COAL 1989 Tercel: Suddenly it’s 1980… in 1987!

The family of three makes it to Puerto Rico. Spanking new Tercel on rare outing to San Juan.

We arrived to Puerto Rico in December of 1987, now us being a family of three: mom, little brother and I. After a few days of staying in rather expensive hotels (Puerto Rico, cruiser destination for retired Americans, is not the place to visit if cash strapped), mom found us a place to live in Barrio Broadway, an upper low class/low middle class neighborhood in the outskirts of Mayaguez. The help of her ex-coworkers from the Puerto Rican Judicial System, who knew her from her time as a court steno typist back in the 60’s, had been essential, a number of employees of the town’s judicial system seemed to live in the surrounding houses. Now we were part of this vibrant neighborhood, full of colorful wooden houses, loud salsa music, large bugs, and heated family debates.

Colorful houses, lush tropical surroundings, heated family debates. The very street we lived on, and the corner were an upset mistress broke the windows of a Jeep CJ with a bat, one night, in unforgettable fashion.

At the time of our arrival, Puerto Rican traffic seemed evenly split between recent Japanese imports and good ol’ American iron. European makes were nothing but just a trickle. Our house in the barrio was a corner one, white, two stories, with us living in the lower level. Back from school, I would leave the main door open while listening to local radio in the living room while doing homework. It didn’t take long to get familiar with the on goings of the barrio and the surrounding vehicles. Just around our house, next door, a couple of Corolla GT-S models, of which Puerto Ricans didn’t seem to get enough. Across the street, a Jeep CJ, always parked in the corner. Mom’s coworkers lived nearby, one owning a recent Corolla sedan, and another, a Pontiac 6000, top of the line. A car the lady bragged of costing upwards of 27k and getting as divorce settlement (American cars in the island had a premium due to shipping expenses). A bit further up the street, Dani, the office’s clerk, owned a ‘69 Chevelle. There were still tons of Chevelles in town, along with A-body cousins of similar vintage. Lots of new American cars as well, Cutlass Supremes and Regals being common choices, while downsized B-Body wonder, the Caprice, was the staple of carros publicos (a Puerto Rican variation on taxi transport, they were utterly indestructible).

Faces around the neighborhood. Usually, I would keep my distance.

With housing settled, it was time to get us some wheels. With mom, it couldn’t be otherwise. After the privations of life in El Salvador, and now with choices at her hand (limited by a modest budget) she took to the brand she had the fondest memories for. Walking into Mayaguez’s Toyota dealer, looking briefly over the available offer –all new to our eyes- there was little haggling, ending up soon after as owners of Toyota’s recently revamped Tercel, in hatchback form. The reliable appliance-vehicle was now in our hands, not unattractive, but hard to brag about. Still after the memories of the dreaded Datsun F10, just about any vehicle thereafter was an undisputable improvement.

Image from the web. The very ringer of our model, red shiny paint, non flush headlamps.

Driving off the lot, immersed in the plastic cocoon of its interior, I was trying to absorb the new possession, looking at the modern efficient dashboard that somehow managed to look mundane as well. When did modernity stopped being exciting? It wasn’t easy to concentrate though, my senses were being overloaded in those early days of arrival. As we drove, the road was a time travel machine; after being subjected to a decade of import stagnation in El Salvador, I was now absorbing a whole decade of car advancements in every trip. What’s that weird formal looking vehicle with a fastback? An Oldsmobile Aero? Already looks old! It’s 1987 buddy! And what’s the deal with all these similar looking cars with changing prows (the dreaded J-Body variants)? A Buick, a Chevrolet, an Oldsmobile… why? Now… that’s a neat looking car… a Taurus you say? No wonder it belongs in the future with Agent Murphy.

Back at home, time to look at our Tercel carefully in our garage. Hard to get used to the idea of being the Rip Van Winkle of car ownership… to me the Tercel just looked like the future, it could not be otherwise, I had been asleep! But was it really? I looked closer. Ok, not really a dynamic form, with the track too narrow and its wheels too tiny, the car didn’t bring to mind excitement. Economy of form was obviously its reason for being. Still it did look modern, and it exuded confidently Japan’s school of product design on its lines.

