By on May 23, 2016

1981 Toyota Corolla SR5 Coupe in Colorado Junkyard, RH front view - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

These days, plenty of tuner kids want to get a E70 Corolla and turn it into a sick drift machine … but then reality sets in and they end up commuting to work in a 15-year-old Kia Rio instead. Meanwhile, the abandoned drift-project TE72 wagons become 24 Hours of LeMons cars, if they’re lucky, and the rusty SR-5s just get scrapped once something costing more than $19 breaks.

This ’81 Corolla two-door SR-5 liftback gave its all in the service of its owners, and now it awaits parts buyers in a Denver self-service yard.

1981 Toyota Corolla SR5 Coupe in Colorado Junkyard, 3TC engine - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

The 3T-C pushrod engine has a cult following today, thanks to its ability to withstand horrific abuse when force-fed lots of boost. In this car, it was good for 75 horsepower, or three less than the allegedly intolerable 2016 Mitsubishi Mirage, which weighs 2,073 pounds versus 2,310 for the ’81 Corolla SR-5 Liftback.

1981 Toyota Corolla SR5 Coupe in Colorado Junkyard, Corolla emblem - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

There’s rust and plenty of it, so there’s a good chance that corrosion was why this car’s final owner gave up on it. Maybe it was still driving just fine at the end.

1981 Toyota Corolla SR5 Coupe in Colorado Junkyard, radio - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

A factory AM/FM radio would set you back real money during the early 1980s.

1981 Toyota Corolla SR5 Coupe in Colorado Junkyard, AC button - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

This car came loaded with air conditioning to go with that fancy radio. The main power switch on my Junkyard Boogaloo Boombox is the same Corolla unit.

1981 Toyota Corolla SR5 Coupe in Colorado Junkyard, steering wheel badge - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Toyota ought to bring back this emblem for its U.S.-market Corollas. Such style!

In Australia, the Corolla was “Something Special.”

On these shores, we got the slo-mo-leap “Oh, what a feeling” ads.

Sporty new slipstream styling!

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43 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1981 Toyota Corolla SR-5 Liftback...”

  • avatar
    Sam Hall

    If only I could time travel back to high school, when the roads were a sea of these kind of cars, trading for pennies because everyone considered them disposable beaters at the time.

    Also, the Super Beetle I almost bought as my first car, but passed on for reasons I can no longer recall.

  • avatar

    Ahhh…back from the days when “SR-5” meant you got the 5-speed stick!

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    The Corolla was apparently great for dusting around in the desert in the 1980s. Now you wouldn’t dream of driving in that without a CUV or truck – despite the relatively similar ground clearance to those Corollas.

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    I am amazed that the rear bumper cover is still attached. Mine was zip-tied to the frame using Frankenstein stitching.

    Other than that, this one seems oddly rust-free. That’s how the very best of these would have looked around 1988 in my part of the world.

    Question: how did people in the Rockies keep them running at high altitude? My old Corolla barely drove-up the hill to Mount Rushmore (which isn’t really that high up). It felt like it barely had 17 horsepower in the thin air.

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle


      How did people run these under-powered carburated cars in the Rockies? did Toyota offer special jetting, or did you just drop them down a few gears and hope you made it over the pass without overheating?

      • 0 avatar

        Depends on the era. By this time, some cars had built-in altitude compensation, usually just a circuit in the carb that leaned out the mixture above a certain elevation. If not, if you were just passing through, you made due. If you lived at high elevations, the carb would either be replaced for a high altitude spec one or rejetted.

      • 0 avatar

        “hope you made it over the pass without overheating?”

        Ah, but that’s the blessing in disguise of a low horsepower engine. It makes a lot less heat in the first place and that makes the radiator’s job a lot easier!! Malaise era FTW.

  • avatar

    “good for 75 horsepower, or three less than the allegedly intolerable 2016 Mitsubishi Mirage”

    That’s perfect. How did we manage to get from place to place back then in such unusable cars? Also, I see that in the 1980’s, in car commercials people drove down deserted country roads, rather than slogging through traffic or pounding down the highway. Kind of reminds me of now.

  • avatar

    My brother had an ’84 Sentra wagon – the air conditioning (more like the insta-power-sap) button looked just like this but green, rather aftermarket in appearance. I could never tell if it was factory standard or a dealer add-on.

    That car also had a real problem with coming close to overheating – all the time – nothing like being stuck in Phoneix AZ traffic and having to turn the AC off because the temp gauge is stuck in the red. Or climbing the mountains of Colorado and watching the gauge edge up at the same rate you climb, only to plummet once you can coast downhill.

