By on March 22, 2013


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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13 Comments on “BODACIOUS BEATERS and road-going derelicts: CRUMPLED COROLLA...”

  • avatar

    Oh my goodness – a proper pick up truck alert parked ahead of the Corolla.

  • avatar

    I had a ’82 with a Griffith convertible conversion, same brown color.
    The lines of the two door really were good w/o the roof. 5 speed, pleasant if not invigorating to drive.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    This gives me hope that my 98 with its 355k miles will go on and on and on, w/o emptying my bank account.

  • avatar

    That’s an old Dodge .

    This scene typifies South Central Los Angeles , I drive it daily and these old Japanese beaters are -everywhere- ~ as you mentioned , the ones in the junkyards had catastrophic failures and so tend to have nice bodies and no rust .


  • avatar

    I had an ’81 Corolla Wagon. It was a lovely car with a snick-snick shifter, tight steering, uninspiring suspension and cornering, that got great gas mileage. I’ve owned many station wagons and it was one of the best. It survived cross-country trips in good form, including a blowout on the NJTP and a close miss with a Jersey barrier. The “Oxygen” light would not go out, so I passed annual inspection by removing the bulb by reaching up behind the instrument cluster (gotta love the pre-OBD days).

    Ironically, it was bought by a company that teaches diplomats life-saving driving maneuvers before getting posted to dangerous countries. The buyer assured me that it might last a week or two before being sent to the great parts-yard in the sky.

  • avatar

    I have to disagree on the fun to drive quotient. Compared to any number of contemporaries, they really weren’t. Numb and vague steering, lousy brakes, mushy understeery handling. I guess they were nippy compared to the typical American barge of the day, but they did not even come close to a Datsun 510 or anything Mazda made, never mind a BMW 2002 (admittedly much more expensive). Just as dull then as now. I will give them the nice shifter though, but how can you screw that up when the lever comes right out of the top of the transmission?

    Tough cars, but I bet there are just as many 510s still running around, mostly because people actually liked them and saved them.

  • avatar

    I had one of these when I was younger, it was given to me for free by a relative. Mine was the 3-door hatchback version in the same metallic copper color.It sat parked out in front of their house for years because their daughter didn’t want to drive a 5-sped. When I got it the carb needed rebuilt, and it looked like it had dried mustard in the fuel bowl. The sun baked the interior, and the carpet in the rear hatch area bleached out and decayed, and the plastic smelled like an armpit. I got it running again and all cleaned up, and I painted the center of the wheels metallic gold, and it didn’t look too bad. One day while riding home during a bicycle ride I found the plastic front air dam from a Chevy S-10 pickup laying in a ditch and brought it home. The air dam mounted perfectly under the front valance. To make the air dam even sportier I added a piece of aluminum 1″ L-shaped channel stock I got from Lowes to make a vertical lower lip on the bottom of the air dam. I also got two aluminum rainspout downpipe adapters, cut out an oval hole on each side of the front of the airdam, then mounted them with screendoor wire mesh across the front so that they looked like brake cooling ducts. From the front it looked like an SCCA race car. One time I pulled into Summit Point Raceway to watch a vintage sportscar race and the guy selling tickets asked me if I was there to race !. The dashpad was cracked too, so I took it off and recovered it with some black strechy fleece fabric I got from a local fabric shop.

    The car wasn’t that bad to drive around town as a daily driver, and it was fun snicking through the gears. The thing was loud as heck out on the highway at around 70mph due to minimal soundproofing, but at least the airdam kept the front end from feeling floaty at speed. One of the cool things about the car is that it had a factory sunroof with TWO sunroof inserts. One sunroof panel was steel painted the body color of the car, and the other was a dark tinted glass or plastic panel that came with it’s own storage pouch, and the rear floor of the hatch had straps to tie it down with. In about 5 seconds you could completely remove the sunroof panel, and either leave it open, or install the tinted one. The other feature I found nifty was the wiper for the rear hatch had it’s own washer and fluid reservoir in the hatch.

    The car was exetremly reliable, and I bought a full set of factory repair manuals for it from a used book seller at the Carlisle PA swp meets one year. I could change the clutch in it in 45 minutes with just the front of the car up on ramps, and the transmission was so light I could lower it onto my chest to remove it, then bench press it back up into place. Rust got to the catalytic converter one year and the heatshield fell off and there was a rust hole in the bottom of the converter. You couldn’t hear the exhaust leak during normal driving, except when you down shifted. When you downshifted the excess gas going out the exhaust would create an awesome gurgling and backfiring through the cat that sounded like a racecar downshifting at speed. I used to love driving it around in town and downshifting it just to get that sound.

  • avatar

    It has been at least 20 years since I have seen a Toyota like that around here. Ohio winters would have finished it off with rust long ago. Most Japanese cars rust out before they die of mechanical issues around here.

  • avatar

    I graduated high school in 1989…it seemed like the parking lot at school consisted of 40 or 50 percent of this particular car. I see old Toyota Pick ups of this vintage that look like they were dragged off the bottom of the pacific ocean being used for scrapper duty all over LA…

  • avatar
    Compaq Deskpro

    Judging by how the door’s paint seem to be in better shape than the rest of the car makes me they were already replaced in the past with junkyard doors, and they have been damaged again.

    This kind of thing would never fly in New England. The only cars I see from the 80’s are American trucks, Mustangs, Camaros, and Mercedes. When I do see the rare 80’s Toyota or Nissan pickup, they look like swiss cheese.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    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.

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