Is ever a car more unloved than a subcompact appliance? Sometimes, the first owner really and truly wants one. Maybe it serves as a welcome replacement for a larger and thirstier car and is kept mint. But once passed on, the pool of caring owners gets dramatically smaller, even if the car has earned a better kind of owner. Since acquiring this Tercel as the fourth owner two years ago, however, I think I’ve been doing quite well.
In 1982 Toyota launched the second generation Tercel to the burning indifference of the motoring press and the glee of the dealerships getting ready for some serious markup profits. Introduced as a three- or five-door hatchback in addition to my featured five-door “tall wagon” (this was the pre-crossover era after all) with either front or four wheel drive, the sole engine option was 63hp 3A-C engine mated with a four-speed manual (a six speed with a granny gear came with four-wheel drive) or a three speed automatic. Even unladen and taking the advantage of a manual transmission, it’s best to skip the Tercel if you want to go anywhere fast. I can only imagine that the pace in an example saddled with an automatic with the air conditioner on, laden with five people and their luggage is… leisurely. The upshot to this is that the mechanicals are bulletproof and will run until the second coming or we run out of fuel, whichever comes first. Thoughts like these presumably passed through the head of whomever originally ordered the one that’s now in my hands. It’s a 1983 with 4WD but not the SR5 package, which means no inclinomenter, no amazing plaid-trim seats, no fat moldings and no sunroof or tach.
Just exactly what has happened in the life of this wagon is a mystery. The bill of sale tells me that the first owner picked her up from a lot in New York city in 1984 but the front park bench had a sticker on it with, “Don’t mess with Texas” in sunbleached letters. It had ten years in America before it somehow found its way into a shipping container and, in December of 1994, arrived on the toasty warm coasts of Honduras where it was delivered to the hands of one of my neighbors. It must’ve been a jolting change for the little thing: “How can it be this hot in winter?”
As a little kid I passed in front of this wagon hundreds of times, and even as a self-proclaimed gearhead I never paid much attention to it. It was just some car. Not like the yellow BMW 8-Series that I saw once (and only once), or the Porsche 944 and Jaguar E-Type that graced my bedroom walls. It’s not that I hated it, I just didn’t pay much attention to it. One day, it just disappeared, which I failed to notice until it returned, its front now an ugly shade of gray. The neighbor who owned it now drove a silver Toyota Corolla and I went back to promptly ignoring it until some years later when I noticed it was once again parked on the sidewalk and that it hadn’t moved in a while. And so it stood there, silently taking the torrential rains and tropical sun through its faded window tint, as I went through middle school and university.
Out of nowhere a couple of years ago, our neighbor knocked on the door and asked if my father wanted to join him to “give it a look.” I tagged along while we walked up a hill and suddenly it dawned on me what we were going to take a look at. Sunken, and almost sad looking, the poor Tercel already looked like a prop in a post-apocalyptic movie. There was no way one could do anything with it. I looked at the interior and while the seats were in very good nick, the center console was destroyed and the place where the radio was supposed to go was now filled with craft wire. Not being an expert on cheap car buying, or car buying at all, I was rather put down. But then my dad reached for the ignition and the car, despite having been about as well cared for as the library of Alexandria, started on one turn of the key and happily puttered along on a test drive, even if the suspension made some very disturbing metal on metal sound. And so it was that a couple of handshakes and a check later, we were the proud owner of a car I had generally ignored for the first eighteen years of my life.
Things started with a bang, literally. On the day we were going to take it to a mechanic we made it to the end of a driveway when both rear tires blew up. Taking it to the tire shop revealed some rather concerning cracks on two of the rims, so those had to go. Another problem was that when it was given to us it was stuck in four wheel drive mode. The Tercel lacks a central differential so when you pop it in four wheel drive, it’s as though you were driving a normal off-roader with the center differential locked which is not particularly life-extending for the gearbox and drivetrain, and is especially bad on road.
