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Toyota MR2 Mark 1 Buyer's Guide

Introduction

Nick Challoner's MR2 This buyer's guide is intended to help the potential purchaser of a Toyota MR2 Mark 1 thoroughly check out any vehicles he chooses to look over and test drive. This guide concentrates on the specifics of checking a MR2 Mark 1, if you require general information on checking used cars, check out this list from the UK Government Office of Fair Trading.

If you have any additions or corrections to make to the text below, please mail me at nick@challoner.com.

This guide is for information only. Although every care has been taken to produce an accurate and comprehensive guide, I cannot be held legally responsible for any direct or indirect loss due to its use. Use of this guide indicates your understanding of these conditions. Basically, I have produced this to try and help people - please use it in that spirit.

This page has a UK bias as that is where I live, where I checked over cars, and where I operate my car. Mk1 MR2s are pretty similar the world over though, so most of what is written below should be applicable wherever you live. Where I refer to left and right, I mean left and right as though you are sitting in the car looking forward (so in the UK left is the nearside and right is the offside).

General

  1. Remember there are essentially three types of MR2 available in the UK: early normally-aspirated cars (1985-1987) sold in the UK, late normally-aspirated cars (1987-1989) sold in the UK, and supercharged models sold in Japan and imported second-hand into the UK. The later cars have various minor revisions (see the FAQ section of the IMOC-UK website for details). The superchargers are comparitively rare and are usually identified externally by supercharger decals on the doors and bootlid, and raised grilles on the engine bay lid. Some owners have transplanted supercharger engines into their normally aspirated cars, some have even transplanted turbocharged 3S-GTE engines from the Mk2 MR2 turbo into normally aspirated cars!
  2. A full service history is desirable, but not essential - remember that any car of this age is unlikely to have a full service history. The service interval is 5,000 miles for the early cars, upped to 6,000 miles for later cars.
  3. A big handful of receipts for service and parts is always a good sign that the car has been well cared for.
  4. Another good sign of a well looked after car is the presence of the toolkit. Open the front boot and look for it next to the jack on the right hand side of the car (left side as you look in from the front).
  5. Check the tyres. Any wear should be even, except for perhaps wear on the insides of the rears. Make sure you negotiate something off the asking price if some or all of the tyres are worn!

Electrical

  1. Check the operation of both electric windows. Make sure the passenger side isolator switch (labelled "Window Lock") is in the up position - many an owner has thought the passenger window has a fault when this switch has been accidentally activated! A common problem is jerky operation of the window which is due to teeth being stripped from the cogs in the mechanism. Toyota will only supply a complete new mechanism which costs in excess of £100. Fortunately Twos R Us in the USA can supply a new cog for approximately $30 including international shipping. Another problem is burning out of the switches for the passenger side window. There is no relay for this circuit and so the switches take the full current drawn by the motor. Be sure to check both (driver's side and passenger's side) operate the window successfully. The switch for the driver's window should wind the window down automatically if pressed beyond it's normal operating position.
  2. The heater fan speed control can be a problem, so select each position and make sure the fan speed changes accordingly. If one or more selections fail to change the speed, or the fan stops at certain selections, then the resistor pack has probably failed. This is fairly cheap to replace, and is easily accessible behind the glove compartment.
  3. The early Mk1 MR2 has a kind of central locking, in that there is a switch on the drivers door forward of the electric window switches which will lock and unlock both doors simultaneously. However, using the key in a door lock will only operate the lock for that door. Strange but true - it is not a fault! Later cars have full central locking in that the door key does operate the locks on both sides. The door locking switch on the driver's door switch panel should also lock and unlock both doors on all models. Similarly, cars with alarms including a remote locking feature should lock and unlock both doors from the remote.
  4. Post-1987 models have an electric aerial - make sure it works because it often doesn't! A replacement from Toyota is in excess of £100. Many owners have used a generic electric aerial from a motor spares supplier (e.g. Halfords in the UK) for much less, the only problem being working out the wiring.
  5. Check for sloppiness in the windscreen wiper linkage - this is caused by a plastic bush, but the whole assembly has to be replaced and it costs over £100!
  6. The original stereo has fiddly balance/fade controls. If one or more speakers appear faulty, adjust the inner 'ring' of the volume wheel until it clicks into the 'middle' position, then pull the whole volume knob out about 4mm and repeat. This sets the balance/fade to middle/middle. The fade does not apply to early models which only have front speakers.

