I had been driving small, modestly equipped, two door imports for 12 years. Boston was teeming with sports sedans like the Audi 4000 and Honda Accord. It was time for me to get with the program.
In 1985 we were living in Eastgate, a married-student housing highrise on the MIT campus along the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachussetts. Our 1981 Colt, in addition to taking us on epic road trips to Montreal and Nova Scotia, had served as trusted crosstown commuter from Cambridge to South Boston where I worked as a purchasing manager for an electrical distributor. On a trip back from southern Maine’s York Beach one hot summer day, sans A/C, it occurred to my wife and me that maybe it was time for an upgrade.
I still favored the Mazda 626 design language and appreciated that a 626 would give me just a bit of exclusivity on New England roads. We tried, we really tried, to buy a four door 626. Dealers had plenty of inventory, but they were still loading these up with all sorts of add-ons to push the sticker way over MSRP and I just didn’t want to play that game, so we walked.
Realizing that once again I was not going to own a 626, I started rethinking my next car. I had liked the previous generation of Corollas, the last of the RWDs, especially the liftback. The 5th-generation E80 had been out for about a year and the four door, with its upright greenhouse, had really started to grow on me. We went up to Atlantic Toyota in Lynn to test drive one. As we peered at window stickers and looked for 5-speed manuals, we were greeted by an affable young salesman. There was the usual exchange; what were we looking for, did we want to trade the Colt, etc. We found a well-equipped Corolla LE 4 door that checked all the right boxes and took it for a test drive. The car was okay, certainly much nicer than the Colt or anything else that came before. But to be honest, it was still a Corolla. It was a bit dull and obviously still built to a price; it just didn’t wow us.
Ah, but what’s this over here? Just one row over were a bunch of Camrys. I had seen the ads but they really didn’t register as a viable option for me. It looked like they were targeting families and maybe suburbanites, certainly not a hip young man living in Boston. Seeing them in person though, especially next to the Corolla, was an eye-opener. A brown four-door 5-speed in base trim caught my eye. Our savvy salesman noticed us looking and got the keys for a test drive. This was everything the Corolla was not. Quiet, comfortable, quick…an upgrade over the Corolla in just about every respect. Paul reviewed the first gen Camry earlier this year with a nice background on how this was almost a Ford-Toyota venture.
Of course I was dreading the next step of negotiating the purchase. I could just see the dealer add-ons piling up, although, unlike the Mazda store, there weren’t any ADM stickers on the window. As we headed indoors to start discussions on a deal, our salesman happened to mention that he was an ordained minister and that this job was just a way to make ends meet. Yeah, right. But the hard sell never came. Our salesman explained that he wouldn’t play that game, given his background. We assumed that when he went to get our paperwork approved by the sales manager the hard sell would kick in, but no, they played it straight. True, we did pay sticker for this car, but Toyota was moving these to beat the band and we were more than happy to walk away with that deal.
This first generation Camry was still relatively small, but I felt like I was driving an adult car for the first time in my life. Four doors! Rear seat leg room! Air conditioning! The 5-speed manual, combined with the 2.0L fuel-injected 4-cylinder provided ample power for the times. I still find the first generation Camrys to be quite attractive, if a bit understated. Especially the 1985 and later with flush headlights replacing the quad rectangular sealed beams. The base model sported black covered bumpers but against the metallic brown paint of our car, they blended in fairly well. Ours had the inevitable pinstripes that were all the rage, but was otherwise quite plain in base trim. The Camry was a very comfortable cruising car but small enough to handle Boston traffic with ease.
I drove the Colt back to my hometown of Corning, NY in order to sell it. I knew there were limited, used import offerings in that part of the state. I listed the car in the local want ads for $2,500 and it sold very quickly. My mother actually handled the sale, telling me she didn’t know anything about selling a car. I told her to just make it clear that the price was firm and that a cashiers check would be required for payment.
Shortly after buying the Camry, while parked at a beach on the north shore, we came back to find that someone had creased the rear passenger door with their bumper as they pulled out. I had the car repaired, but the body shop did a poor job of hiding the crease and I was quite unhappy with the results. An older version of me would have made a stink of it and demanded they redo the work. Oh well, you live and learn.
