Curbside Capsule: 1980 Toyota Corolla Tercel – A Definitive CC

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(first posted 10/7/2014)    Say hello to the Tercel from Hell.  As this old California plate indicates, it’s been in use for a very long time, and as all this rust shows, it’s been running around Bloomington–or outside California, at any rate–for quite a while.  I’ve seen this car driven regularly since moving here over a year ago, so I have to imagine its owner just sends payment to the California BMV regularly and its registration is current.  Or, our local cops are missing out on an opportunity to fine someone.  Maybe, like me, they wouldn’t have the heart to impound the thing.

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It would be difficult to keep a car like this registered, however; it’s my understanding that a car of this age would need smog inspections every other year for registration in California.  I can happily report that the car runs very quietly; perhaps all its emissions systems are in good working order, but does the dude who owns this drive back home often enough for emissions testing?

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If so, I’m not sure I’d want to spend all those miles in here.  This car really appears to get a lot of use even now; the seat cover which hides what must be a bunch of torn vinyl is tearing itself.  And it’s not loving use, as the door clearly gets kicked open quite a bit (how do people do that to their cars?).

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What’s impressive, however, is that regular investments in tires, exhaust and other pieces are made to keep this thing running.  Most anyone I know would consider this not worth the repairs, and I’m not talking well-heeled people by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s quite possible it simply doesn’t need much to keep it running, but would you want to shell out $300 bucks for a set of new tires for something which looks like this?  I nevertheless admire this owner’s determination not to waste money on a new car when clearly, this isn’t broken.  Frugality, even in the extreme, has always been something I’ve admired.  Even more fun is how well this dovetails into my memories of the Tercel (or Corolla Tercel here) being the archetypal cheapskate mobile up until the Koreans got good enough to supplant it.  If it weren’t for the other cars nearby, this picture could’ve been taken in 1992.

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Yes, the Tercel was known for stinginess, but it had enough of a definable character to serve in other roles, notably cast as the well-loved wheels of Breaking Bad protagonist Jesse Pinkman.  Yes, it was the next generation car used in that series, but the Tercel name had brand equity.


Whether you were a local union chapter who needed cheap, well-regarded wheels for a round of Japan Bashing or someone in need of a serious value on four wheels, Tercel was there for a good two decades.  I don’t know why Toyota got rid of such a great name, although the Echo certainly didn’t deserve a better name than the one it was given.  As an aside, anyone else here remember Japan Bashing?  A network news report of this short-lived phenomenon scarred me as a kid (how could you hurt a poor, defenseless car??), and I didn’t appreciate my father’s laughter at the futility of such actions in the face of wanton violence against what I saw as a sentient creature–kids and their animist beliefs.  Of course, I now understand these workers’ resentments much more, though I still could never bring myself to intentionally damage a car.  Ironically, taking punishment is what the Tercel was made to do, and I’m glad this car constantly shows itself around town in much the same condition Tercels were presented in during my childhood: beaten to hell.  It’s a real trip down memory lane, this nearly thirty-five year old Toyota.  With the lack of other similar examples in Bloomington, you could say this Asian is a real sole survivor.

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Related reading:

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