BETHLEHEM, NH – Car and Driver magazine said it was one of the 10 best autos of 1986, adding that “any car with a high fun-per-dollar quotient will never be allowed by the IRS”. 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 reminiscing about that old sports car, the 1986 Toyota MR2, that my wife, Cheryl, and I bought new. The MR2 was unusual because it had a midengine design: that sturdy little four-cylinder tucked behind two seats. Without that load on the front wheels, the MR2 was exceptionally quick to change direction, which is what sports cars are all about. Plus its starting price was around $11,000 – or just over $27,000 today.
And so I turned into a cliché: the old coder who bought a car remembered from his youth.
After a lot of research, I found my new MR2. Its original owner even read 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 search for the MR2 took a little more effort.
I was unimpressed by commonsense issues. My checklist was ambitious. I wanted one that was rust free, well maintained and accident free. I wanted a manual transmission. Also, I wanted the first generation, which covered the 1985 to 1989 model years. I liked the angular styling, which is most benevolently described as origami. Others compare it to a door mounted on wheels.
The Facebook pages were the most helpful for MR2 owners in my search. I wrote that I was on the market and finally started hearing from the owners. There was buyer-seller chitchat and sharing of photos. But when it comes to sales, owners often can’t say goodbye.
After a promising conversation, a California-based owner, Shawn Voncorkoran, said he had to go, and his girlfriend asked him to take the MR2 to her date. that was that. The next day he wrote: “I drove about 100 miles on the MR2 last night. Ideal weather. I don’t think I can sell it.”
I was not aware of any MR2s in our area in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. But one afternoon, Cheryl noticed a scarlet. On a local Facebook page I asked if anyone knew the owner. Somebody did The car needed a lot of work, but the young man was ready to sell. After my exploration of the country, here was one in my backyard.
Then I checked the vehicle identification number and found that an insurance company had written off it after the accident. I asked the owner if the title was marked as “rescue”. He had no title.
I’ve always enjoyed watching auctions bring a trailer The website quietly mocks people who will buy unseen vehicles. But one afternoon there, I was hit with 67,000 miles in 1985. It was near Seattle. Finally my $14,500 bought it. I was stunned. I’ve done many dumb things, so this may not be the dumbest, but maybe the top five?
My long distance shopping was noted by Mike Oliver, a friendly and knowledgeable MR2 enthusiast living near Chicago. He was considering selling his MR2, and I had considered buying it. But I wasn’t able to see it — or drive it — because it was so far from New Hampshire. Mr Oliver wrote: “You can’t get the car ahead, lol.” I replied: “Hawaii?”
About a week later my MR2 arrived and looked great. Tucked into the trunk was a thick binder. In addition to information on items like oil changes, it noted the brand of waxes and cleaners used for everything, including polishing the chrome exhaust tips. It was compiled by the first owner, William McGill of Salem, Ore., and included his email address.
Mr McGill, then 23, had read enthusiast reports in car magazines and found one at a dealership in early 1986. “After I ran it, I was definitely hooked,” he told me. He bought it for $11,995, and not for a small sum that paid him a salary of about $1,000 a month. His car payment was $265 a month, and the rent was $255.
But after 26 years and 58,715 miles Mr. McGill sold it to a friend. “I intended to keep the vehicle forever,” he wrote to me in an email. “It’s funny how life can redirect and change those commitments. As they say, we’re only patrons for a short 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 Poulsbow, Wash.
“I really liked the cornering aspect of the car,” said Mr. Barry, 22. “You can turn corners at a speed you wouldn’t dare to do in normal cars.”
But he did it less and less and eventually concluded that “it was a good amount of money just sitting there.” They put it on Bring a Trailer.
And he brought it to Bethlehem. It required a safety inspection in order to be registered, and mechanics were amazed at its meticulous care and lack of rust. Mr McGill said his tireless cleaning routine included sifting downstairs to clean its bottom parts.
It was a huge relief to find out that it’s actually a lot of fun. there one Uncoated, old connection for driving. My back is about 15 inches above the road, and as the hood tilts down, a panorama of the sidewalk flashes beneath the car. It makes the MR2 feel like it’s going faster than it should. There was literally a learning curve, too: alternating moving faster and faster, with the feeling that it rarely required braking.
There’s a quirky ’80s look and no-frills quirk: It has roll-down windows, and no power steering, no power door lock, no airbags, and no electronic safety nets such as Anti-lock brakes or electronic stability control. And it has some old age rattle and noise, just like mine.
One change from driving the MR2 in the late 1980s is the massive growth of pickup and sport utility vehicles on the road. It’s a little over 48 inches tall, and we’re now driving among giants, with the potential to be pushed into eternity. The MR2’s curb weight is about 2,300 pounds. A new SUV can easily weigh twice this.
Often the age of the commentators who make praise is 20. “Is that really a Toyota?” asked a young woman at the gas station. “It was in the 80s,” said a young man.
With happiness comes worries. I’m worried about scratches, and there’s no slamming door. I move the windows up or down slowly. It needed new tires and about $1,500 in maintenance. It’s also a little difficult to start work first thing in the morning – an issue I’ve been dealing with. But overall it is great. We’ve driven it for about 1,000 miles, and as I constantly and nervously check the gauges, it’s a small bounty every time I see that things are okay.
Some parts are hard to find—the owners talk about “unicorn” parts—so there’s a treasure-hunting element that makes finding something I want weirdly exciting. But because much of the MR2 is based on the older Corolla, several parts are available, inspired by a remarkable help-me-find it, survivor comradeship on Facebook pages. Still, some owners stockpile critical parts against future shortages.
What’s the hardest to find? It depends on where you live. “In hot countries, it’s usually the plastic that’s hard to find,” said Neil Jones, who has an extensive parts and salvage business in Wales. “In wet countries, it’s metalwork.”
The fun lies with the worry that one day I’ll discover that magical unicorn part.
However, I recently got some advice from an experienced owner. “Every morning, lay your hands on him and pray,” Martin Lyodolter wrote on Facebook.
so be it.