In 1986 my wife finished her PhD and considered job offers in Houston, Midland, Allentown, Wilmington, and St Paul. St Paul was an easy pick from that list and we packed our bags and headed for the Midwest. We actually made the trip twice. A year after we bought the Camry, she bought a brand new black MR2 from that same Toyota dealer as a graduation present to herself. We left it parked in a garage and flew back to get pick it up for the drive to St Paul after a side trip to Florida. Once we were settled in St Paul, I found a body shop and had the Camry door redone more to my liking. The car performed flawlessly in Minnesota’s cold winters and hot summers. I found work as a sales manager with an electrical distributer based on St Paul and we bought a house in the Crocus Hill neighborhood. We had no issues with the car in four years of ownership. The interior held up very well, and over four years of ownership there were no mechanical issues or rust to worry about.
In 1989 Toyota introduced the second-generation Camry. Gone were the slab sides; Toyota was now reflecting the influence of the Ford Taurus in their designs from this period. The new Camry, while still conservatively styled, shared those rounded contours. But more importantly, they now offered a wagon as a replacement for the awkwardly-styled liftback.
I do remember that the dealer add-ons and the “supplemental” window stickers were really common at that time on the hot-selling imports. Rustproofing treatments, paint sealants and dealer preparation fees were the norm. My VW GTI got the Rusty Jones paint sealant applied because it was a car in inventory before I bought it. And no, it did not eliminate the need for waxing.
For whatever reason, the original Camry was never on my radar at that time. The Accord and the 626 seemed to be the default new cars my friends bought following graduation from law school that year, but I don’t recall a Camry in that bunch – and did not shop one for myself. As I look at it now, I can see that there was much to like there.
Ah, rustproofing. Bought a new Datsun 510 wagon in 1980. Already had the rustproofing. What they did was drill holes in the doorjambs, spray whatever in it and put a rubber plug in the holes.
Couple years later, the only rust on the car was around all those holes they drilled.
I remember both Ziebart and Rusty Jones. Either way they would drill all those holes. Yep, it sure did seem like an invitation to additional rust opportunities.
My first full time job was working at the local Pontiac dealer prepping cars back in the late 80s. They lost their rust proofing guy because he quit and I was briefly taught how to do it until they hired a new one (very briefly!). I remember being shown how to drill a hole in the rear door jamb to spray the inside. Imagine my surprise when I went to do it on that Korean version of a LeMans and I could see the tread of the tire, oops!
In the fall of 1981 I was shopping for a Honda Accord. I wanted a base 5 speed hatchback. No stock anywhere … until I found a store that had just received a shipment, not yet unloaded from the truck. At that time local dealers hadn’t quite started the undisguised markup game explicitly; instead they added paint and upholstery “protection packages” for outrageous prices. While I waited for them to unload the cars so I could look closer, the saleswoman made it clear that I couldn’t test drive the car for a few days since they would have to do PDI, and add the protection package and pinstripe it: “We do that with all our cars”. I told her that I’d prefer the car with the paint and upholstery as it came from Japan, not some spray wax and ScotchGard applied in an hour for $500. She said she’d talk with her manager, who came out and not-so-politely suggested I leave. In the end I found a dealer who would sell at sticker, no add-ons though I lowered my budget and got a Civic.
As for this gen Camry, we borrowed my in-laws’ to tour New England on our honeymoon in 1989. It was pleasant, though I would have preferred their other car, a 5 speed Subaru turbo wagon.
” She said she’d talk with her manager, who came out and not-so-politely suggested I leave.”
For me, that would have meant that I’d be damned if I ever bought a Honda in my lifetime. And a letter of complaint to Sochiro Honda himself.
You dodged a disaster by not getting a the first generation of front wheel drive Mazda 626s. Like today’s Mazdas, they got the best reviews by the automotive press for nice styling and interiors, many gadgets and sports car handling. But if you kept them more than a standard 3 year initial ownership you would experience head gaskets blowing between 50k and 80k miles, rattling exhaust systems, rusted wheel arches, peeling paint, and failing sound systems. Plus few non-factory cos made maintenance parts making maintenance expensive. At trade in time owners learned that the demand for a relatively obscure brand lead to trade-in values much lower than Hondas, Toyotas, Nissans, or even domestic cars like Grand Ams and Cutlass Supremes.
My brother had one such 626, a turbo even from 1986, and had no such problems in the 140k miles he drove it.
I had a 86 626 which would be the second year of the front wheel drive era. That car went 375,000 miles and blew one head gasket at 275,000 miles and that was it. Clear coat started to peel at around year 16 of it’s 20 year life. I’d say the car did fairly well by me.
I dig the lead pic of this post, because…reasons.
