BETHLEHEM, NH — Car and Driver magazine said it was one of the 10 best cars of 1986, claiming that “any car with a higher fun-per-dollar quotient would never be allowed by the IRS.” cars’ “finely balanced handling, its excellent five-speed transmission and its jewel-like four-cylinder engine with twin camshafts, sixteen valves.”
Not long ago, I was idly reminiscing about that long-ago sports car, the 1986 Toyota MR2, my wife, Cheryl, and I bought new. The MR2 was unusual in that it was a mid-engine design: that rugged little four-cylinder was behind the two seats. Without that weight on the front wheels, the MR2 was extremely quick to change direction, which is what sports cars are all about. Plus, the starting price was about $11,000 — or just over $27,000 today.
And so I turned into a cliché: the old codger who buys a car that fondly remembered his childhood.
After extensive searching I found my new MR2. The original owner had also read the love letters to this Toyota from the “Back to the Future” era. A test drive convinced him. He named it Lil Blue and promised to keep it forever.
Thirty-five years later, my search for an MR2 took a little more effort.
I was not put off by common sense issues. My checklist was ambitious. I wanted one that was rust free, well maintained and accident free. I wanted a manual gearbox. Furthermore, I wanted the first generation, which spanned the model years 1985 to 1989. I loved the angular styling, most charitably described as origami. Others compare it to a doorstop on wheels.
Facebook pages for MR2 owners were very helpful in my search. I wrote that I was in the market and eventually started hearing from owners. There was buyer-and-seller chatter and photo sharing. But when it came to selling, owners often couldn’t say goodbye.
After a promising conversation, a California owner, Shaun VonCorcoran, told him 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 was not aware of any MR2s in our White Mountains area 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 it. The car needed a lot of work, but the young man was willing to sell. After my search of the land, here was one in my backyard.
Then I checked the vehicle identification number and found that an insurance company had written it off after an accident. I asked the owner if the title was marked as ‘salvage’. He had no title.
I’ve always enjoyed watching auctions on the Bring a Trailer website, while quietly poking fun at those who would buy a vehicle undetected. But one afternoon there, I was hit by a 1985 with 67,000 miles. It was near Seattle. Finally my $14,500 bought it. I was amazed. I’ve done a lot of dumb stuff so this can’t be the dumbest but maybe top five?
My long haul purchase was noticed 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 a hard time not being able to see it—or drive it—because it was so far from New Hampshire. Mr Oliver wrote: “You couldn’t get a car further away, LOL.” I objected, “Hawaii?”
About a week later my MR2 arrived and looked great. A thick folder was tucked into the trunk. In addition to information on things like oil changes, it noted the brand of the waxes and cleaners used for everything, including the polishing of the chrome exhaust tips. It was compiled by the first owner, William McGill of Salem, Oregon, and included his email address.
Mr. McGill, then 23, had read the enthusiastic reports in car magazines and found one at a dealer in early 1986. “After riding it, I was absolutely hooked,” he told me. He bought it for $11,995, not a small amount considering his 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 introduced him to a friend. “I intended to keep the vehicle forever,” he wrote to me in an email. “Funny how life can bend and change those obligations. As they say, we are just custodians for a certain period of time.”
In the end, the new owner sold it to a Toyota dealer, where it was on display for several years. The dealer sold it to Ethan Barry’s family in Poulsbo, Wash.
“I really liked the cornering aspect of the car,” said Mr Barry, 22. “You could take corners at speeds that you wouldn’t dare in normal cars.”
But he rode it less and less and eventually came to the conclusion that “it was just a decent amount of money.” He put it on Bring a Trailer.
And that brought it to Bethlehem. To be registered, a safety inspection was required and the mechanics were amazed at the careful care and lack of rust. Mr. McGill said his relentless cleaning routine consisted of sliding under to scrub the lower parts.
It was a huge relief to discover that it is indeed a lot of fun. There is an unpainted, vintage connection to driving. My back is about 6 inches above the road, and because the hood slopes down, there’s a panorama of sidewalk flashing under the car. This makes the MR2 feel like it’s going much faster than it is. There was literally a learning curve too: it took corner after corner, faster and faster, only to realize that there is rarely a need to brake.
There’s a quirky 80s look and no-nonsense character: it has pop-down windows and there’s no power steering, no power door locks, no airbags, and no electronic safety nets like anti-lock brakes or electronic stability control. And he has some old-fashioned rattles and noises, just like me.
A change from driving an MR2 in the late 1980s is the massive increase in pickups and SUVs on the road. He is just over 48 centimeters long, and now we ride among giants, with the prospect of being thrown into eternity. The MR2 has a curb weight of about 2,300 pounds. A new SUV quickly weighs double.
Often those who make admiring comments are in their twenties. “Is that really a Toyota?” asked a young woman at a gas station. “That’s so ’80s,” said a young man.
With pleasures come worries. I worry about scratches, and there are no slamming doors. I gently turn the windows up or down. It needed new tires and about $1,500 in maintenance. It’s also a little hard to get up and running early in the morning – a problem I’m tackling. But overall it’s great. We’ve driven about 1,000 miles with it, and while I’m constantly and nervously checking the gauges, every time I see everything is fine, it’s a little gift.
Some parts are hard to find – owners talk about “unicorn” parts – so there’s a scavenger hunt element that makes finding something I need strangely exciting. But because much of the MR2 is based on the old Corolla, there are many parts available, backed up by a remarkable help-me-find it, surviving camaraderie on the Facebook pages. Still, some owners store critical parts for a future shortage.
What is the hardest to find? It depends on where you live. “In hot countries, it’s usually the plastics that are hard to come by,” says Neil Jones, who has an extensive parts and salvage business in Wales. “In wet countries, it’s the metalwork.”
The fun is coupled with the worry that one day I’ll be looking for that magical part of a unicorn.
Recently, however, I got some advice from an experienced owner. “Every morning, put your hands on it and pray,” Martin Leodolter wrote on Facebook.