The Tercel’s interior, ’80s fashion at bargain prices. Full-on decadence with that tape player!

In the few weeks I had been in the island, it was obvious that during the 80’s the Japanese had found their design language. Just as Bauhaus holds a strong imaginary influence on German product design, Sony’s Walkman and Technics turntables seemed to have develop the style of Japanese wheels, not without more than a tip of the hat to Giugiaro’s 70’s output.

That said, something else was at play, the Tercel’s general shape didn’t quite fit the Technics school of design. It reminded me vaguely of an image from my childhood. The steep slope of the hood, the truncated pyramid shape of the passenger compartment, the droopy back. Yes, it was an image carved into my mind, from a 1975 Reader’s Digest, a car that in my 5 year old mind was the shape of the future…

Memories of childhood, as seen on a ’75 Reader’s Digest.

Yes, girth notwithstanding (how could it even compare?), the little Tercel only brought to mind AMC’s much maligned Pacer, a car I hadn’t forgotten, but never heard of again after our departure in ‘76. After days back in Puerto Rico I had yet to come across one Pacer in the flesh. Old Chryslers, Fords, Pontiacs, even Hornets, everyone was present there in ’87… Even teenage me had to arrive to a logical conclusion: the Pacer had been nothing but a turd. Had my 5 year old self been wrong? Was this not the shape of the future?

I’ll defend my 5 year old self, still in Puerto Rico, 1976, surrounded by broughamastic wonders with grilles resembling Greek architecture; fondness for cigars and martinis while driving to the Country Club do not a child’s dream make, much less when such vehicles were driven by Columbo’s suspects. Instead, 5 year old me found the Pacer intriguing, even attractive, a shape referred to on this very site as Jetsons style. Yes, little-me knew The Jetsons was a much better place, with dreams of utopia, silly sitcom situational jokes, no need for alibies, and flying cars with undreamed of engineering.

Shape of the future?

Undreamed of engineering, what the Tercel had that AMC could have only wished to develop, even partially. Even more obvious in the original concept’s model, where the tiny engine bay proposed was to be finally realized by cars like the Tercel and their ilk.

If only… Words ever used when AMC appears. When launched, Motor Trend, always rooting for American preeminence, lauded it as the “freshest, most people-oriented auto to be born in the U. S. in 15 years”, while Consumer Guide referred to it as “futuristic”. R&T, more grounded in their assessment, denoted its engineering as dull in the extreme. So, yes, the Pacer aped a good sci-fi prop, making little-me excited and giddy. Too bad that sci-fi prop came from the Stepford Wives and not Star Trek, which incidentally, had been cancelled. What kind of failed utopia did AMC tried to take us to? And how was little-me to know that even modernity can be a saleable fad?

America, Land of Opportunity, where one can succeed by hard work and inventiveness. Or so the idea goes. America is also a place where one can succeed by selling your shtick to the unsuspecting. The braggadocio style of business, making a killing in the process. In a land known for ideas such as “Buddhism in 5 Easy Steps”, or “Schopenhauer’s Anthropic Philosophy explained in a New York minute” (my idea, go ahead and take it to bank), a frame of mind that goes to the foundation of the nation, then AMC’s desperate shtick starts to make sense. There’s sucker born every minute… we can certainly find a few of those!

Having fallen themselves for GM’s-we’ll-develop-best-Wankel-ever shtick, now stiffed and at a loss, it was time to pass the bucket. AMC thought it could strike lucky offering the compact for the compact resistant. A ‘painless’ way into compact ownership, much in the way of ‘5 Easy Steps Manuals’. To AMC’s misfortune, we all know that braggadocio was never one of their talents (indeed, I consider it the most honest of American car makers).

With the Pacer’s sad story covered elsewhere in more detail, let’s humor my 5 year old self, and take a closer look at the futuristic styling exercise the car was. A cross-section of the vehicle popped up on my search, as well as some revealing stats, and one commenter referring to the back slope as ‘beetle-like’.

A Beetle-like slope?

