As a quick refresher the general idea of the Great Beater Challenge is as follows: buy a cheap vehicle ($700 or less all in including repairs), come up with a team theme, drive it on a road trip while completing a scavenger hunt, and have fun. This year was supposed to top last year’s effort in terms of vehicle selection with a 1984 Innocenti SE replacing the 1961 Pontiac Laurentian of 2018. Due to a variety of factors including a new job and a lack of motivation to fix endless electrical issues meant a last minute swap to plan B; a more mainstream car but with a more of a costume theme this year. Our car came from the Nineties, had a manual transmission, two doors, DOHC engine and well under the price cap. Follow along to see what we choose.
I never meant for this Tercel to live long. Once I had the Innocenti home and had assessed its overall poor electrical condition I actually was shopping for a drivetrain to swap into it. I know that sounds silly but the initial assessment of the Innocenti I found that it would only briefly run even after swapping multiple fuel pumps both mechanical and electric, nothing electrical worked beyond the starter and ignition, small TRX “metric” tires that were impossible to find replacements for but on the plus side it had an almost completely rust free body shell. If the car were to receive a new driveline from a donor then perhaps a large chunk of the wiring could come along from that same donor. Any engine had to be compact (very small in every dimension in fact) which restricted the shopping list to only a few contenders. Given the Innocenti’s rarity in completed engine swaps and its Mini roots (although differing details like gearbox placement and suspension type) it made sense to look at what others had used successfully in classic Minis without radical surgery. The go-to candidate is the Honda Civic B-series engine with some other dark horse candidates like a Suzuki G10 turbo from the Chevrolet Metro/Pontiac Firefly turbo, Toyota Echo 1NZ-FE and Toyota Tercel/Paseo 5E-FE. A Civic would be a common donor but the car itself is a bit wider than the other candidates and I never did come across the right donor. While quite rare to find I did come across a turbo Firefly but it had its own share of electrical issues and looked rather tired. The Echo was appealing with an all aluminum DOHC engine but a lightly crashed and mechanically sound example for a reasonable price proved elusive.
The end of the run Toyota Tercel offered a very physically small 93hp DOHC engine and five speed manual gearbox shared with the Paseo. A Japanese market turbo version of the engine was available if I ever wanted more power. If I went full hog on the project and swapped the suspension components as well for better parts availability (and more common wheel bolt pattern) the Tercel offered struts up front like the Innocenti and an easier to narrow beam axle at the rear. While the engine was an iron block the Tercel promised to be electrically simpler than an Echo. I managed to find one for sale offered at a somewhat nearby rural location. Given buyers’ general reluctance to travel to smaller centers in general when buying I hoped to snag it for a song.
Since I was buying it as a donor I threw away most of the usual car buying advice. The seller could only meet after working hours which meant in the dark during the Alberta winter. He only spoke a little English as I believe he might have been some variation of a Hutterite or Mennonite which meant he could not explain where his rural location was so we met at a gas station. Once there I did not overly concern myself with the condition of the body, interior, tires or suspension. He explained he only used the car to drive back and forth on a back road to his work assignment. It had an expired plate on the back. Lots of red flags …
Both the engine and interior were filthy. Through gestures he got the point across that he had accidentally left the oil cap off after filling it with oil thus the mess under the hood. A paint mark from a scrapyard on the oil cap backed up that story. The interior also looked like it had been used to transport an animal or two at various points. On top of all of that it the car had almost 350K kms (217K miles) on it which is quite a lot for a northern climate area car. So lots and lots of red flags for a reasonable car purchase however the engine ran very well and the gearbox felt good so we negotiated on a price of $480 Cdn. I figured I would recover a decent portion of that selling parts and scrapping the shell.