Bodywork

  1. The nosecone of the car is held on with a metal strip underneath it which is itself held on by a series of bolts. If all these bolts are corroded it is a good sign because the bumper and trim have probably not been replaced, and therefore the front of the vehicle has not hit anything!
  2. Behind the nosecone is a strong steel crossmember. This often corrodes badly, and is an MOT failure in the UK. Unless it has been replaced already it will almost certainly be corroded. You can attempt to check is visually from above (remove the plastic cover above the radiator between the headlamps if still fitted) and from below (shine a torch through the radiator grill and look for flakes of corroded metal - although these could also come from the radiator or headlamp frames). An easy check is to squeeze and wiggle the narrow sections of nosecone above and below the sidelight/indicator clusters - if you can feel and hear it crunching then the crossmember is corroded.
  3. While under the nose, check that the bodywork is not corroded badly in this area. If it is, then it may mean that the vehicle has been incorrectly jacked causing damage.
  4. With the front boot still open, look up and check the metal ring that latches onto the bonnet release mechanism. The paint on it should have worn off, and perhaps it may even be corroded slightly, indicating that the bonnet has been in place for some time, not a recent collision damage replacement.
  5. Now look down at the area between the headlights, remove the plastic cover if it is fitted and you haven't already done so. Check that any corrosion on and around the top of the radiator is surface only, not crumbly and deep. While you are in the area (and with the ignition switched off to protect your fingers!) spin the two radiator fans to make sure they are not seized.
  6. Remove the spare wheel and anything else in the front boot. Remove the plastic front boot liner by pressing in the two clips that hold it in place (one on each side, mid way up). Do this by pressing in the centre sections with a pen or similar and then pulling them out - be careful not to break them! Then check all exposed bodywork for corrosion. Check the heater piping, and clutch and brake master cylinders and piping for leaks while you are here.
  7. Pull up the rubber lining of the front boot and check for corrosion. The front boot seal can leak causing water to accumulate down here. Make sure the boot floor is not buckled indicating accident damage.
  8. The headlights are also prone to corrosion. Lock them up by switching the headlights on, then pushing the headlight switch into the dashboard and turning it one more stop counter-clockwise. Now undo the plastic covers either side of the headlamps by unscrewing the two bright screws that hold each cover on. Any corrosion should be surface corrosion only. Check the pivots at the back too for serious corrosion or you could be left with a lop-sided light on a dark and rainy night in the middle of nowhere!
  9. Check along the front of the roof where the windscreen meets it for corrosion. Windscreen replacement often results in damage to the bodywork the windscreen bonds too which leads to corrosion over time. Fixing this can be expensive because the windscreen will need to be removed and will often break in the process because it is bonded in place. If the windscreen is already cracked it could be an indication of hidden corrosion placing pressure on it.
  10. If the car is a sunroof model check for corrosion due to blocked drain tubes. From inside the car, note that there is about an inch of metal showing (painted black or blue) between the far edge of the plastic dashboard and the lower edge of the windscreen. Look for obvious corrosion at either end. Grasp the plastic interior a-pillar trim and gently but firmly twist. Listen for rust flakes dropping as you do this. Probably best to walk away from a car that fails this test!
  11. Open both doors fully. Place your hand under the outer edge of each and pull upwards. There should be very little and preferably no vertical movement of the doors. If there is more than 5mm then the door mountings are very worn, be sure to check the doors close properly without scraping the body of the car.
  12. With the doors still open, check the body of the car at the point where the B-pillars (pillars at the rear of the door) meet the sill (the horizontal piece running along the bottom of the body between the wheel arches). This is a very common place to corrode, and can be costly to repair (my 1985 model had a receipt with it from a Toyota dealer who had carried out this work in August 1999 for £485.00), so be sure to negotiate a lower price to reflect this! The MoT man does not like this either, due to the close proximity of suspension mountings. Ideally you will need to remove the black plastic triangles at the rear of the sill (early models) or the rear part of the side skirts (late models) to view this section of bodywork. That probably won't be possible during an inspection, so do your best to check the lower edge of the sills, inside the wheel arches and where the B-pillars join the sills. You can also grasp the black triangle/rear sideskirt section and attempt to twist it - if there is any movement then the metal behind it is corroded.
  13. The point where the A-pillars (pillars between door and windscreen/front wing) meet the sill can also corrode due to leaves and debris building up behind the front wheel-arch liners. Open the doors and check the area around and below the hinges for any signs of corrosion.
  14. Check all wheel arches for corrosion. This is a very common problem and again can be quite expensive to fix properly so be sure to negotiate a reduction. Most Mk1s regularly driven in the UK are probably going to be suffering from corrosion of the rear wheel arches by now, so be a little suspicious of one that does not show any signs of corrosion. If it has not been properly fixed, it will probably re-appear in a very short time. A receipt from a reputable body-shop would be good evidence that it has been taken care of properly. Replacement front and rear wings are available from Toyota (approximately £120 and £450 respectively). Alternatively both the MR2 Driver's Club and the MR2 Mk1 Club can supply replacement rear wheel arch and B-pillar/sill sections for a lower cost.
  15. Pull up the lining in the rear boot and check for corrosion, as water can collect here and be held against the boot floor by the lining. Check that the floor is not buckled indicating accident damage. Now remove the hardboard covers at each side of the rear boot and shine a torch down at the rear wheel arches. This will give you a good indication of how corroded they are even if they appear good on the outside.
  16. If the vehicle is a T-bar, it is advisable to check these for leaks. If possible, drench them with water from a hose and then check inside for drips and damp spots on the seats and floor.
  17. Floor pans are prone to corrode, pull up the carpets in the cabin to check and/or have a good feel underneath the car (although the plastic underbody protector panels will prevent too much access from underneath).
  18. There should be a nice MR2 Eagle badge on the bonnet. These are often stolen and replacements are in excess of £30 from Toyota!