Beetle like? A 2 seater with really cramped back seats (á la Beetle), an aerodynamic shape with good Cd for the time, (again á la Beetle). Seat up right position (á la Beetle), Poor driving dynamics? Got those too! Good traction and fuel economy? Well, let’s not get too picky. With the accumulated knowledge of 4 decades of engineering, what did AMC offer on top of the Beetle? Wider passenger space (front passengers only), a tailgate (novel concept!), an aerodynamic windshielp (ok, few points in favor), and to -barely- shoehorn an outdated 6 cyl. engine up front. Also, cool 70’s graphics!

Am I being too harsh? Look at that cross section; the very narrow back seats, the spare tire occupying the trunk in the ‘usual’ place for the ‘compact resistant’. What’s that tire doing there? Isn’t that eating lots of space into the ‘practical’ Pacer layout? A look into the web, what do specs say? The Pacer’s cubic cargo capacity: 29.5 cubic feet, seats folded. And the Beetle? Seats folded, 29 cubic inches (!). What about our spanking new ’87 Tercel? 29 cubic feet as well.

Glass, the way of the future! At least according to 50’s-60’s thinking. The fad might explain the Pacer’s massive glass area. Taxed A/C systems and rising energy prices soon sent us back to the caves. In photo, Philip Johnson’s glass house, 1949.

Peering into the future is a difficult ungrateful job, but is part of what companies must do, to foretell what their customers will want. Toyota, the ever cautious operator, took to the not so clear future of FWD tech in baby steps.

Let’s look at this baby’s conception; in the late 60’s, talks with Ford to commonly develop a FWD for their new mini-sized Publica came to naught. Instead, Toyota stuck to RWD longer than most. Meanwhile, just about every other Japanese carmaker took to FWD in one form or another, Nissan in ‘70 with the Cherry, Honda with the Civic in ‘72. Toyota was right to be worried, it had to take in this infant technology, but not at the expense of their careful quest for reliability, nor at the expense of their conservative clientele.

Reliability, the key factor to Japanese products worldwide ascendance in the 60’s and 70’s. With WWII leaving the nation in shambles, and with armistice in place, the nation took to industry and commerce. Never getting the memo on planned obsolescence, Japanese industry saw opportunity by creating ‘quality’ products, reliability being their core trait. Their eventual success ruining the ruse for just about every other carmaker thereafter. So-so reliability being more or less the norm at the time (in all kinds of products), there was ample room for Japanese manufacturers to make their gamble work.

In interviews from Japanese newcomers of the era, from Sony to Honda, this one item –reliability- is what they fix on as their guiding principle. In those nascent days, a culture developed of improving concepts and principles pioneered elsewhere, they researched widely on any undeveloped technology tried elsewhere (more on this on a future post). Successful Japanese products are filled of such examples. Sony found early fame with transistor radios, offering the then-new transistor technology in the convenient form of pocket radios. While Mazda stuck to Wankels, making them usable, even when every other carmaker ran for the hills, loaded rifles abandoned in their wake.

(As an aside; this quest for reliability didn’t come without its own growing pains. However, much of it took place within Japan’s own market during the 50’s and 60’s. Exploding TVs, iffy products, and some sleight of hand in marketing did occur, much never reaching Western hands. Mazda’s Wankel an example of one released before its prime to international markets.)

Reliability came to mind more than once during the next couple of years in Puerto Rico. As the little Tercel drove us around town, never missing a beat. Dependability was its core value. On some site a commenter mentioned that “no one ever loved one of these cars”. This is true, mother didn’t love the Tercel. She DID love being on time however, and she ALSO loved never worrying about the mechanical condition of the car. I only remember a few sore spots in our ownership, both of her doing; not wanting to be ‘price-gouged’, she refused the power steering option, struggling mightily on tight quarters from then on. Then, she also refused the A/C, a ‘luxury’ item in her book. Oh, and only the basic radio, tape players were for the ‘decadent’ (I could have used a bit of ‘decadence’ myself).

