My very first car was a 1969 Toyota Corona sedan in Heart-Stopping Beige™, which cost a mere $50 when I was 14 but compensated for its reasonable price by being the uncoolest motor vehicle a California teenager could drive at that time. Obviously, my answer to midlife crisis, four decades hence, was to get
a Porsche the coolest Toyota Corona… in the world. I did so, back in 2015, but it turns out a purpose-built show car doesn’t drive so well. What to do?
My car began life as a sporty-but-affordable 1969 Toyota Corona RT52 coupe, sold new in Southern California’s Inland Empire. When it was about 10 years old, its owner donated it to the auto-shop class at Glen A. Wilson High School in Hacienda Heights (which is located very close to where Richard Milhous Nixon was born and went to college). Then Bob Van Den Brink, the beloved auto-shop teacher, spent a decade using the Corona as a platform to teach his students old-time customizing techniques (the sort that SoCal hot-rod/lowrider hooligans applied to, say, a 1950 Mercury back in the day). At some point in the early 1990s, the car—known as “Cherry Bomb”—was sold and hit the show circuit, first in the United States and then in its Japanese homeland.
I put in a lot of work on the electrical system and was able to drive it a couple of miles to get the VIN verified by the State of Colorado; later I drove it to a car show not too far from my house (where it won the Most Unique Car Award). But, really, it still wasn’t a drivable car even with working lights and license plates.
The Cherry Bomb was so low that parts of it touched the pavement when parked. By the time I got it, the only electrical components that really worked were the starter and ignition systems. Hitting the brake pedal locked up the right rear tire and caused broken metal bits to fall out of the other three corners. The good news was that I know a guy who is both an expert mechanic and a lover of weird old cars. Bob Harnsberger, the genius behind the Hot Tub Lincoln, agreed to rebuild the brake system, craft a new exhaust, and get the suspension into drivable condition.
Bob needed a place to store his Ferrari (which shares daily-driving duties with a gorgeous green-on-green-on-green-on-yet-more-green 1979 Dodge Diplomat) while he used his sh0p space to work on my car, so he swapped garage spots with my Corona for the duration of the project. This confused my neighbors, who assumed I’d managed to convince someone to trade me a 360 Modena for my unidentifiable weirdmobile, but they’re accustomed to strange goings-on at La Casa de Murilee.
Thanks to some original 1970 Corona front springs (from a generous 24 Hours of Lemons team) plus new leaf-spring lowering blocks machined by Herr Harnsberger, the car sits a few inches higher and can deal with speed bumps (if driven very carefully) and highway driving (no problem, other than the fact that the 1950s-forklift-derived 3R-C pushrod engine floats the valves at about 4000 rpm… which the car reaches at about 67 mph with the short gears in what I feel certain is a first-gen Hilux rear axle).
Unfortunately, the car still had the scary 40-year-old whitewall trailer tires that were on it when I made the purchase. I’m sure these tires were chosen for the proper bias-ply tread look, which they have, but I didn’t want to take road trips on them. I bought some Coker American Classic bias-look radials with wide whitewalls… which have been on backorder since January. They’re the only game in town for this sort of thing, so you get your tires when they’re ready to make them for you.
The wheels on the car were original 1969 Corona (or Crown) 13-inch steelies, painted red, with Datsun 310 beauty rings and early Ford Pinto hubcaps. I decided I’d deal with the unobtainium-tire problem by getting another set of Corona wheels and putting modern all-seasons on them, just for road trips. So, I worked the local vintage-Toyota community and found someone with a set of the correct wheels, which I bought.
I went to the Dent Wizard operation in Commerce City and had the wheels cleaned and powder-coated for a reasonable price.
For tires, I bought a set of Falken Pro Touring all-seasons in Corona-appropriate 175/70R13 size. They wouldn’t look vintage, but they’d be safe for long drives.
I wanted something other than Pinto caps for these wheels, so I found a Peruvian eBay seller with NOS Toyota caps of the correct diameter and the home-market “TEQ” logos in the centers. They cost more than the tires and wheels combined, but I couldn’t resist.
These caps are just beautiful, so beautiful that I decided I’d save them for the glorious moment when I finally get my whitewall tires. That meant I needed to find another set of genuine Toyota dogdish hubcaps somewhere.
Thanks to the very helpful regulars in a Corona restoration group on Facebook, I was able to connect with a Corona enthusiast with some very solid dogdishes that were the perfect size for my wheels. I think they started life on a 1960s Stout pickup, which was fine with me. The only drawback was that I had to pay for shipping from Australia (where most owners of 1960s Coronas live these days), but the seller threw in some cool license plates for my garage wall.
While I was on a TEQ kick, I got these valve stem caps and a matching gearshift knob.
Finally, all the pieces came together and I was able to swap on the new wheels with their Falkens and Stout hubcaps.
This was just in time for the Fairmount Cemetery Car show, so I joined some friends and headed over. It was nice having safe tires and brakes!
Yes, I went to the show in company with owners of a Datsun 510 and a Chevy Vega race car. It was a tossup whether the more traditional car-show guys were made most angry by a Vega hacked up to make a road-race machine, a daily-driven Datsun 510 not modified to look like a BRE race car, or a Toyota Corona apparently mocking the great traditions of American customizing… but at least some of the attendees loved these cars.
Though the limited top speed is something of a headache and I still need to deal with the alarming amounts of blow-by and exhaust getting into the passenger compartment on the highway, I felt willing to drive the car the 75 miles between my house and High Plains Raceway, to show it off at the 2021 B.F.E. GP 24 Hours of Lemons.
What’s next? I’d like to take the car on drive around the country next year, so fuel injection, electronic ignition, and taller rear gears and/or an overdrive transmission are on the to-do list.
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