The Toyota Comes Home

We revive my comatose Toyota and bring it home from Prescott.

In October, 1986, twenty years ago last month, I bought my second ever brand new car: a 1987 Toyota MR-2. It cost a whopping $15K, which in those days was above average for a new car, but not really considered “expensive.”

And what did I get for my money? A really fun, 2-seater sports car. Red, of course — it was my first red vehicle. It was also my first five-speed, and since I didn’t know how to drive a manual transmission in those days, I couldn’t even drive it home from the dealer.

Less than a week later, I was driving it to work in downtown Manhattan. One of the perks of my job with the City of New York, Office of the Comptroller, Bureau of Financial Audit was a free parking space near the Municipal Building, where I worked. I worked an 8 to 4 shift in an attempt to avoid rush-hour traffic. (New York’s rush hour is later in the day than Phoenix’s and doesn’t seem to last as long. I think good mass transit has something to do with that.) My big challenge in those early days of driving with a clutch and gearshift was the ramp from the Harlem River Drive up to the Cross Bronx Expressway and George Washington Bridge on my way home. The ramp was a steep climb and it was always backed up in the afternoon. If there’s one thing that’ll teach you how to drive a stick shift, it’s being forced to drive uphill in traffic.

Six months later, I was working in Redbank, NJ, for another company. The 60-mile (each way!) commute was only one of the reasons I hated that job. I found another one after just four months — I started looking after only two — and settled down to the last “9 to 5” job I’d ever have, at ADP’s corporate headquarters in Roseland, NJ. That was a 30-mile commute. Just right for the MR-2.

Years passed. I left that job and went freelance. I had a few questionable years. Then things started looking up. I had money and flexible time. But I kept the Toyota. Why not? It was a fun car to drive.

In 1995 (I think) I drove it across the country to Yarnell, AZ, which isn’t far from my current home in Wickenburg. It was loaded down with all the things I’d need for a winter as a snowbird — possibly the youngest snowbird in Arizona. I spent three months living and writing in Yarnell. I got to know Prescott and Wickenburg. And that winter, my Toyota had its first accident.

It happened right downtown in Wickenburg, right in front of St. Anthony’s Church on North Tegner. I was driving through town with Mike, who had come to visit for a week. We were on our way to Tucson to meet with his cousin Ricky. The person in front of me was making a left turn into Yavapai street. I was going straight. Unfortunately, a senior idiot from Pennsylvania, driving in the opposite direction, decided to make a left turn right in front of me. The road was covered with a thin layer of sand and when I hit the brakes, the car slid right into the corner of the guy’s bumper. The impact wasn’t hard — neither of us were going very fast — but it was enough to put a dent in the middle of the Toyota’s front bumper that made it look as if I’d hit a pole.

To say I was angry is an understatement.

Although the car was already almost 10 years old, the insurance company sprung for the repairs. Three weeks later, it was good as new. Actually, a little better. The air conditioning had started working again.

Before I went back to New Jersey at the end of that winter, I drove the Toyota out to California for a weekend. I took a picture of it at the beach on the Pacific ocean. From sea to shining sea. I’ve since lost that photo. After all, it was taken in the days before digital photography.

In those days, we called the Toyota “the mule” because I’d found a roof rack for it and, when it was installed, we could pack all kinds of stuff on it. I drove back to New Jersey by way of Florida — I was a speaker at a writer’s conference there. Mike came with me. Along the way, we camped out at Big Bend National Park and were nearly washed off the road by flooding in New Orleans.

Two years later, the Toyota and I made the drive again. This time, we were moving to Arizona, to an apartment I’d found in Wickenburg. I’d had enough of New Jersey’s cold, snowy winters. I wanted a new life in a warm place. Mike would leave his job (kind of; long story) and follow me five months later, in May, when our house was sold.

In 1999, I bought the red Jeep Wrangler I still drive around quite a bit these days. The Toyota began a life of leisure in the garage, pulled out for trips to Prescott or Phoenix. It was starting to look its age, but the paint was still bright and it still ran like a charm.

In 2000, I bought a helicopter. It was a two-seater. About a year later, when I started getting helicopter maintenance done in Prescott, I decided that it might be nice for the Toyota to live up there. Then, when I flew up, I’d have something to drive when I got there. Since I flew up at least once a month or so — not just for helicopter maintenance; we prefer shopping in Prescott to shopping in the Phoenix area — the car was driven quite regularly.

Meanwhile, at home, I missed the Toyota. The Jeep might be fun on dirt roads, but it’s miserable on highways. The Toyota is fun on all kinds of paved roads.

In June 2003, I bought a Honda S2000. So now I had a Jeep for dirt roads and around town driving and a sports car for paved roads and road trips. I vowed to never let the Toyota know I’d bought the Honda. I didn’t want it to get jealous.

One time, we got to Prescott to do a little shopping and found the Toyota’s battery just about dead. Mike gave it a push down a hill while I rode inside, gathering speed. I dropped the clutch and the car came to life. We drove it to Sears and bought it a new battery — its third in about 15 years.

In 2004, I got a summer job with Papillon at the Grand Canyon. I lived in a trailer on our property at Howard Mesa. The Toyota became my spare car up there, spending time either at Grand Canyon Airport or Howard Mesa or taking me from one point to the other. It shared this duty with my Jeep. So yes, I had two cars and a helicopter with me that summer. What good is an asset if you don’t use it?

At the end of that season, the Toyota went back to Prescott, where it stayed until it needed an oil pan replacement, which I wrote about in another blog entry. I was flying up there less and less. I’d sold my little helicopter and bought a bigger one. It was brand new and didn’t need much maintenance, especially since Ed Taylor, Wickenburg’s excellent aircraft mechanic, had gone to the Robinson Factory Maintenance Course and was authorized to do maintenance and repairs. He did all my engine-related work — oil changes, fuel reorientation SB, etc. — while the Prescott folks handled the helicopter-specific stuff (rotor blades, gear box, etc) and 100-hour and annual inspections.

Earlier this year, I switched helicopter mechanics. I now take my helicopter down to Williams Gateway airport in Mesa for work. I flew into Prescott less and less. I realized that it was kind of silly to keep a car there.

A few weeks ago, on our return trip from a weekend in Sedona, we decided to stop by the airport and pick up the car. We found it looking sad and feeling comatose. Even a push start wouldn’t get it running. We towed it back to a parking space and went home.

Yesterday, we drove up to retrieve it, bringing along jumper cables and tools. It started right up with a jump from Mike’s Honda, but there wasn’t enough juice in the battery to keep the engine running when it was at idle or when switching gears at low speed. (It still has its original clutch, which is really starting to show its age, so it’s a bit tricky to drive.) After two attempts to get it out of the parking lot, we decided to park it, remove the battery, buy a new battery at Sears, and put it in ourselves. (We do have AAA, but we needed the car towed to Sears sometime within our lifetimes and AAA seems to have a problem with fast service when it comes to towing.)

At Sears, the guy who tested the battery said it was the second deadest he’d ever tested. (How he made that conclusion is beyond me, since his meter didn’t read a thing when connected to the terminals.) We discovered that the old battery was only 3 years old, so I got a new one at a discount. We bought some other stuff at Sears, had sashimi for lunch in a nearby Japanese restaurant, hit Office Max for a computer cable and Petco for dog vitamins, visited Old Navy for some winter shirts, and then spent an hour (and almost $300!) at Costco. At 4 PM, we returned to the Toyota, which was waiting patiently, looking more faded and forlorn than ever. Mike installed the battery and I hopped in behind the wheel. I stepped on the clutch pedal, turned the key, and the car roared to life. “Let’s go!” it was saying.

Sounded good to me. After manually cleaning the dusty windshield — the wipers have dry rot and need replacement — we headed home. You know, I had that little sucker up to 80 mph? Wasn’t meaning to, of course, and was pretty surprised to see that speedometer needle in the straight-up position.

Mike followed me, just in case the car decided to lose a wheel or collapse on the way home. No problems, though.

I stopped at Safeway to pick up some groceries on my way home. When I pulled into the parking lot, people looked at me as if I were driving some kind of junker. Little did they know.

The Toyota is home now, in one of Mike’s parking spaces on the driveway apron. For the first time in a long time, all six of our vehicles (including his 1986 Mustang Convertible, which, in my opinion, looks worse than the Toyota) are in the same place at the same time. My Honda is in the garage, of course. We toyed with the idea of bringing the Toyota to live in my hangar at the airport, but I think I’d rather keep it home, at least for a while. I’m going to drive it today. I’ll get it an oil change and a little check up at Dan’s place. (The Toyota loves Dan.) I’ll bring it by the airport to wash it. I’ll pull out the Zymol and see if it can make what’s left of the paint shine again.

And then, when I’m finished playing with it and convincing it that I still love it, I’ll take it down to the Phoenix area and probably park it at Deer Valley airport, or perhaps Scottsdale, if I can find free long-term parking. These days, I seem to fly more in the Phoenix area than around Wickenburg anyway. It would be nice to take care of some errands while I was down there.

Oh, and for the record, the Toyota has a book value of about $250 these days. It costs about $400/year to insure. (No, I don’t have collision coverage on it.) It’s hard to sell a nearly worthless asset when it’s so cheap to keep.

What do you think?