Sometimes I wonder if Buck likes my little car. He’s a straight-up, V8, American Muscle kind of guy, and he gives me a hard time about my Celica. It doesn’t help that I woefully miscalculated the horsepower to weight ratio for it when I agreed to drag race it against his 1969 Dodge Charger. I mean, come on! A Charger weighs 4,500 lbs with a 440 engine, net rated at 375 horsepower. I figured my little 1,800 lbs Asian make with 130 horsepower stood a decent chance!
Only after losing did I dig far enough to find out I was off by 1,000 lbs. BUT, it did leave an impressive set of rubber streaks off the starting line!
A Toyota Celica was the first manual transmission car I ever drove. It was a 1993 Celica ST, which stood for standard everything. Actually, I don’t know what “ST” stands for, other than the trim package, but it did have standard/manual everything except for the sunroof. But it was shiny black with a Euro stripe! It was a sports car and this was the advent of the Fast and Furious era when foreign made sports cars edged out the muscle and briefly became the icon of drivership before the SUV and the pickup took over.
The 1.6 L, 4 Cylinder engine ran beautifully and had all the horsepower I needed at the time. I won a couple drag races against a Civic and an Escort with that little car! More than driving it, there’s an attitude and an image that goes with it and that includes the shades, the one-handed stance on the wheel with the other draped over the stick, and getting in and out of it smoothly and stylishly. I hid for an hour up at the state park one time practicing that last part.
Don’t laugh! Driving a stick-shift with short legs, a person sits close to the wheel, which means you have less than a foot clearance between your seat and the door hinge. The point was to find the exact way to swing the left leg out without snagging my shoe on the door, the running board, the seat, etc. and push up with both legs smoothly tilting my body leaving my hands free to do whatever from grasping the door to the sassy removal of my sunglasses to cast an intimidating stare at the competition. All of it needed to be as natural as an Old West cowboy swinging into and out of the saddle.
So, I might’ve had more than a few fantasies about being a badass driver. Once I tried driving with lug-soled hiking boots, all delusions fell away. Not just because the feel of the pedals was dulled but also because that extra half-inch of foot tread caused me to snag my foot ungracefully on the door!
More than anything, the 93, as I call it now, was my first open road vehicle. A serious upgrade in reliability from my 1991 Grand Marquis Wagon high school ride, I drove it to college two states away, then out to the West Coast for my first internship. I cruised the South Rim of Grand Canyon in it, ran out of gas in the Mojave Desert, slept in the front seat in a public beach lot and fled a vagrancy charge in it. I saw the giant sequoias and the Pacific Ocean for the first time through its windows.
Part of me hated to let it go, but a chronic sensor issue coupled with incompetent dealership mechanics trying to feed business to the sales department eventually forced me into trading it off for the Grand Cherokee I told about in one of my earlier blogs. The poor 93 eventually died an over-loved fate at the hands of my brother. Contrary to public belief, additives galore will not improve mileage or performance and will eventually kill the vehicle.
So when the old Grand Cherokee started showing her miles, I decided it was time for another vehicle, and I had a strong desire to own another little sports car. What I really wanted was another Celica of the same generation, but the handful of them I’d seen were still used as regular drivers. The only ones for sale were parts only deals.
In a weird twist of fate, it was the same car-killing brother who referred me to a guy who was selling a fifth-generation Celica GT for his sister. By no means was it as pretty. To start with, maroon is not my favorite color, and the gel-coat was peeling. Maroon, teal and red in that era of Toyota will eventually degrade by fading or sloughing . This one had the additional issue of both bumpers flaking.
A decade lay between my last drive down the interstate with the 93 and sliding behind the wheel of this 1991 model. When I stepped on the clutch and turned the key, a whole set of unconscious memories returned. My body remembered the steps: when to shift by the sound of the motor, setting the cruise, adjusting the air, wipers, everything! Except this one had a bigger motor and a different transmission and clutch, a fact that caused rough shifting as my conscious and subconscious brains warred with one another on one side of my head while nostalgia and common sense battled on the other side.
I needed a second car to alleviate the stress of borrowing one every time the Grand Cherokee went into the shop, but did I need another black box of potential problems that came with buying a used car? It was exactly what I wanted with the upgraded trim package, but it needed some work. The suspension banged and hissed over bumps and it had a weird vibration going down the highway, but it ran well, shifted well and was exactly what I wanted, even if it looked like it was fresh out of the junkyard, but it was a single-owner rig with all the maintenance records intact. As far as used cars go, this was a great deal!
So, I agreed to buy it. It took a couple days before the owner was able to sign over the title and drop it off to me. She never said it, but I could hear in her voice that this was probably the first new car she’d bought in her life. I didn’t have to hear her story to understand what it meant to give up a car like that. My brother told me she had turned down several other buyers because she didn’t trust them. With tears at the edge of her tone, she asked about my plans to fix it up. I told her my guesses at what it needed, and that I had the connections to do the work. She felt bad that she couldn’t keep it going. I promised I would take good care of it, but admitted that I would probably paint it a different color someday. She seemed satisfied, but still sad as we swapped the title for cash and went our separate ways.
I kept my promise. It started with a trip to the tire shop to check the reason for the tires wearing funny. Came back with a list of needed repairs and a quote for over $2,000 to do the job. I decided to buy the parts and do the work myself. So, with the help of a Hanes manual, YouTube and a buddy with a garage, it rolled out smooth but not so easy. It was the first time I ever dealt with coil-over shocks or a banjo fitting buried in a crowded engine bay. That was in 2015. To the surprise of the previous owner’s brother, the 91 is still running and driving, though it’s now parked for the winter to preserve its rust-free body. Sometime, down the road, I will get the body repainted as a tribute to the old 93.
For now, the gel coat is steadily dissolving with the years. Most people probably think it’s a Ford Probe ready for salvage, but it’s a time capsule of fun, a little go-cart that won’t win on the drag strip, but when Buck starts bragging about his American Muscle, I say two words, “Street race,” and the bragging falls into hesitant silence. He can’t dispute its superior handling.