By on April 26, 2012

After 15 years of sales in the United States, the Corolla had become as familiar to Americans as the Nova or Dart. By 1981, Toyota had confused matters by badging the unrelated Tercel as the “Corolla Tercel,” but the actual Corolla was still selling well. With the gas lines of the 1979 energy crisis— by some measures more painful that its 1973 precursor— still fresh in car shoppers’ memories, the stingy Corolla made a lot of sense. The Corolla was getting sportier-looking as the 1980s dawned, too; compare this car to the smaller and frumpier Corollas of just five years earlier. Here’s a nice example of the Celica-influenced fourth-gen Corolla liftback, spotted last month in a California self-service yard.
Yes, Rust Belt residents, these cars are still fairly easy to find in California; they were better-built than earlier Corollas (which were only reliable when compared to the abysmal quality of most other cars of the era) and they retained their value long enough— say, well into the mid-1990s— to be worth fixing when something did break.
It’s always interesting to see factory AM/FM radios in cars of this period, because any kind of radio was an expensive option back then.
This car was pretty well used up by the time it got junked; other than a catastrophic mechanical failure, a hooptie-fied interior is the main thing that buys a Malaise Corolla that fatal ride to the junkyard.
The good old 3T-C engine, made for the California market back when there were “California” and “49-state” versions of many cars. Smog-friendly low compression kept this engine’s output down at 70 horses. It wouldn’t be many years after this car that California Corollas came with a 112-horsepower 4AGE engine, though.

I couldn’t find a Liftback-specific ’81 Corolla ad, so let’s watch this Australian Corolla-lineup ad instead.

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33 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1981 Toyota Corolla Liftback Coupe...”

  • avatar

    In my opinion, these might be the handsomest of the old Corollas. The ’80-’83 generation cars were a big leap over the ’70s cars in refinement and build quality, though they still weren’t much fun to drive compared to a Honda or Mazda. Murilee’s next assignment is to find an example of the late-entry and somewhat curious-looking notchback coupe based on this liftback style.

    • 0 avatar

      They should be handsome. IIRC, this generation of the Corolla – all bodystyles – was styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro. It was somewhat customary practice for Japanese companies at the time to hire European designers to act as uncredited “advisors”.

      • 0 avatar

        Sometimes the reason they went uncredited is because the Japanese would alter their proposals so much, either out of necessity (tax bracket width) or market issues. I think Suzuki once edited a tallboy Giugiaro runabout into a keicar coupe.

        I had extensive contact with this generation of Corollas as a kid, and have always disliked them subjectively. Very industrial, distinct/different engine drone, and I’m still taken aback by the industrial COROLLA font to this day.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ve always wondered whether Pininfarina or another Italian styling house did the 1984 Honda Civic/CRX lineup. They look at least heavily influenced by the Italians plus stylistically they were a complete break from previous Hondas.

    • 0 avatar

      The ’80-’83 cars were the last of the Corolla sedans (hatchbacks and liftbacks) that were rear-wheel-drive.

      Only the GT model retained it after ’83, and only as long as that model lasted, iirc.

    • 0 avatar

      I bought the “straight” Corolla in October of 1980, and traded in a ’77 Chevy Monte Carlo that I’d bought new and was falling apart, all the while eating all my money for gas. Boy, was I a happy Toyota customer! In August, I happened to be next to the Toyota dealer in another city, and wandered over and found the “notchback” SR5! I bought it on the spot, and got all but $700 back for my straight Corolla. Magnificent car, and I got more comments on it than anything since – “handsome car” was the most common. I put 175,000 miles on it myself, and it had over 250,000 when my brother-in-law wrecked it. Six years later, long after it was paid for, a hailstorm hit town, and for a few pea-sized dents that I didn’t bother to fix, I got almost half of what I paid for it from the insurance. Nothing but fond memories of that fantastic car!

    • 0 avatar

      Does anyone know of any of these in New York area also where in california is this one?

  • avatar

    This was a very good car. It was a slick update on a lot of tried and true technology.

    I don’t believe anyone buying this car doubted themselves for selecting it over a Chevrolet Citation of a Ford Escort during the years they drove it.

    Toyota still goes out of their way to avoid anyone questioning their vehicle’s ability to remain on the road. To the point where owning a Toyota is like eating a McDonalds Quarter Pounder.

  • avatar

    I always had the feeling that the design of this car was influenced by Nissan’s popular 240SX.

  • avatar

    Rant about them if you want, those 5mph rubber Toyota bumpers WORKED.
    I was rear-ended by a guy in a Camaro while driving my ’84 Celica. We stopped, got out and looked. His bumper was buried DEEP into my rubber Toyota bumper. He got into his car and backed up and that bumper just – bounced back. Absolutely zero damage. His Camaro bumper was a little scuffed. We decided no harm, no foul, and called it a day. The same accident today with my 2003 Sienna would result in the need for a new $300 or up plastic bumper cover at a minimum, insurance hassles – I’d rather it had ugly 5mph bumpers on it.

