Junkyard Find: 1990 Geo Prizm With 321,981 Miles

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

The General established the Geo brand for the 1989 model year, as a way to move low-priced iron designed and/or built by Toyota, Suzuki, and Isuzu (for some reason, Daewoo-built cars didn’t get sheltered under the Geo banner, so the LeMans retained Pontiac badges for its entire 1988-1993 sales run here). Of all the Geos, the Corolla-twin Prizm proved the most durable, and so I still find plenty of Prizms during my junkyard travels. Here’s a ’90 with an exceptionally high final odometer reading, found in a Denver-area yard last month.

If you want to find discarded vehicles with better than 300k miles on the clock, your best bet is to look at Hondas, Toyotas, Volvos, and (especially) Mercedes-Benzes from the 1980-2000 period (before then and you’ve got five-digit odometers; after that, you’ll be looking at blank, unpowered LCD odometer displays). The all-time highest trustworthy reading I’ve ever seen was a gasoline-burning 1987 Mercedes-Benz 190E with 601,173 miles; after that, a couple of diesel W126 S-Classes with 572,129 and 535,971 miles. I’ve spotted quite a few early Camrys that broke the 300,000-mile barrier, but my highest-mileage junkyard Toyota find was a Tercel 4WD Wagon with 411,344 miles.

In 1984, a joint GM-Toyota operation began building Chevrolet Nova-badged AE82 Corollas (the version known as the Sprinter in Japan) at the New United Motor Manufacturing plant in California. E90 Corolla production began at NUMMI starting in 1987, with the first Geo-badged E90s appearing in 1989 as 1990 Prizms.

The NUMMI story had plenty of plot twists; the plant began life in 1961 as GM’s Fremont Assembly (very close to the defunct Baylands Raceway dragstrip), became NUMMI in 1984, and is now the location of Tesla Production Hell. This emissions sticker shows that today’s Junkyard Find is a California-market car, not the 49-state version sold in Colorado.

There were no mechanical differences between the NUMMI-built E90 Corollas and E90 Prizms, but the Geo badges meant that resale value for a Prizm was always lower than that of its Corolla twin. This meant that Prizms didn’t get maintained as well as their Corolla counterparts, and something like a blown head gasket or mashed bodywork tended to push a lot of Prizms into early graves. Starting with the 1997 model year, the Prizm became a Chevrolet, with production continuing all the way through 2002.

If you look closely at Geo grille badges, you’ll see a little Chevy bowtie hiding inside.

Toyota would sell you a Tercel with a four-speed manual in 1990 (in fact, sales of four-on-the-floor Tercels continued here through 1996), but all the three-pedal Corollas and Prizms had five-speeds that year. As you might expect, most Prizm buyers preferred to pay extra for automatic transmissions.

One difference between the NUMMI Prizms and NUMMI Corollas was that the Prizms got genuine Delco radios. This one boasts both AM and FM.

Since the original owner proved willing to pay for air conditioning, we can assume that this person didn’t get the five-speed out of pure cheapness.

Maybe it still ran at the very end, but few used-car shoppers have much interest in a tattered high-mile sedan from a defunct brand, especially when it has a transmission that most drivers can’t operate. Next stop: The Crusher.

Big warranty! Cheap financing!

Harlan Ellison thought the Prizm was futuristic.

Did the 1990 Civic have cup holders?

For links to 2,000+ more Junkyard Finds, head over to the Junkyard Home of the Murilee Martin Lifestyle Brand™.

Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin

Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.

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  • Land Ark Land Ark on Nov 03, 2020

    Oh, it's a Prism? I mistook it for a GTR with the black painted A pillars.

  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Nov 04, 2020

    I ran a BMW 3 to 334k, also manual. When you get any car over 150k, Most of the car is a wear part, and you need to be handy with the code reader and be willing to get dirty. Over 225k or so, all of the car is a wear part, and you'll be friendly with the one or two which could be fatal but you know to catch them....eventually rust wins, and in my case, the transmission and diff were still good but the clutch had finally given up, and it wasn't worth fixing, due to rust. I applaud anyone who gets any car over 300k, it takes perseverence.

  • Fred As an old fart still on cable tv there doesn't seem to any changes there. Still a lot of reruns but that's what 90% of tv is.
  • ToolGuy I might be Batman.
  • ToolGuy "could end up being an extinction-level event for the U.S. auto sector"• There are a lot of those going around.
  • GBJT I had a Kia when I as stationed in Youngson Korea and it was a pretty cheaply made car. I think I will stick with Toyota. Would only buy a non-turbocharged Toyota2010 Corolla 120,000mi,1985 FJ 60 Land Cruiser 286,000mi, 2021 Tundra, 2020 Rav 4, 2007 Sienna minivan 140,000mi
  • Chris The only thing I watched Motortrend for was 24 hours of Le Mans. I sent them email a couple of months ago asking for the 2024 racing schedule. They never replied...so I cancelled. Now I know why.