Curbside Classic: The Most Reliable Car Ever Built? 1983 Toyota Starlet

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic the most reliable car ever built 1983 toyota 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.

The 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.

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.

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2 of 34 comments
  • Krhodes1 Krhodes1 on Jan 21, 2010

    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.

  • Lockiedog Lockiedog on Aug 25, 2010

    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.

  • Azfelix From certain angles the bonnet appears oversized with respect to the rest of the car - like a skinny teenager wearing a bulky sweater nicked from her older sister's wardrobe.
  • Tassos This is way too god damned OLD, 21 years old to have all the necessary options you need TODAY. You need a 10 year old or less car. AND if you give us THIS POS, a 21 year old model, that is not even a LUXURY car, whoever pays $10k for a Golf, And I Do NOT care what anniversary it is (they are all UTTERLY INSIGNIFICANT) deserves to get this MOST UNRELIABLE AND COSTLY TO REPAIR OF ALL LOUSY ECONOBOXES< EVEN THE DOMESTICS AND THE KOREANS.
  • Tassos As you say, Toyota confirmed this on TUESDAY. Today is WEDNESDAY. Why is everything on TTAC held back one or more days before you tell us the NEWS when it is NO MORE THE NEWS?
  • MRF 95 T-Bird You can find a decent and far more stylish Audi TT or an S4 of a similar vintage for under $10k.
  • RHD "In all situations, the grip of the tires (225/40R18 front, 225/35R18 rear) brings with it road noise."Are the rear tires actually smaller than the fronts??!! Adding just a bit of sidewall would take care of the bumps and rough ride. I'm not a fan of BMWs, personally, but this is a very enjoyable car. There are times when driving a convertible is pure bliss, and with a bit of power it's fun as well. (And certainly a better drive than a gussied-up, overpriced German taxicab!)