And so, we set out to do a little restoration project. The knocking on the suspension was fixed, but not before it reavealed that the floor of the car was little more than compressed rust in certain spots by the way portions just caved-in when struck by a hammer. A new console and parking lights were scoured by an awesome friend from all the way in the great white north, as was a new wiring harness and some badging that will go on as soon as we respray the car in its glorious two-tone brown.
But after rims and tires and that old adage of replacing everything liquid or made out of rubber from the engine bay when buying a used car, it has been a very reliable hauler that’s actually quite fun to zip around town in. I’m perfectly willing to overlook that the air conditioning saps about half of the engine’s remaining power and is weak to the point that we joke that the only thing it could chill down is a tic tac box. After all the mechanical business was sorted out, the Tercel has needed nothing more than its oil changed and a little water in the reservoir every so often. The front tires were replaced after the first pair, ahem, wore faster than expected but, like Paul’s ’66 F-100, it’s always there and ready for whatever we throw at it.
The 5-speed manual was an option on 83-86 Tercels, the 4-speed was standard, and was the transmission on my Dad’s ’84 3-door, a barebones, plastic and vinyl delight. He revered that car and proceeded to log 242,000 trouble-free miles, only jettisoning the car in early 1997, by which point the car had rusted so badly that the doors could no longer be open from the outside handles. Still, he drove that car to the junkyard, which gave him $25 for it.
While on the subject of 4-speeds, I think the Tercel was the last car offered with a 4-speed manual in the North American market. Someone else will know definitively.
Lada had base four speed manuals into the 1990s. My 1991 Niva had a four speed. The Tercel is probably the last mass marketed one though.
Eric, you’re probally right, only other ones I could think of is a early 90’s Civic DX, Subie Justy , VW Fox or base Sentra. I think the circa late 80’s Daihustsu Charde was was the last two speed automatic, a semi auto at that. I saw a road test 0 to 60 in the 20’s, regardless if first was used or not. Almost 20 years after the last Powerglide, 10 after the Hondamatic. I think the Corolla, maybe the Neon, Metro and Wrangler had the last three speed auto, early 2000’s?
I won’t miss these screamers one bit.
Wow, the insomnia is bad tonight. I should do a CC isubmission about topics like the last four drum brakes, semi automatic transmissions, last nonpower steering power brakes car, factory a.m. radio, etc.
That would be seriously popular; a whole little series “The Last….” let me know if you’re willing.
It was. 1996 was the final year, but only on the Standard trim 2 door. It also likely was the last car that did not have a passenger side rearview mirror.
Nope – VW Fox had one thru 1993
In the midst of my general disinterest in little econoboxes, there was always a small place in my heart for these little guys. They look so logical and upbeat, like the car version of an extremely high-spirited efficiency expert.
Our neighbors had one in light blue. Not sure when they bought it, but it stuck around as long as they did before they moved sometime in 2007-08. Still appeared to be running along fine, then.
One more thing, the Tercels go for big money for what they are. Not quite collectors, but major cult status.
These are true cockroaches, and there’s still a healthy number of them here. They were once one of the most desired and common “Eugene-mobiles”, but have largely been supplanted by old Subaru wagons.
Thanks for the nice write-up; I enjoyed it. And happy Tercel-ing!
Are the wheels off another car? They don’t look aftermarket.
Nope, just a good set of aftermarket wheels.
Love these cars! Of the dozens of Toyotas I’ve owned, I’ve only had 2 automatics, and one was an 85 Tercel wagon. It was for sale in Salem (on craigslist), for $550. Ad said it ran fine, and it looked quite good. After speaking with them on the phone about it, I was basically sold, and asked them to hang on for a few hours, which they agreed to do. My friend Ryan drove me up there to buy it, and upon arrival, I was very impressed with it’s overall condition, until I sat in it. SHIT!
I had someone managed to entirely ignore the transmission, which the ad made no mention of. I wouldn’t even have given the car a second thought, but given that I was already up there I offered $450 and settled on $500. It gave me nearly 3 years of (mostly) daily-driver status until the brakes just went. At that point the engine smoked pretty heavily, and I had an 85 Four Runner, so I sold it off cheap.
