1990 Geo Prizm
March 7, 1992 was an unseasonably warm day in Kansas City, Missouri. As often happens, those early season warm spells make minds turn to summery pursuits – lawn mowing, rec room pool games, late evening backyard football… I was 17 at the time after all. It was the spring of my junior year in high school and life was carefree and easy. Except for one thing: I had no car. Unfortunately for my mom, the location of our suburban house honestly offered no way to get around without one. I say unfortunately because just a couple of months earlier, I had failed to yield the right-of-way while driving her car and wrecked it… pretty good. That car was fixed, but I still had to get to my grocery store job somehow and the family taxi service didn’t enjoy the 11:30 PM run after work.
Something had to give.
Those couple of months between my unfortunate right-of-way issue and the fortuitous March day in question were spent poring over car magazines and classified ads for no fewer than 3 Kansas City-area newspapers… no Craigslist back then.
One fruitless day of searching the previous weekend had yielded nothing in my price range with my preferred features:
- Pop-up headlights. Those are sweet, ya know?
- Manual transmission. Both of my parents vehicles were sticks, so I knew the ropes. And a stick is automatically sporty, right?
- Air Conditioning. Sorry, that’s not an option.
- Room for an enormous subwoofer box.
- Hatchback. Come on, you didn’t think I’d settle for something with a trunk, did you?
A second Saturday of shopping hadn’t revealed the lucky vehicle that would become my chariot. My dad, who was accompanying me at the time, recommended against a Ford Escort GT that appeared to be leaking oil, a Nissan Pulsar NX that had a bit of a shimmy and an Acura Integra that was about double my budget.
So after making our way across several hundred miles of Kansas City suburbs (I may be exaggerating, but not by a lot), we arrived at one final dealership before giving up on the day. I knew from the classified ads that there was an ’89 Ford Probe at this dealership. The Probe checked off the required boxes from my list and after following the progression of ads for the past several months, I knew that the price of the car had recently been dropped by 2000 dollars – a not insignificant sum. I was stoked. Finally, I would have my dream car.
The Probe had sold an hour earlier. There was, however, a 1990 Geo Prizm available.
I should have been disgusted at the suggestion by the helpful salesman that this… this machine would be a reasonable substitute for my Probe that had so carelessly been sold to some undeserving clod earlier in the afternoon. But for some reason, I wasn’t. This machine, this Prizm, actually checked off most of the boxes on my requirements list – the only missing component being the pop-up headlights. And by this particular week, that thought had kind of died out in my mind. This car had aerodynamic halogen headlights!
And, I actually had some knowledge of this particular car – you see, that vehicle in which I had my unfortunate adventure in failing-to-yield was an ’87 Chevrolet Nova.
“What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” you may ask. Well, both of these vehicles were mechanical twins to the contemporary Toyota Corolla and both were built at the New United Motor Manufacturing facility in Fremont, California. Now, Mom’s Nova was a gutless wonder powered by a carburated 1.6l 4-cylinder producing 74 horsepower. Its top speed in 5th gear was 75 miles per hour. I wish I was joking.
To give the Nova credit, however, a downshift into fourth gear would net an additional 12 mph.
Sometime in the intervening 3 model years, Toyota, and by proxy, NUMMI, had added fuel injection to the 1.6, which was good for an astounding 38% increase in power to 102 horses. It transformed the Nova/Prizm from a dangerously slow lump to a… well, acceptable performer for its day.
We drove the acceptable performer and found a car that had – for lack of a better term – personality. It had the requisite hatch, which gave it an odd, almost European look (okay, just odd). It was a 5 speed and had air conditioning and the same deeply discounted price as the aforementioned Probe. I bought it. Mom and Dad approved.
I got to know the car over the next year of high school, taking it off to college, then my first real job. It served me on various adventures, road trips, idiot high school hoonage and moving duty. At about 167,000 miles, I finally donated the Prizm after the clutch went out and a Southern California Ford dealership offered $500 in trade on a new-to-me Ranger.
Fact is, $500 was a grave insult for such a fine machine. The Prizm to me was a three-legged pound dog that everyone loved, but no one wanted to take home. So eager to please, so reliable and in the end, a loyal and fun companion.
There will of course, be more about the Prizm. Some of those adventures will be relayed on the pages of this blog. Others will never be spoken of again. But one thing will remain – the Prizm was my first hatchback, and therefore, despite its outward beige appearance, deserves a spot on the pantheon of great hatchbacks.