers) found out, she confiscated the gun, and my father had to travel all the way down to their place and talk some sense into the kid. My father probably didn’t know what to do with the gun, and he sure as hell didn’t dare to ask my mother, whom he had divorced some time before.

      So he hid the gun in the car to have it destructed later, but by some reason I can’t possibly understand, he forgot all about it. And he forgot that the gun was still in the car. It remaind there for some ten years or so, until he was doing some long lasted spring cleaning. And he had travelled all over the place with that car, to Russia and back, of all places. Had the Russian customs found out about that, he would still be in custody.

      And no, he never had the gun destroyed. He instructed my kid brother to sink it in a lake some time before his death. I think he knew he didn’t have a lot of time left. My kid brother handed it over to me after my fathers funeral, and I’m still in possesion of it, in a safe place. A gun with that much history is worth sparing. And it’s a good story…

    • 0 avatar


      That is sooo cool (the gun runner story). I think I’m jealous; nothing like that ever happened my family.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      @Ingvar, Stephanie and I just read your story, and its awesome! Thanks for sharing; lot more compelling than the Starlet itself.

    • 0 avatar

      Thank you. I mean, who doesn’t like a good story? I like to collect them, as time passes by. Though the whole gun-runner story is actually a little bit longer, so I may as well add the last bit.

      As said, my mothers uncle stashed his guns at my grandfathers place at their summer house. My great grandfather was quite rich, so they had a big estate out at sea in the Stockholm archipelago. They had a house, and his children built houses surrounding the estate, one of those houses was my grandfathers house. So at summer, there was people and relatives all over the place, my mother spent the summers there, with her twelve cousins or so, every summer as a child. And the stories she has told…

      Her uncle had this big coffer, with all the guns in it. And it was locked. One day, obviously when all the grown-ups were out somewhere picknicking or something, one of her cousins opened the coffer, and started playing with the guns. The kids were spanning from perhaps ten years up to the early teens, so there was no immediate danger, but they were obviously too young to understand the responsibilities.  He picked up a rifle and loaded it, and started shooting out at sea, to the other side of the bay. It was perhaps a couple of hundred meters or so straight across.

      On the other side of the bay, a woman was bringing her zinc buckets from the well in the garden into their house, when she heard a zinging noise, and water started to leak on her shoes. The shot fired from the other side had hit the buckets as she walked with them to the house.  Her husband happened to be the local police officer, and she called upon him to take the boat to the other side and look up what those crazy kids in that crazy family was up to. Which he did, with all the diplomacy needed to preserve the friendly connections in the neighbourhood.

      I guess he told my grandfather to quietly sink the guns at sea, and no report would be written, as long as he never heard about those guns again. And that was what my grandfather intended to do, had he not had a weak moment when my mother convinced him of otherwise.

    • 0 avatar

      I think I smell a full-length TTAC editorial here…. Great story Ingvar!

    • 0 avatar

      I started reading this because it was about a car I loved owning, the Starlet… and I got so much more. Your stories are wild, Ingvar! Sorry about your older brother. You should write a book… I still remember your story about your mom getting screwed by the used car dealer, it gives me the heebie-jeebies.

  • avatar

    Toyota’s reliability record is very different from that of Mercedes, Volvo or other stalwarts like the Panther-platform cars.  Cars like this were designed to be inexpensive to own and maintain even in the face of owner neglect.  They weren’t massively-overbuilt million-mile cruisers like the Benz, or easy to repair like the Crown Vic; they were design to run and run and run with the occasional oil, brake and tire change.
    Engineering cars like this, especially to a price point, means you need to give some things up.  The tires will be donuts, the electronics will be kind of crude.  Performance will be down versus the competition, especially when you’re spec’ing components for cost and durability (eg, forget about sticky tires, performance shocks or dinner-plate brakes).
    The thing is, this what people wanted.  They wanted a car that just ran, hardly needed service, and didn’t cost them anything when you finally did take them in.  Even something like the Volvo 240DL or 300 Benzes would whack you in the wallet when you did take them in.  Corollas and their spawn, to this day, don’t do that.  They’re the anti-Ferrari that way.
    Case in point: my mother got our family’s Corolla when my parents split.  She didn’t change the oil for nearly two years, nor did she replace brakes, tires, etc.  Some cars (eg, my old Saab) would see their engine varnished thicker than bowling alley from that treatment; her Corolla accumulated another two hundred thousand kilometers before we replaced anything major.  It went another hundred after that.

