Phil Coconis
by Phil Coconis
bodacious beaters em and road going derelicts em crumpled corolla

That I do agree with other’s criticism of the fact that the Toyota Corolla has become too appliance-like over the past decade, has me looking back on earlier iterations of the model with increasing fondness.

While there were indeed some memorably fun-to-drive FWD versions—the FX-16 for one (and some may include the NUMMI Nova Twin-Cam, although it wore a “Bowtie”)—there was, and is just no comparison to the “FTD Factor” intrinsic in the earlier RWD models. That “factor” was very present even in the little 1972 1200 Coupe I owned (and “boy-racered” to the degree that my budget and skill set allowed) back in the late ‘70’s.

(In my “Dealer Days” during the same time period, a very large Japanese-Hawaiian coworker had a wagon version of the same car. He had done some fairly extensive performance work on the little one-point-two, but visually it was bone-stock—right down to the wheel covers—and was wearing machine-gray paint that worthily complemented its “sleeper” image. It was quite a sight seeing him jammed into the confines of that tiny interior, racing towards or away from the employee parking lot, exhaust cackling a “mini-me” performance tune, as he heeled-and-toed or speed-shifted the little drivetrain into submission!)

The first experience I had with driving one of these earlier RWD Corollas was when I first started working at that Toyota dealership. We had a small rental fleet of 1977 Coupes, equipped with the legendary 2-TC 1600 engines, three-speed automatic transmissions, and precious little else in the way of upgrade options (I remember they were equipped with vinyl flooring—no carpet!) They were really the all-time perfect rental cars: stripped of any unnecessary equipment, and virtually indestructible! I know this because our crew of lot attendants and trainees—with our potentially hazardous combination of youthful exuberance AND inexperience—certainly couldn’t destroy them!

That bit of ancient history leads us into our present subject: what appears to be the 1981 construct of the same vehicle. The condition of this one illustrates my point on the Corollas of this time period—in a truly exaggerated fashion! Physically beaten—and rusted where not beaten—but still on the road.

The owner has probably been considering sending it to the wrecker for some time—no doubt just waiting for the catastrophic mechanical failure that will finally lead to its being euthanized. My experience with the mechanical integrity of these units says these types of failures can be a long time in coming. While their simplicity and rugged design are the main contributing factors to this, the FTD feature tends to be endearing enough so as to influence the owner in ways otherwise contradicting objective reasoning. “Yeah, she’s a little tired looking, but what a RUNNER!”

About the only thing in the mechanical realm that gets to be a consistent problem with these ‘rollas, at this point, is the A.I.R. injection componentry within the emissions control system. I mean, the stuff was all built to last; but we’re looking at a thirty-year-old vehicle here, and these components can’t be expected to last forever. Functional replacement parts—whether new or used—can be scarce, and expensive. I have found that a little “Yankee Ingenuity” can go a long way when replacement parts can’t readily be had, though.

Hopefully, the owner of this example continues to be “unreasonable”, letting his or her road-going derelict “freak flag fly”.

Phil has written features and columns for a number of automotive periodicals and web-based information companies. He has run a successful Auto Repair Business in the past for many years (See “Memoirs of an Independent Repair Shop Owner” on this ttac site). He can be contacted through this very site, or

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  • Fozone Fozone on Mar 23, 2013

    In my mind, this was the car that really presaged Toyota's greatness in america. As a young man I had one of these from new, also with the 1.8 and the 3-speed auto. Modern drivers would find it unbearably crude (no power steering! no power.. anything!), but it was fun to drive & the damn thing was unkillable. The engine could be tuned up and repaired with basic hand tools, and there were few accessories to break. The seats were made of a vinyl that felt every bit like the plastic it was -- sort of like the kind italian grandmothers used to use to cover their sofas. Again, crude but unkillable. The transmission endured for 100k+ miles without anyone changing the fluid -- you should have seen what it looked like the first time it was changed. I think more of the tranny came out with the fluid than remained in the car. Yet it still ran. The thing that led to its demise was northeastern body rot. I only wish I could see the car one more time so I could say "I'm sorry" for the hell we put it through.

  • MRF 95 T-Bird MRF 95 T-Bird on Mar 24, 2013

    My sister had the identical car in the mid-80's. It had a 5 speed and A/C. One day I borrowed it because my vehicle was in the shop. A guy had just pulled out of a Cadillac dealer in a new Eldorado and was a bit unfamiliar with the controls in particular the cruise control. As I was slowing up for a light where there were a line of cars ahead of me he plowed into the rear of the Corolla. Luckily I had the sense to turn the wheel left and drive up on the median so as to not plow into the cars ahead of me which would have caused a chain reaction. The rear of the Corolla absorbed the hit quite well, (must be those large rubber and steel backed bumpers w/shocks) with bent quarters and a angled but slightly dropped gas tank. The Eldo not so much, it was the newly shrunk 1986. It's damage consisted of a broken grill,bent hood and leaking radiator. Since I was belted in, the drivers seat back became slightly contorted but thankfully I emerged unscathed. Insurance paid to total the car which was still drivable but I think someone at the wrecking yard resold it to someone who pulled the rear out or grafted a new one on and continued to enjoy the Corolla's vaulted reliability.

  • Art Vandelay I’d grab one of these if I’d spent my working life at GM for sure!
  • Analoggrotto The factory is delayed due to an investigation of a peter puffery ring lead by VoGhost, Tassos, EBFlex a Civic Type-R
  • FreedMike Looking forward to the protests at the factory accusing Toyota of excessive woke-ism. First,, grooming. Lord help us all.
  • MrIcky I remember when Gladiators came out and everyone was shocked at how expensive they were. Now all the off road specials have caught up or passed it financially. I like this truck a lot, but I'd still take my Rubicon over this. I'd take this over the Ranger Raptor or Tacoma TRD though. When I found out the increase in track for the new TRD was just wheel offset-I knew they were just phoning it in. Why spend so much R&D on those stupid seats when you could have r&d'd longer arms or a front locker.
  • Alan Hmm, I see a bit of politicking here. What qualifications do you need to run GM or Ford? I'd bet GM or Ford isn't run by experienced people. Anyone at that level in an organisation doesn't need to be a safety whip, you need to have the ability to organise those around you to deliver the required results.