As I drove it the roughly thirty kilometers home I realized that while the interior was a very smelly place to be it drove extremely well. Annoyingly it was not a bad little car and had a remarkably solid body. It was a Sport model on top of it which meant a tachometer, body cladding and a front roll bar. Once home I made the mistake of mentioning this fact to my wife and she immediately jumped on the idea of replacing the kid’s Honda Civic (as used in the 2017 GBC) with the Tercel. This did two things for her; removed the battered and scarred Civic from in front of our house and killed my engine swap project which she was never keen on. Grumbling a bit I took to a more in-depth assessment of reviving the Tercel to street duty which initially involved a lot of cleaning. A huge amount of cleaning in fact. It was now that I also noticed that the tires were almost bald which is remarkable as it drove home in the snow just fine. Credit goes to light weight and narrow tires I guess.
The interior was partly stripped for cleaning to remove hay, animal droppings as well as a huge amount of mud and dirt. It had an unhealthy helping of general grossness that does not show in photos but did come remarkably clean. Eventually.
The underside was also coated with a thick layer of farm dirt which took several attempts to penetrate.
The engine compartment was completely coated in a layer of oil and was cleaned with many, many workshop towels and rags. Once clean I had to admit it did look pretty nice and certainly looked miles better than the Civic with its paint peeling off the trunk, hail and accident damage combined with a recent addition of another dent from hitting a dumpster. When the alternator died on the Civic that sealed its fate. While an alternator replacement is a straightforward and not massively expensive the Civic had a whole long list of other needs which made it non-economical to repair even for someone with low standards like me. In the end I was okay with it as the Tercel had an appealing cheerful nature to it.
In the next installment we will turn the Tercel into the daily driver for the kids and prep it for the Great Beater Challenge 2019. Maybe the Innocenti can make the 2020 edition.
Full The Great Beater Challenge 2019 segments:
Vehicle Preparation and Theme – Creation of the Hamborghini
Some 8 years back I accompanied a friend who was looking for a car to look at a Tercel sedan. It was a ’97, 1300cc, carbureted, had A/C and showed 204.000 km. I thought those km were a bit too much, but another friend happened to know the owner and verified that it was used mostly on the highway. In fact, the general appeareance, both mechanically and otherwise, was of a much less used car.
He’s been using the Tercel since then, it has 335.000 km on it, has not been careful at all with maintenance, and the car has only seen a brake job, a front end job, and assorted mishaps that would not be noticed with half the km.
As he commutes around 130 km daily, we sometimes talk about trading for a newer Toyota, and his final words are, “I won’t win the car lotto again, so I’ll keep this one while it runs”.
PS, it has overheated at least twice, and left a pool of oil that took 2 liters to fill. Save for fouled sparkplugs…no sign of oil in the upper engine.
Both yours friends and mine were built during peak Toyota quality years so I suspect he has many more kms to do.
As of this moment, CAD700 is USD532.31.
Around here, Craigslist shows ZERO vehicles that are capable of being driven home for that kind of dough. Nothing that runs and drives is under a grand.
It is pretty tough. I waited for months to find this one. Tune in tomorrow to find out the reason it was so cheap!
I predict title problems–noting the foreshadowing of expired tag, back road driving and the previous ownership situation…
Simple solution. Put the Civic plates on it and then part it out or deal with the title issues AFTER the Challenge!
Oh yes, it’s like an early Christmas…Bring. It. On!
I always look forward to Great Beater Challenge time and this will be a great week of updates, it’s already starting out excellent what with poorly lit trysts in northern gas stations etc.
Right! It’s like the opening of a spy novel: “You bring money; I bring car. Come alone; be sure to lose your tail. Your code name will be ‘Innocenti.’ Mine will be ‘Steve.’ No, wait! Mine will be ‘Blackhawk.’ Yes, much cooler. See you at 2348 exactly.”
“No, wait! Mine will be ‘Blackhawk.’ Yes, much cooler”
Is that an intentional reference to the Tercel Blackhawk edition, or just happenstance?
Definitely intentional. Glad there are more fans of obscure Toyota trivia out there.
Hooray, another Great Beater Challenge!
Boo, this reminds me that I won’t make it out to Alberta this year. Maybe I can be there when the Innocenti rolls up to the start line in 2020.