  • avatar

    These ADAC breakdown statistics certainly are very interesting. But as with every statistics, some boundary conditions may apply.
    So, if you compare a car like the Starlet (usually driven as a kind of shopping cart extension) with a W123 Benz (usually driven as a cab or business car)  you will certainly have to observe annual mileage and operating conditions. I don’t know, if the ADAC statistics cover the different driving scenarios.
    On the other hand,  a cab driver almost certainly would not ring up the ADAC in case of a breakdown. They have other means.
    To make matters worse for premium cars is the fact that they often are sold with a kind of breakdown warranty (“Mobilitätsgarantie”). As a Benz or BMW owner I would feel more inclined to ring up the manufacturer’s hotline in case of a breakdown instead of the ADAC. So, they would not end up in the ADAC breakdown statistics.
    Driver’s /owner’s attitudes might also play a role. From my observation, there is a tendency among owners of French or Italian cars to  neglect their cars because they simply don’t care. I think the attitude amongst Toyota owners is different.
    Having owned and enjoyed notoriously unreliable cars (according to ADAC statistics) like the early Fiat Panda or the Peugeot 406 I would consider them reliable and would not give a damn on ADAC statistics.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      ADAC anticipated your concern, and notes mileage on every response call, and adjusts for that. And it contracts for essentially almost all the manufacturer’s mobility programs, so its got that base covered. Aren’t the Germans thorough?

    • 0 avatar

      I would agree with that, an ALFA GTV driving (as his only car) friend of mine says that he has never been stranded and my parents both drive Renaults which are over 10 years old with no complaints.
      There is something about an ultra basic Toyota that gives the impression of being able to last a nuclear winter. Such a pity that Toyota seems to want to be Volkswagen these days. There isn’t a single Toyota that I would like to own apart from the Aygo and I already have one of those.

  • avatar

    My dad had a ’79 SR5 Corolla that went over 300,000 miles when the odometer/speedometer broke. The car was then given to my brother who did his best to kill it for the next 2 years. One stunt he enjoyed was to hit the rev limiter,  then pop the clutch, this eventually broke the rear leaf spring. The car was finally junked after a head on collision, but the engine still ran flawlessly. The car required very little maintenance but when it did it was very easy to work on.
    I wish they still built Corolla’s like this, rear drive, indestructable, simple and easy to work on.

  • avatar

    Living with a 1983 Starlet for twenty years just sounds depressing.  Even if it does make it 300,000 miles I can’t imagine having to drive the thing that long. 

    • 0 avatar
      Mark MacInnis

      I’m with you. 300,000 miles at an average speed of what? 45mph?

      That’s about 9 months of your lifetime spent in that penalty box…with no time off for good behavior….

  • avatar

    Sounds like living with a loyal (but ugly) wife for 20 years.  Life is way too short for that.

  • avatar

    Toyotas of this vintage were something else.  My best friends parents got a Tercel the first year they came out in Canada (appliance white, of course).  I have never seen a vehicle accumulate so many miles with so few problems.   Astonishing.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Sigh, I havent  seen one those  in MA in ages.  My mother and father’s first post- Bugs  were an 85 Nova and then an  83 Tercel 4wd wagon.   The running  gear was fine, but  the bodies  rusted  big time.

  • avatar

    Toyotas of that age were bulletproof. I had a ’78 Corolla and my ex had an ’82 Corolla – both white with the blue vinyl interior. Mine was MT, hers had the auto tranny. With a set of snow tires on the rear, those cars made it up and down the hills where we lived at the time better than most of my neighbors. I had mine for about 6 years, and the ex had hers for 8. I don’t remember why I sold mine, but the ex went to a Camry since we were going into the “having kids” stage. Neither Corolla had any major problems that I remember either. They were the definition of good, cheap, reliable transit.

  • avatar

    Every one of these that came into the Iffy Lube I worked at while in high school/college had a ton of valvetrain clatter…I’m going to presume these had solid lifters and the owners were just too cheap to take them in and get the lash adjusted.

  • avatar

    The early 80s Toyota Corollas (MT), 1994 Honda Civics (MT) and 1988 Honda Preludes were always the uber-reliable auto benchmark in my book.

    My neighbor’s late father swore by the Toyota Cressida (circa 1990), however.