Engine

  1. The "16 Valve" inscription on the cam cover (top of the engine) should be blue for pre-1987 models, and red for post-1987 models. 1987 models themselves can be either, as this was when the engine was changed slightly, and the inscription colour changed from blue to red. Bear in mind though that this has not been confirmed by Toyota, and some cars may have had an engine transplant during their life.
  2. Another way to check the engine type is by checking the air temperature sender. On the early engines it is a yellow sensor screwed into the intake plenium just to the rear and right of the TVIS label, on the later engines it is plugged into the intake piping under the resonator box.
  3. Everything in the engine bay should be a bit dirty, be cautious of sparkling steam cleaned examples as the seller might be trying to hide something! Look for obvious oil leaks around the engine block. Be sure to check for oil leaks underneath too. If the engine has been replaced at some point, pay particular attention to the seal between the oil sump and the engine block. The distributor o-ring can often leak, and is cheap to fix, so do not worry unduly about a small leak here running down the front face of the engine.
  4. The oil sump can corrode excessively and/or be damaged by grounding to the point where holes develop. Expect some surface corrosion but give it a good tap all over to look for weak spots.
  5. Open the oil filler cap on the cam cover. Only oil should be present - if there is any cream coloured gunge present then water has found its way into the oil system, possibly due to a blown head gasket. If there is just a little gunge, it could just be caused by the car not being used much recently, particularly if the weather has been cold and the car has not been driven on long journeys. Check the dipstick too. Hopefully all the oil will be relatively clear indicating a recent oil change. The dipstick can be difficult to locate - it is low down in the engine bay on the right rear corner of the engine block close to the coolant recovery tank and alternator belt.
  6. Find the throttle cable which is supported on a tripod-type bracket on top of the engine. Check the ends are not frayed.
  7. The cambelt should have been changed at 60,000 mile intervals. If this has been done by a Toyota dealer (or by the owner or independent garage using a Toyota supplied belt) they should have attached a sticker that is supplied with the belt to the top of the cambelt cover with the date and mileage of the change written on.
  8. Check the exhaust for corrosion - standard mild steel exhausts corrode quickly when used for lots of short journeys. Replacement stainless steel systems with a lifetime warranty often cost only a little more than the standard mild steel Toyota item which is only warrantied for three years.

