Curbside Classic: 1979 – 1982 Toyota Tercel – Toyota Nails Another One

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How exactly did Toyota come to be so dominant, mostly at GM’s expense? One little well-built coffin nail at a time. We will forever hear explanations as to why GM stumbled and flubbed so many new car, engine, and other technology introductions in the late seventies and eighties:  The need to downsize rapidly, the switch to FWD, oil prices, CAFE, EPA regs, etc.. The 1980 X-cars are the poster boys; all new, FWD, and highly flawed. Well, the Tercel was all-new too, Toyota’s first FWD car. Yet they managed to nail it, right out of the box. Or right into it.

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Like GM, Toyota had been building a large range of rather conventional and conservative RWD cars, from their little Starlet (above) (CC here), to their biggest Crowns. Toyota really was the GM of Japan, but the world was changing, and quickly. Europe had already embraced the FWD revolution, and in the US, the 1975 VW Rabbit/Golf really forced the issue. The RWD Starlet and Corolla were kept around for a few more years, but the all-new FWD Tercel was going to become one of Toyota’s most important cars ever, in the then-crucial sub-compact segment.

Toyota Tercel 1980 ad

The Tercel arrived in the US in 1980, and rather oddly, called the Corolla Tercel. Now that was taking a page out of GM’s playbook, like the Cutlass Ciera. Oh wait; that came some years later. So did GM get that idea from Toyota? To borrow the name of a well-established RWD model to bolster a brand new FWD one? Well, Toyota needn’t have bothered, because the Tercel arrived rock-solid, despite its rather unusual engine-transmission configuration.

ToyotaTercel-Down-On-the-Junkyard-Picture-courtesy-of-Murilee-Martin-550x412image: Murilee Martin/TTAC

Toyota really bucked the sweeping transverse engine trend in FWD configuration with the Tercel, choosing instead a longitudinal engine, with the transmission below/along-side, and the differential just ahead of it.

Toyota Tercel Down-On-the-Junkyard-Picture-courtesy-of-Phillip-Corolla-Tercel-Greden-550x412

This junkyard shot (also by MM) shows this even better. It’s similar to the Saab 99/900, and even to GM’s original FWD Toronado set0up, although there are some key differences too. In any case, it was unusual to see a new small car an engine going against the grain. But it worked perfectly, and both the engine and drive-train of these Tercels have achieved legendary status.

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I’ve often pondered as to why Toyota went this way. It wasn’t to take advantage of any pre-existing manufacturing efficiencies, such as the theory that the Tercel was essentially a FWD conversion of the RWD Starlet. They are completely unique and different cars, in every dimension and aspect, despite some familial styling similarities. The Tercel had very stretched-out look, in front because the wheels are mostly ahead of the engine, and in the rear, for more passenger room. Which the Tercel had, to an unusual extent, given its very compact exterior dimensions.

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The other theory was that Toyota had it in mind all along to turn the Tercels’ north-south drive train into a 4WD configuration, without having to add a complicated ninety-degree take-off on the transmission. True enough, and starting with the gen2 Tercel, the 4WD wagon became a popular addition to the line. But I have some doubts that Toyota was already thinking 4WD in the mid-seventies, when they designed the Tercel. The Subaru 4WD wagon only arrived in 1975, and it took a few years to really make much of an impression. Will we ever know?

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What I do know is that the Tercel was a very competent car on snow and ice, even without 4WD. On January 13, 1982, the same afternoon of the the tragic Air Florida Flight 90 crash into the icy Potomac River, we arrived at the Baltimore Airport expecting my parents to pick us up. They weren’t there, and the weather outside was a mixture of ice rain and snow.

I called them up from a pay phone (remember those), and they said it was impossible for them to come, as ice rain followed by snow had closed the streets and even the Beltway. You’re on your own.  What to do? Check out all the rental car counters and hope to find a FWD car, not a given in 1982 (certainly no AWD vehicles then at a rental company). There was only one, a blue Tercel SR5 hatchback, exactly like this one. And what a drive it took us on. Or I took it on.

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It took us almost four hours to get to Towson, for what usually took barely 30 minutes. I had to wend myself through the city, mostly on obscure side streets, as the police had shut down most major arterials due to ice-rink conditions. I also had to consider geography, and constantly avoid anything that looked remotely like it was going to head uphill. At one point, I drove down several blocks the wrong way on a one-way street, as it was the only way of another closed-off street, or un-navigable. All this without a map, and in parts of the city I didn’t at all know, except in a very general way.

It was very intense; I’ve never had a more demanding drive in my life, and keeping the Tercel from sliding into parked cars and moving forward took every last bit of concentration. I slammed into one curb with locked wheels pretty hard, and the Tercel bounced right up over it, fortunately without any damage. We pushed it back into the pavement and kept on slipping and sliding.

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Our two-year old daughter slept through it all in the back seat, except for the crash over the curb. I love intense drives in bad conditions, but this one was almost a bit too much. But it makes for a great memory now.

Yes, the Tercel was narrow, but pretty roomy in length, which made for adequate rear seat and luggage space. And the hatchback had the usual convenience of flexible load space.

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The Tercel’s 1452 cc 1A-C engine made all of 60 hp, which wasn’t all that bad for the time, especially considering the Tercel’s light weight . It certainly wasn’t as brisk as the Rabbit/Golf, which had fuel injection and more power. But then the Tercel was never positioned as a sporty car, despite the SR-5 version’s external stripes and cues to the contrary. And on ice and snow, more power was the last thing I was wanting.

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There’s a goodly number of gen1 Tercels still on the road here, although this one has obviously been collecting a bit of moss and lichen.

Toyota tercel 4 door

I stopped shooting them a while back, but I was sure I had a four door in the collection. Not so, and this one is from Europe, which its smaller bumper give away. This was right about the time that Toyota and the Japanese started to get serious about their European Invasion, hoping to replicate the American one. That didn’t quite turn out as well as hoped for, though.  But the Tercel and Starlet did rank extremely high in the German ADAC “Pannenstatistik”; in fact the Starlet unseated the Mercedes W123 in that coveted spot at the top of that-then very important list.

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Was the Tercel perfect?  What car ever is? But for the times, it was just about as perfect as it got, in terms of trouble-free low-cost driving. And that really stood out back then, given the travails of the Big Three’s many prematurely born cars during the eighties. Most of those became reasonably reliable enough after a few years of further development, but Americans were tiring of being GM’s beta-testers. And cars like the Tercel made them increasingly aware that it wasn’t a necessary condition. Nailing it right out of the gate; what a novel idea! Not anymore.

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