  • avatar

    What’s amazing about these things is how far we’ve come in 30 years. The base MSRP of this car was somewhere around $6200, which is close to $18k in current terms – meaning that this particular loaded-with-a-radio-and-AC version probably retailed for somewhere around 20k. Somewhere around 20k now will buy you a car that’s significantly bigger, gets vastly better mileage, has nearly triple the power, with dual zone auto climate control, a reasonable sound system with a subwoofer, cameras, navigation, leather seats, and a ten year warranty. It’s kind of crazy how far we’ve come.

    • 0 avatar

      It was expensive because of ‘voluntary’ export restraints introduced that year combined with a US currency in free-fall. As for your $20K, 225 hp, dual zone climate, leather, and navigation equipped mid-sizer; were do I sign up?

      • 0 avatar

        185, not 225 – I did say *nearly* triple the power. :) Hyundai Sonata Sport with the tech package. Couple of incentives and 21k out the door. It’s not perfect, of course, but it’s pretty hard to find the same feature set for the money. At 30k I might’ve gone a different direction than a more-optioned Sonata, but at 21 its competitors either were more expensive for the same options (Accord, Fusion) or you just couldn’t find a physical car configured the way you wanted (Optima, which also wasn’t as well put-together in its ’15 guise).

        • 0 avatar

          MSRP of a Sonata Sport with tech is over $28K. That’s 40% more than the Toyota, since MSRP is all we have to go by from 1981. 185 hp is closer to 150 than it is to 225 hp. It would be interesting to look at ATP over time relative to consumer discretionary income. The jury is still out as to whether or not the benefits of technological progress are being felt by everyone.

          • 0 avatar

            Looks like they rejiggered the packages for ’16. You can’t get one configured the way mine is now – premium plus tech now also has the sunroof and some other stuff mine didn’t, but without tech you don’t get the 4.2″ center display and better sound system that I got. I think MSRP for mine was 23-something.

            At any rate, the point that you can get a hell of a lot of car for the money stands, particularly as the Sonata is freaking enormous. If you’re going to compare apples to apples with the Corolla from the ’80s you’d probably be looking at the Elantra or the Accent, which you can get similarly equipped for a few grand less.

          • 0 avatar

            I didn’t want to be bitchy, but I rented a 2016 Sonata, and the back seat is about as worthwhile as the 1981 Corolla’s, such is the practical joke headroom for a car marketed as an alternative to an Accord or Camry.

          • 0 avatar
            heavy handle


            Have you been in the back seat of an 81 Corolla Liftback, as an adult?

            I had one for a few years back in the 80’s (until it rusted away). There’s more space in the back of a Fiat 500.

          • 0 avatar

            True. It was poor application of hyperbole. The Sonata’s back seat was useful, just not for carrying adults in comfort. It had enough floor space to move an apartment, just headroom comparable to that of an ’81 Corolla coupe.

  • avatar

    Look at that Toyota stripey tweed on the back seats. The stuff simply does not age. I wonder the last vehicle with it – probably the late ’90s I’m guessing. It was on the Previa and the 4Runner of that era.

    I saw an SR-5 this weekend, but it was the late ’80s coupe one, in bright red. Caught my eye and made me think about flip-up headlamps.

  • avatar

    When did this body Corolla body style debut?

    Whenever it was, that year, Consumer Reports rated it higher tnan a BMW 320i.

    Really happened. Some one help me out and get the issue month please.

    • 0 avatar

      Well Wikipedia says that export sales commenced in August 1979

      And the 1980 Brochure is dated (10/79)

      So my guess is that it went on sale sometime in the Fall of 1979.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      The 320i of that era was the sort of not-a-2002 and not-an-E30 blandmobile that inspired gray-market imports.

      • 0 avatar

        Judging by this Wikipedia article, the American 320i made less power and was heavier than the European version, so it probably had something like 90 horsepower.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    I recall renting a 1980 Toyota liftback similar to this one in San Francisco. If you thought that cars of that era were under powered dogs, the CA models were far worse. The combination of the CARB compliant four cyl and the dodgy automatic tranny made entering a freeway a truly terrifying experience. I would estimate zero to sixty occurred in 30+ seconds. Luckily, we didn’t do much Interstate driving for most of the trip.
    That rental kept me away from Japanese cars for years afterward.
    In contrast, my wife’s 80 Citation with an AT and Iron Puke engine felt like rocket compared to the CA Toyota. It also did better on gas mileage. After having a few things fixed under warranty, it required only routine maintenance for the eight years we owned it.

