COAL Capsule: 1983 Toyota Tercel 4WD – Fourth Time’s A Charm


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.

003My Tercel’s British cousin

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.