    • 0 avatar

      $300? You wish! More likely $1500-2K for that “minor” accident.

      I’m with you – give me the 5mph bumpers back (and the Volvo 240s had 10mph ones because they were “safer”). We have the technology to protect both the cars and people now, but the automakers and body shop people have figured out how lucrative it is to drive bumperless crumple zones around.

    • 0 avatar

      I always did wonder why rubber bumpers left since they’re dent and scratch free. Companies probably shied away due to prices and it using up more rubber.

      Heres the thing though, we have a ton of old worn out tires still sitting around, couldn’t we re-use them to make modern bumpers?

      I have a Tercel with these bumpers and I was surprised the minute that I felt them, and never got why even todays “Urban Sportser Economy Cruisers” don’t have rubber bumpers.

  • avatar

    My parents bought the standard 2-door coupe variant of the Corolla in 1981 after my dad’s buddy bought a four door and loved it. That was the beginning of 30+ years of Toyota ownership for them. Boring? Yes. Stone reliable? Yes. They moved up from the 81 Corolla to a 93 Camry, and then after my father passed away, my mother went back to Corolla in 03 (which she still drives). Of the three, I only recall the Camry ever going in to the repair shop once (overheated in 2002 on the Autobahn) for anything beyond routine maintenance and regular wear/tear items. We almost bought the four door off of his friend (actually would have been more like a trade for our 76 Montego) but I secretly wanted him to get the SR5 variant…like I said…it wasn’t fancy (or anything resembling fun to drive, especially since ours all had automatics), but we never worried about getting in and going anywhere with them.

  • avatar

    In their day, I wouldn’t give these cars the time of day.

    But in retrospect, I could see one of these as a cool project. This was the best looking of the Corollas IMO, although I have a soft spot for the late-60’s iteration, especially in a wagon.

  • avatar

    My truck went down several years ago and I rented one of these (same style – not sure of year) from a company called RentaHeap. The car was actually better than my truck and I didn’t want to give it back.

    Appearance only, it was a heap. Function – it wa great.

  • avatar

    I had a used 79 Corolla Liftback SR5 with, if I remember right, a 5-spd. Brake calipers, brake valve and fuel pump are the repairs I made. There were a full set of gauges on the dash. I liked this car so much I put in an aftermarket stereo/cassette deck and two pair of new speakers. Sounded good for the time. A coworker’s son/daughter-in-law bought a new Citation. I remember the coworker mentioning accident, brakes and possible lawsuit after they had the car for a couple of years. My Corolla was very good car and no rust problems in central WI. I sold it in 1988 for $900. It had 124k miles on it and a RF fender that need a body shop. I saw it on the road often until the mid 90’s. Now I think back to who I was dating at that time, you know, like we all (or most) do! Two gf’s and two Toyota’s (each different and a year apart!), and trips to Chicago do not seem to end well with me.

  • avatar

    I took drivers ed in a two door notchback version of this car. It was the easiest car I could possibly have learned on. Not much power. Very neutral handling. Easy controls. No surprises whatsoever. Given that I was taking the course in Manhattan, it got a little dicey trying to pull quickly into traffic. Nevertheless, I have fond memories of this generation of Corollas. Now my wife had the first gen FWD model (an ’84 hatchback) when we first got involved. Something got lost in the translation, at least in the early years b/c that car had a few reliability issues, oddly enough.

  • avatar

    I’m really suprised a “drifter” hasn’t swooped on this thing.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s post-1975 and subject to smog control.

      A ’76 version of something is much much less valuable than a ’75 example, as ’75 and before is a free for all.

      You can legally swap in a newer engine to an older smog-controlled car, but then you have to get it inspected and maintain all the smog controls from the later car.

      • 0 avatar

        Speaking from a California smog-laws POV, this is accurate.

        But if you’re going to keep the stock motor, I’d consider post-’75 preferable to pre-’75 because of the myriad vacuum lines and additional doodads early ’70’s cars required to meet pollution standards.

        After catalytic converters took over that role, many post-’75 cars actually got simpler under the hood, as the converter did the work previously done by all the doodads hooked together by vacuum lines.

        As smog laws got tighter the doodads reappeared, only more refined by ten years of progress…but by the mid-’80’s the big leap was from carburetors to EFI; and again many mid-80’s with EFI were once again simpler under the hood than their carbureted predecessors.

      • 0 avatar

        Actually a 35 year old car only needs to pass a ‘closed hood’ smog test. This is a loophole very few people know about. The ‘closed hood’ smog test is just a tail pipe test, and a peek under the car to make sure there is no visible gas leak. You could have whatever modifications under the hood as long as it still passes the tailpipe test.