  • avatar

    Ah yes, the spiritual ancestor of the Toyota GT86 Shooting Brake!

  • avatar

    The ultimate late malaise era car would have been a Japanese driveline and suspension slapped into an American body and American interior apparently with German build quality.

    Japanese engines just keep going and suspension were better. American steel and interiors last forever apparently, especially interiors, and the Germans knew how to put a car together during that period (not thinking of VW specifically)

  • avatar

    Finally a Denver car with some serious rust.
    I wonder if this one started out in the NE or Great Lakes and migrated.

    • 0 avatar

      Must have. Here in the PNW, that sort of rust doesn’t happen either. Walking through a parking lot a few days ago, I saw an older Ford Ranger with rusting bed sides. I thought “That’s weird — I don’t usually see that kind of rust here.” Then I looked at the back of the truck and saw a New York plate.

    • 0 avatar

      The dealer badge on the back suggests it was always a local car.

  • avatar

    Ah, the days when looking at a Corolla wouldn’t induce projectile vomiting spells. We can’t say that about today’s Corolla which gives us a new version of “oh, what a feeling!”


    Nothing wrong with nice and simple toyotas. The company has forgotten that even simple cars can have a personality – unfortunately today’s Toyoduhs are more like Chuckie or his bride.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, from the get go I found this generation of Corolla pretty handsome. Besides the liftback, there was a two-door hardtop(no B pillar!), and I think a sedan. I’m pretty sure the AM/FM radio was standard equipment, it was one of the ways the Japanese stood out from the nickel-and-dime Detroit crowd.

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        Yes, there were also 2 and 4 door sedans plus a wagon. They had a Hofmeister kink and a boxy BMW influenced style. If only todays Corolla offered such a variety of styles.

  • avatar

    Back in the early 2000s, a blue one of these in much the same condition was parked in the driveway of a house on my middle school bus route. I watched it slowly fall apart over those three years, New York winters are not kind to cars of that era. The house was tidy and didn’t appear abandoned (even the worst house on the smallest plot of land in this town goes for $400k today) so I figure it was the elderly owner’s last ride before he or she gave up driving for good. And then one day, it just disappeared. No doubt the children of the last operator realized the car was too far gone to do anything with and were probably sick of the neighbors complaining about this rusty hunk of metal hurting their property values. This wasn’t even the most interesting abandoned car on that route, one house had a Volvo 240, 1980s Maserati Quattroporte, and I believe a 1980s Porsche parked in tandem in a driveway

  • avatar

    Nice to see a write-up on these. I purchased a 1980 Corolla SR-5 Liftback brand-new in 1980, and owned it 15 years, 185,000 miles. Two water pumps, a radiator, a gas tank. That was it, other than maintenance and wear items. Original clutch still serving, felt just like new. All those years in the Midwest, 4 seasons, and then the last 5 years in Texas: no rust, anywhere. The A/C was a bit marginal for Texas, especially late in life. Took our small family everywhere: vacation to Virginia, countless trips to/from KC & St. Louis. Very easy to service, and I survived a t-boning from a red-light runner in that car. Easy to drive, not thrilling with only 75hp, but never felt imperiled. Useful amount of space, too. Decent in winter with snow tires and a couple sand bags in the cargo area.

  • avatar

    This brings back memories of a girl I dated in 1985… her parents kindly let me drive their Corolla liftback, which might have been identical to this one when it was new. We flipped the back seat forward and were happily laying in the roomy hatch, making out, when a cop came to see what was happening in the Toyota parked in the dark on the side of the road. Sorry, no cheap thrills for him, but he told us to get going “for (y)our own safety”…

    “There was a time, when she was mine, in nineteen eighty five…”

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I bought the slick new 1981.5 Corolla SR-5 Coupe – a great looking car for it’s time. Didn’t realize it only got 75 hp out of the 3TC engine; I had the 5 speed. After moving to Texas I added the a/c – the little sucker dove to both coasts twice as I adventured around on my summer breaks from teaching.

    I eventually bought a house in the late ’80s and needed a pickup for all those trips to Home Depot, so I gave the car to my dad to zip around in back home. Despite his advanced size and age he loved that little “sportster”. Alas it got stolen and stripped a few years later…

  • avatar

    ah yes 80’s Toyotas I had a step up from this an 81 Celica GT. No not a Supra as I had to tell every car insurance salesman who wanted to double my rates for having a fast car. I had the notchback coupe. Prettiest car I ever owned.
    Gas milage would plummet to 18mpg in the winter. My first Toyota and I was amazed at how little maintenance it needed.

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