CC Capsule: 1981 Toyota Corolla Tercel – Little Red Hawk

Years ago, a former manager had reintroduced an effective marketing phrase I had long forgotten from my ’80s childhood when she referred to the “Toyota jump”.  Within the context of her and my conversation, I had put together and presented to her my proposal for a new business account I had wanted to insure (I’m an underwriter by day), but the account itself had a bit of “hair” on it, with an unfavorable loss history and a few other things about it that weren’t exactly ideal.

I did have a thought process behind wanting to write this account, but as much as I had tried to put “lipstick on a pig”, my manager (after pausing and shaking her head slowly) looked at me and said, “Joe, I hear what you’re saying… but this account just doesn’t make me want to do the ‘Toyota jump’.  And here’s why…”  I just looked at her, disappointed in sensing my proposal was about to be rejected, but also barely able to contain loud laughter for my memories of those ads.

The Toyota jump.  Many of us of a certain age were used to seeing Toyota commercials on TV, where at the end of the advertisement, an enthusiastic owner would leap into the air (often visibly holding the keys), as an effusive choir would sing, “Oh, what a feeling…TOYYY-O-TA!”  These commercials completely sold the young me on the idea that these little imports were something really special, and that owning one, no matter how unglamorous the car actually was (I mean, really – the yellow example above is a Tercel econobox; a great car though it was, a Celica-lite it was not), was going to eternally brighten your days to come.  I can imagine, though, that to many former Pinto, Gremlin, Vega or even Chevette owners, a little front-wheel-drive Tercel might have been cause for leaping into the air in ecstasy.

When I was growing up, I had thought that all of Toyota’s model names were completely coined, as if random syllables had been selected and sequenced together by a computer.  It wasn’t until later that I had learned that a “tercel”, for example, was actually a male hawk, or that “Celica” was derived from the Latin word “coelica” which means “heavenly” or “celestial”.  “Camry” is an anglicized, phonetic spelling of “kamori”, which means “crown” in Japanese.  I was pleased to eventually find out that there had been a method to Toyota’s nomenclature madness, though I do remember thinking at the time that Toyota’s use of what I thought were completely made-up names seemed high-tech in the coolest, most 1980s way, possible.

When I had spotted this example, a facelifted ’81 or ’82 model, it had been years since I had last seen a first-generation “Corolla” Tercel (as they were initially called), which was introduced here in the United States for 1980.  This one would be powered by a 60-hp 1.5L four-cylinder engine.  The length of its short, 98-inch wheelbase is somewhat masked by its wheels being pushed out to its far corners – which likely contributed to maximum interior space utilization.

I love the particular accessories on this one, which show that at least one of this car’s owners had prized it later in its life: a nice window tint out back, chrome moldings for the wheel arches, and a little lip spoiler on its foreshortened trunk.  While its body wasn’t in perfect shape, it was mostly rust-free in a way I would think uncharacteristic of a Japanese import of this era in the Midwest.  I felt that the amount of mild customization bestowed on this example merited a “customized” depiction, hence the tinted image above that I had fashioned from my original photograph.

I was once walking through my neighborhood back to my house across the street from where I photographed this car, when I stopped twenty feet in front of a hawk that was feasting on a rat on the sidewalk in front of me.  According to a neighborhood stranger who also stood watching in fascination, she had witnessed the hawk swoop down and seize the rat.  I imagine the well-built, reliable, efficient Toyota Tercel did something similar by clutching once-loyal, American-only buyers who had been left unimpressed by their experiences with domestic small cars.

Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Friday, March 4, 2011.