        I have yet to know anyone who’s gotten by with this loophole though.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    This is very similar to the rental car we had on our honeymoon in SF in the spring of 1980. I remember flooring it trying to merge on 101 outside of the SF airport. Very little happened. The 0-60 time was probably on the order of 20 minutes. Compared to my wife’s 80 Citation, this was patheticaly slow. The 90 HP “49 state” Citation was no speed demon but it could run rings around the CA version of this Toyota. Then my 75 Opel Manta would have run rings around both of them.
    After taking my life in my hands every time I merged onto a busy freeway for the next week, I never looked at a Toyota for the next 12 years.

  • avatar

    Those early 80’s Toyotas were built like tanks. These were solid, long lasting cars. A friend of mine still has an early 80’s Corolla sedan and it’s still running perfectly fine.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I had the ‘sports coupe’ version, which was a mid-year new model. After being burned twice by crap American cars, I searched high and low. The Scirocco and Accord were $1k+ more (a lot back in the day of a $9k salary!), the Datsun didn’t drive as well.

    Maximum item of coolness – that radio ‘pod’ could swivel towards the driver or passenger.

    I remember having a sunroof put it, and the Kamei front spoiler I bought. And CB antennae.

    Meanwhile, for its tiny little 1.8L, it was lots of fun drifting before the cool kids caught on.

  • avatar

    It’s cars like this that make me think about starting my own business. I would buy these old heaps from California, and then “import” them to Chicago. Then, I would at least get them running/driving/re-powered, sell them and make money hand over fist.

  • avatar

    My first car in 1990 when I was 17. Mine was just like this except it was red and had quite a few options – air, power steering and brakes, a sunroof panel that didn’t slide back into the roof – you released a bunch of latches and took it off the car, AM/FM radio. It was a P.O.S. though. In less than a year I had the speedometer fail, clutch slave cylinder fail, starter fail, some sort of carburation problem than cut power in half, etc. I dumped it for an 81 Honda Accord that except for useless air conditioning was a much more reliable car until the head gasket went.

    It ran well for the times and the air conditioning was sufficient for eastern TN. The handling was fairly entertaining as well. She didn’t roll over and meekly understeer like sensible cars do today, but would be capricious and let you think she was going to do just that and then the rear end would come around too damn quick to catch for a 17 year old. This was really fun on the I-40 exit ramps around Knoxville.

    These were very popular growing up in eastern TN. The upper middle class switched wholesale to Volvo’s, BMW’s, and Mercedes-Benz in the the late 70’s/80’s where I grew up around Knoxville and the middle class began their migrations to Datsun/Toyota/Honda during the same time. Even the proles(I don’t mean this in a negative sense as I grew up and am still a proud non-pretentious prole despite being a middle class professional) partially migrated to Japan during this period. Despite all of the love on this site for B & C body GM products, I grew up with half a dozen of them and they were all unreliable junk. Something was always wrong even shortly after being purchased new. Transmission problems, starting/driving issues(just about all cars had this problem though), cooling system problems, electrical problems, HVAC problems, paint problems, etc. Car trouble on long trips was not uncommon even with relatively new cars. People were willing to trade their familiar American cars for these unfamiliar Japanese cars simply because they were relatively more reliable to what they had been driving or were perceived as more exclusive.

    I have a theory that a lot of Detroit’s loss of market share has to do with wives and mothers who were vexed by troublesome cars. My father always bought the automobiles in my family but my mother took them to get fixed as she had the time. In 1993, my mother who was fed up with 35 years of constant problems with her Impalas & Caprices that dad bought her went out and bought herself a Nissan Sentra without my father’s knowledge or permission. It has been replaced by three other Nissan’s since (except for one Buick that dad gave her) and she has been happy and thinks the world of the Nissan Motor Company.

  • avatar

    What is the blade-like thing sticking out of the back of the car? Is the back end being suspended by that?

  • avatar

    In 1981, I had the wagon version of one of these as a work car (radio news vehicle)…liked it a lot. Owned a ’78 Corolla SR5 liftback as my personal car at the time and found the wagon about as responsive and way less claustrophobic inside.

  • avatar

    I love how it advertises that it’s a manual right on the back. Gives it so much more street cred!

  • avatar
    Pick em up boys

    I’ve put two of these threw a demo derby. won some good money on the second one too. just found my third one going to do the same thing with it but this derby allows me to leave those awesome bumpers on there. so we’ll see the difference in what they’ve been made to do or not. the only thing is this time i found the car whole and running with absolutely no problems at all. Anyone know what it would be worth all parts matching damn near perfect conditions?

  • avatar

    Hello I have a junkyard find 1978 Corolla automatic.has motor and trans. Some missing parts nothing major. Just door handle pass window and drive. I was thinking of parting it out or asking whole. Does anybody have an idea what it might be worth?

  • avatar

    I want to buy the fender on the passenger side or anyone know where I can find at the junk yard my car is Toyota Corolla 1983 2 door everything look very good just been hit I would like to be is look good again I live in LA

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