Cooling System

  1. Check the radiator area for leaks. These can be from the radiator itself, from the bleed valves on the radiator or from the pipes connected to it.
  2. Toyota recommend that a special Toyota coolant (called ForLife) be used. The correct ForLife for the Mark 1 MR2 is a dark red colour - check for the presence of dark red coolant in the coolant recovery tank at the rear offside of the engine bay. You must take the cap off the tank and look inside to do this as the tank gets stained by the coolant so it may always look full from the outside even if the tank is empty. Also check in the cooling system itself by removing the pressure cap situated on piping just forward of the recovery tank (taking appropriate precautions). The level should be up near to the top of the filler neck. If the level is so low that no coolant is visible in the pipe under the filler neck then be very wary as the owner might have run it like this for some time causing damage due to airlocks and overheating. If the coolant is pale red then it has probably been diluted with water to compensate for a leak somewhere. Other coolants are fine too, as long as they are a good ethylene glycol type, so you may find green or blue coolant instead. If just plain water is in there, then you may well be looking at an expensive engine or coolant system repair bill in the near future. Rusty or dirty coolant is also a sign that the car has not been cared for very well as it would appear that the coolant has not been replaced regularly.
  3. If the coolant recovery tank cap is cracked, replace it to avoid sucking air back into the cooling system rather than coolant (and hence causing airlocks). The original caps are white, the replacements are black.
  4. Look across the bulkhead behind the coolant recovery tank - there should be an even film of road grime across here. If the bulkhead area immediately behind the coolant tank is streaked or stained, assume that the engine's been overheated recently. If this area is suspiciously cleaner than the rest of the engine bay, somebody's tried to clean up the evidence!

Test Drive

  1. When starting from cold it is normal for the engine to idle at around 2000rpm or so. A little disconcerting at first. This is caused by a waxstat in the cold start system degrading over time and allowing too much air through. New ones are in the order of £100 from Toyota.
  2. Take it easy to let everything warm up, then check the heater to make sure it can blow hot air (and hence there is not an airlock in the heater area of the cooling system).
  3. Cooling system airlocks are common, due to a lack of understanding of the MR2's complex cooling system. Watch for overheating and clouds of steam in the rear view mirror! Another indication of air in the system is a 'bouncing' engine idle when cold caused by air pockets passing the coolant temperature sensors and fooling them and the ECU. If the car exhibits any of these problems then it is probably best to walk away because if it has been run in such a condition then it may well have overheated and head gasket failure could be imminent.
  4. The oil pressure guage should read about half way when idling, and somewhere around 3/4 when at higher revs.
  5. Clunks and bumps from the front of the car over potholes probably mean worn anti-roll bar droplinks, worn bushes, worn tie-rods, or worn steering rack could also be the cause.
  6. It should be pretty easy to select all the gears (remember to check reverse!). Fifth gear can be a good sign of worn gearbox components. Severe wear will result in it jumping out of 5th and into neutral, particularly when backing off the throttle. You can test this by driving as fast as possible and lifting off the throttle quickly, letting the car slow somewhat and then jumping back on the throttle quickly. If it jumps out of 5th then there is obviously a problem. If it stays in gear check how much movement of the gear lever there is when backing off the throttle. Ideally there should be very little. Anything more than around 20mm is a sign of significant wear and you could expect to be replacing the gearbox in the near future.
  7. Check the brakes by again building up speed and then applying them sharply (consider other road users before doing this!). The car should not pull to either side.
  8. If there is judder as the brakes are applied from high speed (try and test this at speeds at or greater than 60mph) then the front brake discs are probably warped and need replacing together with the pads. This is a common problem on early Mk1s and was corrected to some degree in later models by the use of larger front discs.


Once it's yours

If you follow the above then you should end up with a pretty sound motor! Here are some tips on getting started with your new pride and joy:


Credits

This guide was originally based on a checklist I put together for buying my Mk1 MR2 using material from a number of sources: the buyer's guide on the MR2 Driver's Club website formed the basis, to which I added a whole load of material I had gathered over a few months of being subscribed to the IMOC-UK mailing list. More recently I have added material from my experiences of owning a Mk1 MR2. Last but not least the following have all provided invaluable information: Jamie Ayres, Daniel Basterfield, Alan Head, Jimi Lawson, Tim Morton, and Westfield Motors, Essex


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