This ’69 Corona holds clues to Southern California Toyota history

Murilee Martin’s 1969 Toyota Corona

My first car came from Wilie West Motors near San Diego, an MG/Austin-Healey dealership

For months, I have been taking trips from Denver to my childhood home in California (reviewing various electric vehicles in the process), and digging through seemingly endless dusty boxes of photographs and negatives. Along the way, I have found many interesting automotive photographs, ranging from rollover-victim Hiluxes to British cars on the streets of San Francisco to the greatest family road-trip photo of all time, but the point of all those hours of holding old 35mm negative strips up to a light was to find some shots of my very first car: a 1969 Toyota Corona sedan that I bought for 50 bucks at age 14.

Murilee Martin’s first car

Success! I found a couple of negative strips from July, 1982 (a few months after I got my first driver’s license), showing me proudly sitting in my beige Corona sedan. This was not considered a cool car for teenagers in 1982; in fact, this was about the uncoolest car you could possibly have in the San Francisco Bay Area at that time, even less cool than the parental-hand-me-down Pintos and Vegas and Colts that my peers were getting for their first cars. Of course, I now own the coolest ’69 Corona in the world, so the last laugh is mine.

1969 Toyota Corona license plate with Willie West Motors frame

I bought the Corona from the gas station around the corner when a customer had $50 in work done and disappeared, and that’s all I knew about the the car’s history. I sold it to a high-school classmate a year or so later (because I had acquired a 1967 Pontiac GTO for 113 bucks and the world’s sketchiest 1958 Volkswagen Beetle), and the car disappeared soon after that. But that Willie West Motors license-plate frame in the photo offers an important clue about my Corona’s early history.

Willie West Motors, Oceanside California

A little digging led me to the Oceanside Historical Society and this photograph of Willie West Motors in the late 1960s. Oceanside is down near San Diego, about 500 miles south of the Corona’s home when I bought it, so at some point between 1969 and 1980 (I bought the car at 14 but couldn’t drive it legally for two years) it migrated up to the Bay Area. Willie West sold Triumphs, MGs, and Austin-Healeys, and he branched out into the then-obscure Toyota brand at some point after the Corona became available to US buyers in 1966. This location remains a car dealership to this day, but Willie West died in 2006. The grilles on the cars in the photo look like 1966 or 1967 models, so my car probably isn’t in this photo.

Murilee Martin in his first car

This car was dead reliable with its pushrod R engine and simple design, but it was painfully slow (even by the lax standards of the early 1980s) and it handled like an overloaded Porta-Potty truck with its primitive leaf-spring rear suspension, bias-ply snow tires, and worn-out front end. Still, most of my classmates didn’t have any kind of a car, so I was proud to have wheels. The four-on-the-floor manual transmission gave it a modicum of coolness, maybe.

Murilee Martin at age 16 with MED FLY INVASION shirt

On closer examination, it becomes apparent that I was wearing a MED FLY INVASION t-shirt in these photos. This was a reference to the helicopters Governor Jerry Brown used to spray Malathion on Bay Area cities in 1981, in an effort to eradicate the Mediterranean Fruit Fly, and it is not possible to have a more specific-to-its-time-and-place cultural artifact than this. Well, unless it’s a medfly key chain, perhaps.

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