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Project Car SOTU: A Tale of Two Unicorns

After many, many years of kinda looking, then serious looking, I had acquired my high school dream car.  Then after a few months, I sold it.

The problem?  It wasn’t exactly my high school dream car.  It was close – a horse with a horn duct-taped to its forehead – but not quite.  But the good news was that I had found the actual unicorn.  And it was fairly close, affordable, and in what appeared to be very good condition.

So this Project Car State of the Union is a story of two cars – very similar, yet different in important ways.  The first – The Horse – was the lovely red Geo Prizm GSi notchback.  In very nice shape, low miles for a 25-year old car, and a strong runner that loved to wind up close to the 7500-RPM redline.  Close, because the automatic transmission never allowed it all the way there.

I didn’t do much with it, because honestly, it didn’t need a lot.  I completed a few minor things – repaired the leaky headlightsstripped the nasty looking clearcoat on the aluminum wheels, rattle-canned the wiper arms, did a poorly matched color-wise, but fairly decent rust spot repair on the hood – pretty basic stuff.  A trip to a nearby do-it-yourself junkyard yielded a decent load of replacement parts, and I had ordered up new CV axles as there was some distinct clunking on sharp turns.

It was a good car, I found myself really starting to like it.  The way it would start right up every time; the shine of the red paint after a good waxing; the sound it made between 5,000 and 6,000 RPM.  I made a list of things I should fix.  Started thinking about whether it should be restored back to factory spec, or upgraded to more modern standards.  Shopped for wheels, entered it in a car show.  I started up a new blog – prizmgsi.com – to document the projects and become a resource for… well, probably just myself as who else enjoys these obscure economy cars anyway?

But then, through the magic of the internet, I found this.

The real deal.  The Unicorn.  No tape needed.  A hatchback model, one of 583 built in 1990 and my actual high school dream car.  The other difference – a manual transmission to allow for excursions into those heady upper reaches of the tachometer.  This car too was in very nice condition.  Higher mileage to be sure, but the previous owner kept fastidious records.  So The Horse was sold – to an actual GSi enthusiast – and plans were made to retrieve The Unicorn.

One hot day, I dragged it home with my beater Escape (a whole other story, and a very different outcome from the last time you heard of me picking up a car). Since, I’ve been driving it.  And driving it.  And driving it some more.  I love this car.  My five-year old told me she fell in love with the red one when she saw it drive away piloted by its new owner.  Sorry kid, I love this one.

Are there issues?  Certainly.  I’ve already stripped the clearcoat on the wheels.  The check engine light is on, likely due to a knock sensor issue.  I’ll get to that.  In the meantime, there are a few aesthetic issues I will work on.  The black trim around the rain gutter and belt line are rough – those’ll get painted this weekend.  The front bumper cover is a little bruised and the rear spoiler is rough.  Some color-matched spray paint is on order to rectify that.

An issue shared with the previous car includes those stupid door-mounted passive belts – a recent junkyard autopsy shows that it’s a pretty simple fix. Either a junkyard visit for specific pieces from an ’88-89 Corolla, or sourcing parts from Toyota of Canada – whose government didn’t mandate those particular nanny devices – will suffice.

Otherwise, this car is nice enough and rare enough, it’ll probably just be returned mostly to factory spec and driven on the weekends in mild aggression rather than outright anger.

Hopefully I can get a few things cleaned up in the next two weeks in time for the unicorn’s first car show.  And yeah, I may put up a sign that gives just a bit of information to answer the question, “why’s that Geo here?”  Sorry, Brad.

Ray Lindenburg is the guy who originally foisted hatchtopia.com on the world, then went and bought a non-hatchback project car.  As noted above, he’s rectified that misdeed and now provides Geo Prizm GSi enthusiasts with aid and comfort via prizmgsi.com.  

  • Zentropy

    I like humble dream cars, and this one is actually handsome as a hatch, especially in sporty white and black. I’m no fan of FWD cars (I cut my teeth on even more humble AMC hatchbacks), but I completely respect any car project with genuine passion behind it. Enjoy!