Neighbor had one of these and wish I could say it sold me on Toyotas but it kept losing transmissions. I did get sold on 4X4 Toyotas but that was by a couple service trucks that ran forever. I bought a 4Runner and hope it lasts forever. It should be the last 2nd car I ever buy.
When I first saw this I thought someone had replaced the rear hatch. Then I noticed the lower sides were the same colour. Weird approach to two-toning. Love me a Japanese beater. Keep on Tercelling, Gerardo.
You might not know this, but there is actually a little brown 1983 Fiat Panda 4×4 hidden in this Toyota.
I keep seeing these in VGC in Self Service Junk Yards all over California ~ I’d thought they’d be worth saving but apparently not .
I really like your writing style (and your subject matter). I hope that you and your Tercel have many happy years together!
My sister owned an ’83 wagon. I especially remember the tinny doors, the airiness of the interior, and the firm, comfortable seats.
The Toyota Tercel later Corolla based Tercel/Sprinter Carib 4WD many decades later were succeeded by the Toyota Echo based Toyota bB/Scion xB, afterwards by the Toyota Corolla Rumion based Scion xB in North America and at the same time elsewhere the Daihatsu Materia based Toyota bB
Shouldn’t the Matrix/Vibe AWD appear on this list as well? They are Corolla based and very popular.
I think what Orrin said is true for all of them: ” They look so logical and upbeat, like the car version of an extremely high-spirited efficiency expert.”
I just kept it simple because the Toyota Tercel/Sprinter Carib 4WD belonged to the Tercel lineup. In addition since the Toyota Platz/Echo replaced the Tercel Sedan, the 1G Toyota bB/Scion xB was fitting enough because this model was based from the Echo’s platform. The 2G Scion xB/Toyota Corolla Rumion for North American markets and the Daihatsu Materia based 2G Toyota bB for Japanese market replacements however only adds to the complication and confusion so this is where the diversion branches out of their supposed ancestral niche’.
No; the E120 Corolla Fielder directly replaced the E110 Sprinter Carib series. World markets ended up with several different variations on the traditional wagon body theme (Matrix/Vibe and Corolla Spacio/Verso). The Rumion would then pick up where the Spacio left off, but the most car-like wagon Fielder still exists to this day.
In the mid-to-late 1980s these were VERY popular in rural Eastern Ontario (where I grew up and now live) I would say they were the most popular 4wd car of that time around here. You still sometimes see them, probably a consequence of the plethora of Toyota dealerships as well as the quality of the vehicle. Subarus were never that popular around here until recent times.
Im no fan of Toyotas but these 4×4 wagons have a certain oddball charm about them. That, and they seem to be able to shrug off the worst forms of neglect/abuse and come back for more.
I saw one of these about a year ago (my pre-CC awareness days) that had a beefy roofrack nearly the size of the car, TRD stickers all over it, faded patina’d paint, and…….a huge pair of steer horns bolted to the hood! Hillarious!
I’m surprised that no one has mentioned that this vintage 4WD Tercel was the ride of choice for Jesse Pinkman in the last half of the Breaking Bad TV series, after his lowrider Monte Carlo gets shot up and impounded by the DEA.
If I only had a penny for everytime some yells “Bitch” at me when I drive it…
Typical jealous response , they can’t have one so attack you .
Heh, my brother just sent this link to me.
I am still driving a 1990 4WD Corolla SW with 234,000 miles on it. When someone said the mechanics are bombproof above, they are right, I have done very little major repairs to it, and I bought it in 1995 with 64,000 miles.
Fun Factoid: “Tercel” is a Real Word and means the Male of certain species of hawks.
Bought a 96 Tercel for a family member, 4 speed with 153k (miles) back in Feb. 40 MPG and pretty peppy for what it is. So far, so good. These older 4WD models are really cool.