Not long ago, I became curious about the production longevity of the good old three-speed automatic transmission in North America. The first really successful true automatic had four forward speeds and the two-speed Powerglide delivered the slushbox to the masses, but the three-speed Detroit automatics of the 1960s truly converted the continent to the two-pedal religion. During the last couple of decades of the 20th century, the three-speed got sidelined by more sophisticated transmissions. What was the final new car you could buy with a three-speed transmission in North America? That’s today’s Junkyard Find: a 2002 Toyota Corolla CE, found in Denver last week.
My search for the last three-speed-equipped new car (yes, car — three-speeds stayed in trucks a bit longer here, and that’s a story we’ll discuss later) took months of poring over sales brochures, EPA data, reference books, and online comments from your enraged uncle who clearly remembers his neighbor buying a 2005 Cavalier with a three-speed. In the end, the winner of the Keep That Reliable Hardware In Service Forever trophy goes to — of course — Toyota. The 2002 Corolla CE and the base version of its NUMMI-built twin, the Chevrolet Prizm, had three-speeds, a year after Chrysler went to four-speed automatics in the Neon and Caravan and GM abandoned the three-speed in the Metro and Cavalier.
Toyota believes in selling stuff that works, regardless of current fashions and/or the derision of automotive journalists, which is why you’ll see that near-identical cruise-control stalk in so many Toyotas and Lexuses from the early 1990s through a few years ago. It’s also the reason that Toyota was the last holdout selling new cars with four-on-the-floor manual transmissions here (the 1996 Tercel). I’m working on pieces about the final three-on-the-tree and three-on-the-floor cars you could buy new, so check in later for those.
Toyota USA probably says “CE” stood for “Cheerful Edition” or “Competitive Edition,” but I’ve always believed that the C in this badge stands for Cheap. The CE-badged Toyotas lacked the luxury features of their upscale brethren, but they were Toyotas and they would do that Point-A-to-Point-B thing like no-hassle clockwork, for decades. Sure, you could get an ’02 Daewoo Nubira for much less than a Corolla CE, but then you’d have a Daewoo.
That said, the fact that the CE got a 200-yen block-off plate in the spot where the overdrive button lived on the higher-end Corollas … well, it must have been a depressing sight when coupled with the view of that grim, forklift-seat-grade upholstery. Note the little rectangular indentation where the OVERDRIVE label would have gone in a Corolla S or LE or Prizm LSi.
I think most of these cars were sold to fleet operators, not individual buyers torn between the Nubira CDX and the Corolla CE, and so the Super Indestruct-O gray interior was a strong selling point.
Maybe a few years operating out of the Budget counter at DIA, then auctioned-off to a commuter who just wanted cheap, dependable wheels.
Speaking of wheels, dig these Nissan rims! Thanks to the magic of the ubiquitous 4x100mm bolt pattern, every junkyard offers dozens of affordable aluminum wheel choices to Corolla CE owners tired of their grimly utilitarian steelies.
The most annoying failure on the low-end Corollas and Prizms of this era was the finger-slicin’ busted door handle. Always the driver’s door, of course, and I’ve seen some innovative field-expedient repairs of this problem in junkyards.
What’s this? Air conditioning? 2002 Corolla CE buyers could get the “Extra Value Package,” which added A/C, a cassette deck, and a digital clock. Since rental-car customers were getting soft by the early 2000s, Budget Rent-a-Car must have felt compelled to fork over a few extra bucks on this car.
Even with its gray-on-grey-on-gray interior and 1965-technology transmission, this bargain-basement car got the job done for 18 years before getting discarded.
My fingers are stuck together!
Drive your dreams.
I’m pretty sure only the Budget Town Cars got the aromatherapy candles.
They had good drugs in those late-1990s Budget brainstorming sessions.
You sure this high roller wouldn’t prefer the Corolla CE and its bulletproof three-speed, rather than risking a Jaguar breakdown?
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