It all started when my brother drove his brand-new car, a 1984 Celica GT-S coupe, up from the Bay Area for a visit. 

We drove it up to Twain Harte for an Italian dinner, then I suggested we drive to my Yankee Hill home the back way — via curvy Big Hill Rd.

“Well, then you can drive,” Chip said, and I took the wheel. Fueled by equal doses of wine and bravado, I put his Celica through one sharp curve after another, and it hugged the road like it was on tracks.

I upped the speed, and the coupe didn’t skid an inch at 30 then 40 mph. It was almost as much fun to drive as my Triumph GT-6, plus it would have the legendary reliability of a Toyota. I was all but sold.

Except I wanted a drop-top. And, voila, Toyota obliged: The company shipped a small number of ’85 Celicas to the states for convertible conversion by a Southern California outfit called the American Sunroof Company.

So I trotted down to Modesto Toyota and ordered up a jet-black GT-S at a list price of about $16,000. Delivery took about two months, but I was kid-in-a-candy store ready. On pick-up day, in May of ’85, I left my Datsun 610 behind in trade. I then jumped behind the Celica’s wheel, drove east on Highway 108, then up Campo Seco Road to a house where a bunch of my Union Democrat friends were partying.

I pulled into the driveway with the top down, and proceeded to be an obnoxious showoff, offering ride after ride. What’s more, a couple of my colleagues were getting married in two weeks and I volunteered to drive them from the church to the reception in my new top-down chariot.

I’d steal the show. Or so I thought.

Meanwhile, I carried a soft cloth and every time I parked the Celica, I wiped away every dust mote that had the temerity to land on its gleaming black surface. What’s more, I refused to park the Black Beauty on the street and instead drove it to the indoor parking garage at Tuolumne County’s brand-new A.N. Francisco Building.

Until — in a grievous, karma-fraught sight-distance error — I backed my two-week-old steed into a concrete post, crumpling the right-rear fender of an otherwise gleaming car.

My new Celica was drivable, but it was crushed. And I was crushed. Yeah, I drove my bride-and-groom friends to their reception a couple of weeks later. But I supposed that roadside observers would only see my gaudy dent and ask themselves what kind of idiot would inflict such damage on his brand-new wheels.

This was a preview of a car that seemingly owned me rather than vice-versa. I drove that Celica for 24 years, and there was no shortage of drama for a car that turned out to be about as reliable as a Yugo.

Over the years I owned the drop-top, I wrote four (count ’em 4) Union Democrat columns on her. If the Celica had run perfectly, as you might guess, I would not have written an inch about it.

So let’s start with the very last column I wrote on my kind-of-beloved Toyota, which appeared in The Union Democrat on June 19, 2009.

Requiem for a ragtop: Farewell to my ’85 Celica

“THERE’S OIL in the water and oil in the water. Probably a cracked head or a blown gasket.”

With mechanic Kevin Burroughs’ verdict, it was time to pull the plug. After 24 years and 182,420 miles, I would kiss my 1985 Toyota Celica GT-S convertible goodbye. 

“What do you think can I get for it?” I asked Kevin, whose magic had kept the once-beautiful car running for more than two decades. 

“Maybe $100 at the wrecking yard,” he said. “If you can drive it that far.” 

Such was an ignominious end to a long, but admittedly rocky romance.

I had driven the gleaming back Celica off the showroom floor and out the door at Modesto Toyota on Thursday, May 16, 1985. I was single, and this had all the makings of a great relationship.

 

OUR YEARS together, as do those in most romances, began with excitement and bliss.

I can never put a price on those magical days spent cruising over Sonora Pass with the top down, negotiating coastal curves on Highway 1 or covering the climb to my Yankee Hill home in just a few exhilarating minutes. And women loved the Celica (from the Latin word for “heavenly”), although remaining indifferent to its apparently less-than-celestial owner. 

But it’s the things I could put a price on — alternators, clutches, tune-ups, overhauls, radios, belts, radiators, tires, brake jobs, valve jobs, new convertible tops and the like — that turned our relationship south. 

I never took that “in sickness and in health” vow, with the Celica. But I lived it. 

MY OFT-AILING car over the decades was a rolling stimulus package for Sonora-area body shops, lube stops, upholsterers, tire dealers, radiators guys, brake jockeys and Kevin’s Downtown Automotive, its second home. If there’s any solace in any of this, it’s the number of Sonora-area kids my car and I may have helped put through college.

“I’ll have to write an obit,” I told my wife, letting her know of the Celica’s imminent demise.

Suzy rolled her eyes. “How many columns have you written about that car?” she asked.

The answer, I sheepishly admitted, was three: In print I had celebrated two of the Toyota’s mechanical resurrections (1986 and 2005). And in 2002 I detailed my abortive attempt to sell the thing on eBay.

“YOU CAN’T!” reacted my older son Ben on hearing of my latest decision to junk it.  “The Celica’s like a member of the family. I’ll miss it more then I’d miss Hallie.”

His sister Hallie, brushing aside fraternal bad-mouthing, was not so sentimental. “The only place you ever drive it to is Kevin’s,” she shrugged. 

“I thought Uncle Mark was going to blow it up,” added Nick, our youngest. “Or weren’t you going to be buried in it?”

Alas, such imaginative funeral arrangements had yielded to practicality and the wrecking yard.

Then Kevin called. “I found a guy who will give you $300 for it,” he announced.

THAT GUY WAS the owner of a Sonora used car lot. 

“I’m thinking about fixing it up and giving it to one of my kids,” he said as I turned over the pink slip after 8,780 days.

Then seller’s remorse set in. “What’s this guy know that I don’t?” I asked myself.

Online I found a series of postings from cultish Celica devotees. “If you have one, don’t ever get rid of it,” wrote one Kool-Aid drinker of the ’85 droptops. “They only made 4,248 of them.”

Then there was the guy who, for $250, sold a molded back plastic boot for the convertible top — which I had delivered to the buyer of my Celica as almost an afterthought. 

“I could have sold 10 of them for the same price,” he crowed from cyberspace. 

Last I heard, the guy who bought my Celica was “working feverishly” and would soon have it road ready. 

WHICH SCARES the hell out of me. 

Would my first Washington Street encounter be like running into your ex in the produce aisle and finding out that she had started working out, lost 50 pounds and taken up with a handsome young millionaire who just happened to be an Olympic fencer. Would I be consumed with envy, regret and bitterness? 

At least the wrecking yard had finality — that “closure” that everyone seems to be looking for these days. Had I, for a mere $300, forfeited this and opened myself to more heartbreak? 

But a larger question looms: Isn’t it, at age 63, time for me to reexamine my priorities and get serious. 

All right, all right: Maybe it is time to think seriously about buying a Harley. 

Postscript: No, I never bought a Harley. But I did, in my later 60s, invest in a Kawasaki. But that’s for a future chapter of Auto-Biography. 

The Celica’s story, however, is not yet finished and, dear readers, you’ll be treated to a second chapter next week. 

Chris Bateman worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at The Union Democrat for nearly 40 years. Now semi-retired, he still contributes columns on a variety of topics. His past columns, including all previous chapters in his Auto-Biography series, can be found on The Union Democrat’s website at www.uniondemocrat.com. He can be reached at [email protected].

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