By on November 2, 2020

1990 Geo Prizm in Colorado junkyard, LH front view - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars
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.

1990 Geo Prizm in Colorado junkyard, odometer - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsIf 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.

1990 Geo Prizm in Colorado junkyard, decklid badge - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsIn 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.

1990 Geo Prizm in Colorado junkyard, emissions sticker - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe 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.

1990 Geo Prizm in Colorado junkyard, decklid badge - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThere 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.

1990 Geo Prizm in Colorado junkyard, grille badge - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsIf you look closely at Geo grille badges, you’ll see a little Chevy bowtie hiding inside.

1990 Geo Prizm in Colorado junkyard, manual gearshift - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsToyota 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.

1990 Geo Prizm in Colorado junkyard, radio - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsOne difference between the NUMMI Prizms and NUMMI Corollas was that the Prizms got genuine Delco radios. This one boasts both AM and FM.

1990 Geo Prizm in Colorado junkyard, air conditioning button - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsSince 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.

1990 Geo Prizm in Colorado junkyard, interior - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsMaybe 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™.

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28 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1990 Geo Prizm with 321,981 miles...”

  • avatar

    My 91 Chevy Caprice had over 500,000 miles when I sold it, still running great.

    I gave up on teh 95 Impala SS when it had only 375,000 miles though.

    Old saying, “GM cars run crappy longer than other cars run”

  • avatar

    “GM cars run crappy longer than other cars run”
    You probably have sellers remorse about that SS just like I do about my 69 Camaro, my 97 Grand prix 3.8 still running strong with 180 k miles, on the original plugs and wires!

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Seeing this reminds me once again that we live in a golden automotive era. These 90s econoboxes were, with a few exceptions miserable penalty boxes.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Agreed. Nearly all vehicles are better today than their ancestors were.

    • 0 avatar

      In the 90s, these cars were so far superior to their predecessors that they were capable of running several hundred thousand miles without major repairs.

      Want to compare that to today’s cars?

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        Most cars today do that as well. Most…just like back then. Only they don’t punish you for the priviledge nowadays and double digit horsepower is relegated to lawn mowers.

        • 0 avatar

          It’s also The Goldem Era for sporty ’90s cars.

          Even with 200 HP, most everything that replaces the Prism/Corolla today, all sound like plain misery to me. Thankfully there’s plenty of fun to drive, much lighter 88 to 100 HP late ’80s to mid ’90s cars in minty or easily refreshed condition to be had at a small fraction of current new econo penalty boxes.

          Except the classic sporty cars do demand a manual trans. But it’s me that would demand a manual trans on any new penalty box, just to help keep from going frickin’ insane.

          I can’t be alone in this view. Btw, while new car sales have been stagnant for years, the automotive aftermarket has been quietly blowing up exponentially.

      • 0 avatar

        “Want to compare that to today’s cars?”

        Yes actually, I do.

        Just traded in a 2011 Sienna with 270K miles that was running perfectly and had never had the engine apart for a 2020 that I expect to go at least as long.

        A coworker of mine is coming up on 300K on his 2013 Passat.

        The age of cars on the road hits a record high every year.

        If you want to know the truth about reliability, look at the prices that vehicles with 200K+ on them still command. People are buying them with the (correct) expectation that there’s a lot of life left.

  • avatar

    If Harlan Ellison liked the car, that’s saying something. Harlan’s “like” list (other than his own work) was usually pretty small.

    A fascinating man, hanging with him at weekend SF conventions are definitely amongst my fondest memories of my younger days. He’s sorely missed.

    • 0 avatar

      I appreciate Cordwainer Bird’s work in Canada, a great idea which was never properly produced.. the first TV Scifi with multiple artificial intelligences arguing with each other….I wish someone would buy the rights and do it to Star Trek or Star Wars Quality….if we could get all the Domes together, we could re start the reactors….but how ?

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    The highest mileage I’ve ever seen on a car was way back in the 80’s, when I was a punk working at a quick lube in a tony suburb.
    This old guy had a mid 60’s Merc diesel with 1.2 million miles- and the grill badges to prove it. The car was almost perfect, no leaks, solid body, clean interior. Amazing.

  • avatar

    “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”

    From when I’ve been around junkyards the highest mileage things are generally trucks and vans. I’ve seen seen some big numbers on Panthers as well.

  • avatar

    I believe it, if you look you’ll see a lot of these Geos still running around all beat to hell, but still functional

  • avatar

    4th picture in the ‘gallery’: Peak Spark Plug Access

  • avatar

    2.9% APR for 1989 doesn’t seem that bad

  • avatar

    This fun section will die soon. Because soon, there will not be cars where you can actually read ODO. Electronics take care of that

  • avatar

    These cars were outstanding. Tight, quality surfaces, pleasant to drive, indestructible. My stepmom picked one up with 5k on the clock and flogged it way over 100k on cratered urban streets with damn little maintenance, and the only thing of note the failed was the headliner fabric detaching from its foam backer and falling on her head. Toyota really could build ’em.

  • avatar

    IDK why headliner glue failure is so epidemic. To me, nothing says “hooptie” more than a sagging headliner. IMHO, GM leads the race in headliner failure.

  • avatar

    This was my first new car – a ’90 Prizm for $11k. Ran great for 100k+ miles. Wish all the GMs could run as well.

    And same experience on the headliner drooping…

  • avatar
    Land Ark

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

  • avatar

    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.

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