Toyota’s little crown sparkled
Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV “heavy is the head that wears a crown”, while former King of Prussia Frederick the Great said “a crown is merely a hat that lets the rain in”. Thankfully, Toyota’s “little crown” (the Latin meaning of the Corolla’s name) was neither too heavy nor letting any rain in, during our ownership.
I saw the 1991 Corolla Seca CS-X automatic for sale at a local auction house in 2020. It looked OK (just) in the photos, with a clean interior but somewhat high kilometres. It was passed in during the auction, then listed on its own for online purchase.
I showed my wife the car on the website – it was the model she’d always wanted to own in the early 1990s, but could never afford. So, with the car now listed at $500 it was tempting – even if hefty auction fees would be added on top. We decided to inspect it.
This AE92 Corolla was built in Australia – in fact, the model was built here from 1968 to 1999. The VIN on ours gave that away, starting with a “6”. The AE92 would be built in Australia until mid-1994, interestingly at the Holden Dandenong factory (thanks, “Button Plan”) until Toyota’s new Altona facility was built.
In 1991, Toyota was still making cars with carburettors. The change to fuel injection would happen later that year. The 4A engine for the Aussie market was a 1.6 with 16 valves, which only made 67 kilowatts. The Seca CS-X featured better seat fabric, power locks and mirrors, a digital clock, air conditioning and alloys.
We turned up at the auction yard, and had to put on hi-vis vests to be escorted right down the back, to where the Corolla was sitting, with very faded paint and scratches. I walked up to it, looked inside, and (thinking of the cost to repaint it) said “it’s not a $500 car to me”. Then my wife opened up a door and said “I love it! Let’s buy it”. So, we told the staff member it was sold.
We were then sent an invoice for $500 plus nearly $400 in auction fees, which I paid before getting a notice to pick it up. We bought an online unregistered vehicle permit and the wife drove it away from the back gate, with me following.
Just a few hundred metres down the road, she pulled over and revealed that the steering needed constant adjustment to drive straight. It was quite scary for me to watch – and I’d imagine was even scarier to drive. We decided to take the back roads home, to avoid travelling at high speed.
We made it home and booked our mechanic to take a good look at it. He found that the steering rack was very loose, with all sorts of things needing replacement – along with the 4 shock absorbers and perhaps a CV boot or two. We got it to a stage where it drove right, stopped right and was roadworthy – although it still looked like it had spent years out in the desert.
We talked to a local auto paint shop, which agreed to do a “closed door” respray (no removing panels, just taping off anything that shouldn’t be painted) for $2,650. That was a lot to spend on a $900 car, but I said to the wife that if it’s a special project for her, to not worry about the cost.
The paint job was good, considering the low-ish price. There were some tiny bits of overspray on trim and some paint run on the bonnet, but they were very minor issues that weren’t noticed unless you looked very closely. Plus, the painter had even coated the door sill trims in grey paint with clear coat, to keep them looking good. At a small extra cost, he also sent the alloys off to a workshop to be shined up, as they had faded with age. The Corolla now sparkled like a crown!
It looked new again, was very comfortable to drive, but was still far from pristine. Its plastics around the doors had degraded, and gave off a bit of a smell. The Toyota radio would only tune into AM, not FM. On a trip to the other side of town, the alternator decided to give up and needed replacement.
As well, rough running was fixed when my mechanic happened to remember that a diaphragm gives up in the carburettors. A carb kit fixed the problem.
As another pandemic lockdown loomed, the speedometer started over-reading. I found a speedo repair business on the other side of town, which normally looks after classic cars, took out the dash and had them replace a tiny ball-bearing part for the needle. That cost over $300.
And it was a car from a different time, with different safety standards. This Corolla had no airbags and no anti-lock brakes – a fact my wife was reminded of, one day as we approached traffic lights in the rain. She tried to stop in a hurry on the amber, and we slid into the intersection, with the wheels locked up.
She drove it to work and followed me in it to Cars and Coffee a few times, before deciding a more modern car with Apple CarPlay and improved safety would be a better daily drive. So, the Corolla was gifted to me. It sat in the back of the garage, only getting a run on weekends, or when her car wasn’t in the way.
Along with her old SAAB, I now had 7 cars and no daily use for any of them. So in 2022, I put the Corolla up for sale – finally getting the roadworthy once a little rear windscreen water diverter part arrived from Japan. It also needed a new engine mount, front brakes and an oil cooler pipe replacement. My mechanic noticed that a radiator pipe was just starting to leak, so I added that to his job list.
Given all the work it had done (including that whopping paint job cost) I listed it at top dollar, saying in the ad that while there are cheaper Corollas out there, they won’t have gorgeous paint and nice interior.
One young man was all set to buy it, but couldn’t get the bank to OK his loan due to his living arrangements. A young lady told me, after meeting for a test drive, that in fact she couldn’t afford it. A learner driver wanted to put her surfboard on top (something the liftback was built for), but couldn’t quite stretch to my asking price. Someone in Sydney wanted to just buy the alloys.
Finally, a young lady came to look at it, as her second car after owning a post-2000s Ford. I made sure to let her know it wouldn’t have the same safety features – but she was very happy with it. And she said it would be stored in a garage, which gave me some peace of mind.
Up until then, the future of this “little crown” had been heavy on my head.