    The Japanese impress as they not only offered stellar reliability in mechanically simple cars such as the Corolla and Civics of Yore, as well as the Starlets and 1978 DATSUN B210‘s, but they maintained above average reliability in transitioning to much more complex autos in the 90s, loaded to the gills with complex electronics and engine and drivetrain mechanicals.
    It’s sad to see the drastic cheapening of the interiors of modern Toyotas, transmission issues in Acura/Hondas, etc. now.

  • avatar

    it had the mechanical robustness and un-complexity a Toyota Hi-Lux pickup.
    Saw a lot of these on the road back in the day, but never looked inside one.  I see the interior door handle, steering wheel/column, heater controls and the lighter/radio pod beneath the dash all appear identical to the contemporary Hi-Lux’s.  Those all carried over to the next generation pickup, which also provided the basis for the gen1 4Runner.
    Good thing you didn’t put any of those as a CC clue – I’d have been way off base.

    • 0 avatar

      Those all carried over to the next generation pickup, which also provided the basis for the gen1 4Runner…..

      Gen 1 4Runner..My friend in CT bought one of these (’87) for his first new car. He was replacing a ’71 Maverick that was a 200,000 mile family hand-me-down. Being transplanted to CT in ’84, the salt ate through the remains of the Maverick pretty quickly. While he maintained the 4Runner fastidiously, he was on it hard, and it saw occasional off road duty. Anvil simplicity and good design paid off well. At about 160K, his first repair of significance came due to a cheap fan clutch, which seems to be a common problem. In traffic the truck began to overheat because the fan blades were freewheeling. Didn’t catch it in time…the head did the potato chip thing resulting in a major engine repair. Had he caught the gauge in time he likely would have had no major repairs. By ’93 the rust began to take over the front fenders and the rear tailgate and he sold it to a farm where it worked until a few years ago. Good trucks, these.

  • avatar

    The 1200 Corolla that this was based on was the car that killed VW,  at least here in So Cal.  VW’s peak year in the US was 1969 and by 1972 the first new car of choice by young adults was the Corolla.  While we had  ’67 and ’68 (autostick) beetles,  most couples we knew, especially with kids, had Corolla wagons.
    I liked German stuff and found Toyota’s boring even back then, but a lot can be said for transportation appliances for the masses.  Fast forward to the present and Im driving a 1999 Camry with 207,000 miles and still going strong.  There is a ’69 Karmann Ghia in the garage for weekends.  If I could just grow my hair long again…

  • avatar

    I had a 1981 Starlet when I lived in Michigan in the mid-90s. It did have a lot of valve clatter (as others have mentioned) but was a very tough and fun to drive little box. I loved it! It was a riot at high speeds and so basic it was cool. Sadly I gave it to a friend who needed a car who then junked it when the rust situation became too much for him. I’d buy another but they’ve all vanished.

  • avatar

    The Starlet’s driving dynamics might be better than you think. The RWD Starlet is becoming a popular drift car as the AE86 gets more expensive and hard to find. Of course most of these have an engine swap of some sort, from the reasonable to the barking,

  • avatar

    Took a long highway ride in one of these back in 1981, and my ears are still ringing.

  • avatar

    Kind of pointless to have a car with an engine and drivetrain that will go 500K miles, and put it in a body that will rust out in 5 years. That was about the average time of all of these old Japanese cars failing Maine safety inspection and needing welding or scrapping. My folks ’80 Subaru managed to fail for rust in 3! The ’82 which was “rust-proofed” from new managed 9 years before scrapping the thing. Rusty late-90s Japanese cars are not uncommon here either.

    A Saab or a Volvo may need a little more care and feeding over the years, but at least it will actually last 20 years.

  • avatar

    You have to be kidding, you talk as if 300,000miles is alot my mercedes w123 300d has over 1 500 000km on it and still the original bottom end.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • EBFlex: “Another thing is that I sneak up on deer all the time on my mountain bike.” No….you...
  • EBFlex: ORV is just off road vehicle. A more broad term than ATV or UTV. And again, those are not analogous. Those...
  • Kenn: When I walked by the open door of the GM’s office at a SoCal Toyota dealer, the day I took delivery of my...
  • slavuta: Before traveling to space he could take care of public transport. You should like this...
  • ToolGuy: I spend that $169/year on washer fluid and oil filters instead.

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber