Project Car SOTU: (Hopefully) Brief Ownership of an AW11

Chris, a co-worker at my day job, teased me for two years with the possibility that he’d sell his MR2. It had been in his family since new, first bought in 1986 by his uncle and handed down to his brother and himself later on. It was a car they enjoyed during their college years, and Chris had kept it since. I occasionally spotted it in the parking lot. He’s a family man and not much of a car guy, so “occasionally” is all the exercise it got. We’d always chat a bit about how it’s slow, but fun to drive. I introduced him to the adage, “It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than to drive a fast car slow”—pardon the grammar.

It wasn’t until this year, when he was looking for a vehicle for his own son to take to college, that the move to sell became a real one. He’d put a lot of money into the MR2, primarily in a stereo, a total A/C revamp, and a fresh coat of paint for the green half. He was hoping to convince his son—whose lead question was, “Does it have Bluetooth?”—to take the MR2 to college. But the car came upon one more need, which Auto Repair Chain quoted at $700 for a “brake manifold or something.”
This was the last straw. Chris was tired of sinking money into a car his son didn’t really want, and, having no idea what it was worth, finally offered it to me. (He bought his son a used Camry.) All he knew about the problem was that the brake light was on, and the pedal had gone to the floor at some point, which was when they had it towed to the shop for that quote. I said I’d take a look, and told my wife this car was a potential fix-and-flip prospect for a bit of extra cash. She approved, on condition of temporaryness.
I thought it an easy hedge: Even if the repair turned expensive or other surprise problems came up, I could still likely break even—and it would give me the chance to drive one of Toyota’s more iconic and interesting cars. In an era of 165-horsepower V8 Mustangs, this little twin-cam Japanese motor was a 112-horsepower revelation. It redlines at 7,500 RPM and sounds pretty good the whole way there.

This MR2 was a complete, clean car, but not a museum piece. The upper paint job wasn’t perfect and the lower half showed its decades of wear. The passenger-side power window clunked and jerked through its travel. The leather driver’s seat was cracked, necessitating an ugly and poor-fitting pair of aftermarket seat covers. It leaked oil.
It was a survivor. A driver. A driver that thankfully had spent most of its life in Florida and was almost entirely free of rust.
Of course I bought it.

I slowly drove it home, taking only side streets, and parked it next to a regrettable mid-engine decision. I returned that free Fiero to its proper owner shortly thereafter.

Looking it over, I thought it was strange for a Toyota to have such a Pontiac-esque badge.

I had been worried that Auto Repair Chain knew something I didn’t, but after inspecting every other brake system component and finding nothing wrong, I popped the master cylinder loose from the booster and—ta-daaa—confirmed my original suspicion.
Just a hundred bucks for a new master cylinder and some brake fluid took care of the brakes.

Of course, I then spent several hours over the following nights trying to figure out why the brake warning light wouldn’t turn off. I opened up the center console and checked wiring, switches, diagrams, and scoured the Internet for things that might not have been documented in repair manuals. I was getting close to ordering a new ECU when I discovered that on this car, the brake warning light stays on until you actually start the car. Merely putting the ignition switch to ON is not enough.
The ’80s was a weird time.

It was then that I could start driving it and shake out its other needs. It was long overdue for a tune-up. I found leaking oil cooler hoses. It needed more Freon. It needed new sway bar links. Something’s rattling around in the blower motor.

But the tires are new, the brakes are in excellent shape, the windows are tinted, and the stereo works. My wife even kind of likes it. But, as I mentioned in my Subaru Justy SOTU update, I have too many cars. I might have an RX-8 on the way soon.

I’ve enjoyed this car—this experience—in the last few months. It’s quick, it handles well, and it makes my driveway look like I live in the wrong decade. The novel layout makes it interesting to work on. The interior is of another era, and I’ve enjoyed exploring the style and ergonomics trends of geometric futurism (a term I just made up). My daughter likes riding in it, but she hates the seat belt buzzer.
But if I have to pick between the MR2 and the Justy, I’ll take the latter. The Subaru is more practical, it’s a bit more weird, it’s still a riot to drive, and it’s better suited to my lifestyle. The bike rack is pretty awkward on an MR2.
I’ve had my fun. Soon it’ll be time to let it go.
[Photos copyright 2017 Alan Cesar | Hooniverse]

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7 responses to “Project Car SOTU: (Hopefully) Brief Ownership of an AW11”

  1. Dabidoh_Sambone Avatar

    Greetings from Tampa – drop me a line on gmail: I’m dsanborn – thanks!

  2. discontinuuity Avatar

    I’ve always loved this color scheme. Maybe someday I’ll paint my AW11 the same. And I’m also a little jealous of the optional front splitter, side sills, and rear visor that yours has.

  3. Andrew_theS2kBore Avatar

    Email me on gmail when you’re considering selling; I might be interested in taking it off your hands. I’m simmons.andrew.r

  4. crank_case Avatar

    Rust free MR2 just falls into lap – some guys have all the luck.

  5. salguod Avatar

    Just my kind of project – an interesting car with a few needs and a good history. I’m a bit jealous.

  6. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    never understood the AW11 until a freind of mine here in Texas bought a perfect turqoise ’86. it feels so much more structurally solid than i expected, and it revs so smoothly all the way to redline.
    i think i expected a floppy chassis after owning an NA Miata, and i expected a torquey but un-revvy four after owning an SW20 MR2. the AW11 combines the best attributes of those two cars and adds in the 4AGE engine that actually likes to rev, unlike the 1.8 BP or the 5SFE.
    i think i’d still rather have another NA, for its forgiving handling and easy maintenance. but i totally understand the AW11.

    1. wunno sev Avatar
      wunno sev

      my god. *friend.
      this was up for a day before i noticed the egregious misspelling. where did i put my hara-kiri dagger.