Nostalgia Plus Time Equals a New Breed of Collectible Cars
BETHLEHEM, N.H. — Car and Driver magazine said it was one of the 10 best autos of 1986, gushing that “any car with a higher fun-per-dollar quotient would never be allowed by the I.R.S.” In a separate review, it noted the car’s “finely balanced handling, its superb five-speed gearbox and its jewel-like twin-cam, sixteen-valve, four-cylinder engine.”
Not so long ago I was idly reminiscing about that long-ago sports car, the 1986 Toyota MR2, which my wife, Cheryl, and I bought new. The MR2 was unusual because it was a midengine design: That robust little four-cylinder was tucked behind the two seats. Without that weight over the front wheels, the MR2 was extraordinarily quick to change directions, which is what sports cars are all about. Plus its starting price was around $11,000 — or just over $27,000 today.
And this is how I turned into a cliché: the old codger who buys a car wistfully recalled from his youth.
After exhaustive searching, I found my new-to-me MR2. Its original owner had also read the love letters to this Toyota from the time of “Back to the Future.” A test drive won him over. He named it Lil Blue and vowed to keep it forever.
Thirty-five years later, my hunt for an MR2 took a little more effort.
I was undeterred by commonsense issues. My checklist was ambitious. I wanted one that was rust-free, well maintained and accident-free. I wanted a manual transmission. Furthermore, I wanted the first generation, which covered the 1985 to 1989 model years. I liked the angular styling, most charitably described as origami. Others liken it to a doorstop on wheels.
Facebook pages for MR2 owners were most helpful in my quest. I wrote that I was in the market and eventually began hearing from owners. There was buyer-and-seller chitchat and the sharing of photos. But when it came to selling, owners often couldn’t say goodbye.
After one promising chat, a California owner, Shaun VonCorcoran, said he had to go, and his girlfriend asked him to take the MR2 on their date. That was that. The next day he wrote: “I put about 100 miles on the MR2 last night. Perfect weather. I don’t think I can sell it.”
I wasn’t aware of any MR2s in our area in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. But one afternoon, Cheryl saw a red one. On a local Facebook page I asked if anyone knew the owner. Someone did. The car needed a lot of work, but the young man was willing to sell. After my search of the country, here was one in my backyard.
Then I checked the vehicle identification number and found that an insurance company had written it off after a crash. I asked the owner if the title was marked “salvage.” He didn’t have a title.
I’ve always enjoyed watching auctions on the Bring a Trailer website, while quietly mocking those who would buy a vehicle sight unseen. But one afternoon there, I was smitten by a 1985 with 67,000 miles. It was near Seattle. Finally my $14,500 bought it. I was stunned. I’ve done many dumb things, so this could not be the dumbest, but maybe top five?
My long-distance purchase was noted by Mike Oliver, an affable and knowledgeable MR2 enthusiast who lives near Chicago. He was considering selling his MR2, and I had considered buying it. But I had balked at not being able to see it — or drive it — since it was so far from New Hampshire. Mr. Oliver wrote: “You couldn’t get a car farther away, LOL.” I countered: “Hawaii?”
About a week later my MR2 arrived and looked great. Tucked away in the trunk was a thick binder. In addition to information about items such as oil changes, it noted the brand of the waxes and cleaners used for everything, including shining the chrome exhaust tips. It was compiled by the first owner, William McGill of Salem, Ore., and it included his email address.
Mr. McGill, then 23, had read the enthusiastic reports in car magazines and early in 1986 found one at a dealership. “After I drove it, I was definitely hooked,” he told me. He bought it for $11,995, not a small amount given his salary of around $1,000 a month. His car payment was $265 a month, and rent was $255.
But after 26 years and 58,715 miles, Mr. McGill sold it to a friend. “I had the intention of keeping the vehicle forever,” he wrote me in an email. “Funny how life can redirect and change those commitments. As they say, we are just custodians for a period of time.”
Eventually the new owner sold it to a Toyota dealership, where it was on display for several years. The dealership sold it to Ethan Barry’s family in Poulsbo, Wash.
“I really liked the cornering aspect of the car,” Mr. Barry, 22, said. “You could go around corners at speeds you wouldn’t dare in normal cars.”
But he drove it less and less and finally concluded that “it was a decent amount of money just sitting.” He put it on Bring a Trailer.
And that brought it to Bethlehem. To be registered it needed a safety inspection, and the mechanics marveled at its meticulous care and lack of rust. Mr. McGill said his relentless cleaning routine had included sliding underneath to scrub its nether parts.
It was an enormous relief to find out that it is, indeed, great fun. There is an unvarnished, vintage connection to driving. My backside is about 15 inches above the road, and because the hood slants down, there is a panorama of pavement flashing under the car. That makes the MR2 feel as if it’s going much faster than it is. There was also literally a learning curve: It took turn after turn, going faster and faster, to realize that rarely is there the need to brake.
There is a quirky ’80s look and no-frill quaintness: It has roll-down windows, and there’s no power steering, no power door locks, no airbags, and no electronic safety nets such as anti-lock brakes or electronic stability control. And it has some old-age rattles and noises, just like me.
One change from driving an MR2 in the late 1980s is the huge increase in pickups and sport utility vehicles on the road. It is a little over 48 inches tall, and now we’re driving among giants, with the prospect of being punted into eternity. The MR2 has a curb weight of about 2,300 pounds. A new S.U.V. can easily weigh twice that.
Often those who make admiring comments are in their 20s. “Is that really a Toyota?” asked a young woman at a gas station. “That is so ’80s,” said a young man.
With the delights come worries. I fret about scratches, and there’s no slamming doors. I gently wind the windows up or down. It needed new tires and about $1,500 in maintenance. It’s also a little hard to start first thing in the morning — an issue I’m tackling. But overall it’s great. We’ve driven it about 1,000 miles, and as I constantly and nervously check the gauges, each time I see things are OK it’s a little gift.
Some parts are hard to find — owners talk about “unicorn” parts — so there is a treasure-hunt element that makes finding something I need oddly exciting. But because much of the MR2 is based on the old Corolla, many parts are available, abetted by a remarkable help-me-find it, survivor camaraderie on the Facebook pages. Still, some owners stockpile crucial parts against a future shortage.
What’s hardest to find? It depends on where you live. “In hot countries, it is usually the plastics that are hard to find,” said Neil Jones, who has an extensive parts and salvage business in Wales. “In wet countries, it’s the metalwork.”
The fun is accompanied by the worry that one day I’ll be searching for that magical unicorn part.
However, I recently got some advice from a veteran owner. “Every morning, lay your hands on it and pray,” Martin Leodolter wrote on Facebook.