COAL: 1985 Toyota Camry – All Grown Up

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.