The 1st generation of Camry was bit strange for the public. It was the first attempt to produce a large front dive vehicle, but not large enough to compete with GM A body which was dominated the market despite its engineering deficiency and poor reliability. The import market also had Stanza, Accord, 626, Jetta and Galant. They all had their own merits and deficiencies Actually Toyota didn’t sell that many. I recalled my cousin was looking into this car back then, and found it was expensive. He ended up getting a 1984 Civic sedan. But I think the 2nd generation was much better, but back then Ford had introduced Taurus, which was the best front drive mass market car for American, so Camry ate up the GM A body market share. By 3rd generation, Toyota proved the world it was ready for prime time in North American to destroy Big Three in family car market
Take sides: the Camry’s low-draft vent opening across the right-hand 2/3 of the dash, vs. the 626’s oscillating center vent…
I spent more time riding in back than driving when this car was new, so the change I most noticed on the 1985 refresh were real rear seat headrests on the LE sedan rather than the small protuberances that passed for headrests on Japanese cars back then, including the 83-84 Camry.
I was in my mid-20s and had just bought my first house. My neighbor across the street had a 1st gen Camry so I got to spend a good amount of time looking it over. The car was odd looking to me (like most Toyotas) with its flat rear wheel well, it just looked like an old mans car. Compared to the 626 version, the Camry’s 4 door hatchback looked out of proportion everywhere. I felt, then, as I do now–that Toyota’s are purchased for their quality and in spite of their looks, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Even as a car nut, the Camry was invisible to me back then, dad drove a 1st gen Supra and I had a Fiesta (sort of sporty, German and cheap). An older co-worker, who owned a Mercedes SL, bought a plain white Camry as a commuter. I thought it odd, but he saw the quality.
A 1999 Camry ended up being dad’s last car. It lasted 300,000 miles with no major repairs.
I’ve always liked the first gen hatchback but ended up with an ’89 wagon. The two liter/auto package would consistently deliver 30mpg around town and 34 on the highway.
Funny we had a similar experience almost three years ago between a Honda dealer(instead of Mazda) and a Toyota dealer literally next door. Looking at close-out new CR-V. Steadfastly refused to remove the ‘document fee’, they had some aftermarket coating applied to the upholstery which they said they did to all their cars, wouldn’t remove the cost of the coating, and wouldn’t sell with any close-out discount, only MSRP plus the interior coating and document fee($400). We said bye bye, walked nextdoor. Toyota had a new RAV4 with only the equipment we wanted, no upsell pressure, no doc fee, and a $2,000 discount as a new model was coming out to replace the 2018 version we were interested in. I’ve spent more time shopping for a suit than this RAV4. The lesson- some dealers are their own worst enemy
I did my largest car shopping a year later, in 1986, that I’ve ever done, including range of types of cars (all cars though, no trucks)…never looked at the Camry, though I should have, the liftback would have been up my ally….instead I looked at the MR2, which really wouldn’t have been good as a single car owner who likes some practicality. I did shop the 626, with the oscillating vents, as well as the Mitsubishi Gallant Sigma, which I came close to buying, as well as the Honda Accord Hatchback. Probably should have bought the Accord, but wanted fuel injection, offered only on the highest trim package, but didn’t want power windows (little did I know that they’d be almost unavoidable in a few years). Ended up with an ’86 VW GTi, which might be a bit predictable in that my prior car was a ’78 Scirocco.
A few years before you, but I too was living in Massachusetts (not in Boston, almost in New Hampshire), and also moved to the midwest, but to central Texas instead of Minnesota, where I’ve been since (almost 40 years thus far). Was also in grad school and working, but transferred credits and finished up in Texas. I had friends at work who bought Accords and Camrys, they seemed to work out well for them, but I ended up keeping my VWs for about as long….have only owned 4 cars in almost 50 years of driving, 3 of them VWs, going on 21 years for my current Golf…don’t sound like I’m typical, but willing to put up with some of the imperfections to drive a car I like, helps to be handy, they’ve had lots of things go wrong with them, some of which I’ve never bothered to fix (power locks in several doors stopped working but not willing to tear apart the door and risk window regulator damage to fix the locks).
Probably should be driving a Buick at my age now…problem is they no longer sell cars, so far have resisted the SUVs which are supposed to replace hatchbacks and the like. Contrarian, of course, a Texan who doesn’t want to be sold a truck? Send him back to Massachusetts! Guess I haven’t yet bought a grown-up car yet, a Golf is usually a car of a much younger person than my age as it is now….but the grown-up cars seem to all have gone away (unless I buy used, of course).
7/14/2022 It’s a bit premature, but on Friday I’m traveling to Tucson to pick up a 1985
(37 y/o!) Camry LE hatchback with 100,488 (confirmed) miles on it with NO rust and in remarkable condition. Silver with a brown/beige interior, no power windows or locks but with A/C and an automatic. I can’t wait!