Great stuff David. After your cleanup, this Tercel looks terrific. I thought Toyota did a great restyle with this generation. A more BMW-like exterior, and vastly better looking than the milquetoast previous version. One of the best econo-box choices of the early 90s.
Looking forward to this now regular CC annual tradition.
The handling is apparently significantly improved for this generation but still has a lot of body roll. The earlier ones must have very modest handling limits indeed.
That Innocenti! I had a Innocenti DeTomaso somewhere in 1986, and it was a blast to drive. However, I did have to replace a lot of wiring before I had it running, so yes, electric is not the strongest point.
Pretty sure that Tercel will get you around the globe 4 times however. Indestructable.
You reminded me of a friend who had one of these. It never balked in the snow. Then one day I noticed the snow tires in the back seat, mounted on steelies and all. The person never bothered mounting them, just drove on the regular tires all year long.
Looking forward to another GBC adventure!
Any car that requires that animal droppings be removed from the interior – well that car is not for me. In fact, when a car with animal droppings in the interior is better than a clean Innocenti, I guess that tells us why we don’t see many (or any, actually) Innocentis.
I’m looking forward to this year’s challenge, and while you’ve put a lot of work into the Tercel, it’ll be hard to top getting that ‘61 Laurentian running and driving after being parked for decades.
Nice find for the scratch. I would certainly not call any Toyota indestructible, but they don’t go down without a fight. Neither did my Chevy (Isuzu) LUV
Looking forward to another installment! Always interesting!
Thats not much mileage, I got a Tercel as a loaner recently with 300 odd thousand on it it ran just fine and as a round town shopping trolley probably as good as you’ll find for little money. Toyota just kept making cars right at this point in time somewhere ion the late 90s they lost some of the plot but they are still a good bet if you just want a car.
The cold weather we get here generally shortens vehicle life quite a bit although the engine runs remarkably well.
Who needs a truck? Apparently not the previous owner of this Tercel. I wonder if any Tercels (this word actually means male hawk of certain species) were transported in this Tercel.
These were about the last of the really, really, cheap and austere Japanese econoboxes. No more manual windows, manual steering, manual brakes, manual transmissions, cheap cloth, no radio, no armrests, no clock, no rear window defogger, no right hand mirror, no A/C cars. Today’s versa is much more comfortable, luxurious, better appointed, and roomier than this beast.
This was also the last of the decent Toyota econoboxes and a popular first car new for high school students. I don’t think anyone buys a new car any more for high school students, but a few people I knew had these new. The Echo was unbelievably ugly and I don’t think anyone’s bought a Yaris. The Versa, former Scions, Fiesta/Focus, and some of the Koreans seem to have replaced the budget Toyota offerings as econoboxes of choice.
I don’t agree that this was the last of the decent Toyota econoboxes. The Echo and Yaris have held true to the basic formula right up until the non-Mazda one was discontinued last year. Honest, durable, simple vehicles that will outlive the owners if they can stand them that long. Loyal cars, the owner is more likely to betray the relationship. Ugly? Sure, it’s a subcompact with headroom, show me one that isn’t.
You’ve now met someone that bought a Yaris. 2008 sedan, nice runabout for the time. I wish rear-facing car seats hadn’t caused us to move on, it would have been ideal for shorter commutes and errands for years to come. Nimble and responsive with outstanding forward visibility, good ride quality, and a turning circle so tight it felt as if it were pivoting on a central axis.
Good luck with your new car, Dave, I can see you in the winner’s circle already! I have to admit though that I’m a little disappointed you didn’t persevere with the Innocenti. What an appealing little car, 35 years old and it still looks as modern as tomorrow. Japanese engine, Italian style (just keep the tinworm at bay!), practical and cheap to run. I bet it has a bit of hoon value too.
Of course it’s moot now, but rather than swapping the (excellent) mechanicals, wouldn’t it have been easier to put in some Japanese electrics?
The new plan is to fix the electrical system and run it as is next year. The body is essentially rust free.