  • Superb stuff. Did you pick up that Geo Prism brochure in the end?

    • Have not yet ordered it. I believe I may do that this week sometime though.

  • Rover 1

    I think that somewhere I might still have a set of door mirrors in factory white, off my first courier wagon which was the first diesel wagon of that model that I’d seen, 130 000 km when I bought it.

    The wagons ended up pretty common here as used JDM imports. Mine got pretty worn out after 1 million km so I replaced it with the next model which was a much better car. Toyota really did learn a lot about NVH and structural strength developing Lexus and it shows in the CE model. I digress.

    When I got the first car it was like this with the horrible wing mirrors and headlights and 1.8 non-turbo diesel, it got a 2.2 non turbo diesel after a month.
    https://i.ytimg.com/vi/UgQxzAOe9as/maxresdefault.jpg
    I replaced them with factory mirrors and due to some mixup, ended up with two sets from the dismantler I dealt with. I used the electrically adjustable ones and never bothered doing any thing with the others since. They have white covers if you want body colour door mirrors?
    I also changed the headlights out for a quad 5″ halogen set and the factory indicators and then after an accident swapped them for a factory flush headlight set.
    https://img03.carview.co.jp/trade/img06/cars/521441/13176612/japan%20car/1988+toyota+corolla+touring+wagon/01w.jpg
    My last one, with a 2.2 diesel turbo (Toyota 3C). Both of these cars were manuals. I never had to replace a clutch even with the later turbo diesel which I cranked the boost up on. If the ‘C’series diesels fit, then so do the other bigger four cylinders from the Celicas and Coronas. And the V6s
    http://jamaicaclassifiedonline.com/images/2017/04/16/20711/2000-toyota-carolla-station-wagon_3.jpg

    Toyota took this to the next step with later Corollas, with the Blade in 2.4 litre and 3.5 litre FWD only versions.

    The 280bhp quad cam V6 from the Camry makes the Blade Master G quick in a straight line. It would be possible to make one with AWD as it is offered with the diesel wagons but for some reason Toyota doesn’t do this. I’ve heard others have. http://www.trademe.co.nz/motors/new-cars/news-reviews/791
    https://carandsuv.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Toyota-Blade-fq-688×458.jpg

    If a diesel and thus a V6 fitted in my old wagon, it’ll fit in your Geo. And those mirrors are still available.

    • I can’t imagine a V6 in that engine compartment! The 4A-GE is tight enough. As far as the mirrors – thank you for the offer, but I think I’m going to stick with the USDM factory stuff. It’s a rare unicorn after all.

      • Rover 1

        As we say here, no worries mate!

  • Troggy

    My wife had a Corolla Seca – similar to the white one. When it was written off in an accident, she got the (Australian built) Corolla, the equivalent to Rover1’s I think. Which we still have today. The damn thing refuses to die. It’s just about sitting on it’s bump stops and rides like a skateboard the suspension is so shot, the clutch slips and grips rather unpredictably thanks to what I think is stuffed engine mounts, and it’s barely holding the rust at bay around the rear screen and other usual spots. The paintwork is non-existent in some places. It gets serviced about once every two years whether it needs it nor not.
    I tell my wife that having this thing in the driveway is a better thief deterrent than any security system – nobody will think that we have anything worth stealing.
    It looks like such a heap of junk that I actually got pulled over for attempted speeding. I kid you not. The cop thought that I’d pulled away from a green light at a pace that suggested I was attempting to exceed the speed limit in a car that looked like it shouldn’t even be on the road (I did pull away rather rapidly – thanks to the aforementioned slip ‘n’ grip clutch).
    The thing is, this thing is mechanically sound. It doesn’t leave a drop of any fluid on the ground, it revs cleanly to redline and doesn’t blow a trace of smoke. The gearbox is clunky, but I’ve driven far worse.
    I’ve never been more in love with such a pile of junk.

  • Dean Bigglesworth




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