Some ironies started to crop up, reliability wise, as America’s carmakers decade from hell kept in full motion. There was quite a bit of personal satisfaction as we rode on the little compact, unbridled by break downs, while US iron devotees were developing buyers remorse; my mother boss’s Buick, a 1982 diesel wonder, whose engine seized out of the blue. Good luck getting some of that $12,500 purchase price back! Seized engines… talk about a deal breaker! Then, about that Pontiac 6000 mentioned earlier, looking very raggedy and full of malfunctions in a scant couple of years. How’s that resale value looking? Cash would have been preferable on that settlement! Sucker!

Not quite the best settlement. Pontiac 6000 LE. From the cohort by gman45429

Then, as passenger, more questionable elements; riding an ’85 Regal, exposed interior screws, the burgundy velour roof liner hanging over my head like a Harem tent, and the boat-like ride driving me nauseous within few minutes. And what’s with the cavern like back seat, and those tiny windows to peek out of? Then, Chevy Novas, Skylarks, more exposed screws… back windows that don’t go down? Was this intentional? Lots of promises of flashy displays and electronics on adverts though! While US carmakers were still on Motorama mentality, offering new doodads to distract from drivetrain engineering they hadn’t yet refined, us, Japanese costumers, were happily riding away, and tending our daily chores with nary a worry (Ford is an exception in that dreaded decade, and to a lesser degree, Chrysler, who occasionally found its mojo). Not surprisingly, Puerto Ricans were rather quickly ditching US makes for Japan’s.

(GM did create some very reliable efficient engines mid 80’s and on, reliability was spotty across the line though. For every happy Corsica owner –met a couple- there was at least a similar number of disgruntled Beretta ones –also met a couple.)

Not-quite-Motorama. Bob Nixon sketches future people mover, 1966.

Motorama mentality, there was quite a bit of that on the Pacer, regardless of it being an AMC product. The original brief, started as a side project, was to envision a vehicle for a future with: higher gas prices (came to pass -occasionally-), congested roads (came to pass), and difficult to find parking space (also came to pass). Also, on the brief, to carry commuters comfortably (that girth), with good gas mileage (the failed Wankel, really?), while also meeting upcoming federal safety guidelines (the bulk, the bulk!).

Legend tells that Dick Teague sketched the Pacer’s lines on a barf bag during a flight, this according to A Century of Automotive Style. Curiously, a similar story pops often about the Gremlin, a Dick Teague sketch done during flight. Either Dick liked to embellish his stories with that anecdote, or he really enjoyed sketching while taking business trips (possible, not many movies or entertainment during flights back then). Both stories could be true though, alcohol and altitude might explain some of his decisions.

Bob, with something to be proud about.

Bob Nixon, Director or Exterior Design for AMC at the time of Pacer’s conception, didn’t recall who ‘the designer was’ on an interview done as late as 2014. He also claimed the car ‘was never a priority’ for the company. Both odd claims for a small carmaker investing a large chunk of its remaining cash on their last salvo at hand, and collectors at the door. He took quick claim for AMC’s last styling firecracker though, the 1983 XJ Cherokee, not hard to see why. No hard feelings Bob, we all have our off days.

Stretched too thin, with multiple outdated models and no money to invest (result of the pointless quest of 60’s CEO Abernathy to compete with the Big Three), the company too invested and desperate, AMC took the only logical route: as undeveloped as it was, cut your losses, put the car in production and hope luck strikes as it had on the Rambler not long before. Selling well in its early year, Pacer sales promptly took a dive. The “gas-guzzling-slightly-easier-to-park-compact” niche was much smaller than what AMC needed to keep afloat.

Case for study? The Triumph 1300.

Back to Toyota’s delayed FWD parenting. By the mid 70’s, the company took on the new technology in the eclectic manner only Japanese can do. In their quest for ideas-to-improve-on, Toyota seems to have found their FWD crib of inspiration in the form of… the Triumph 1300… and yes, other Europeans toying with longitudinal FWD.

I’ll admit to some speculation here, the full truth won’t likely ever be learned (at least until automotive historians take as much like for sake as they do for chianti… why do they all go to Italy?). Most likely weary of the rising traverse engine layout alienating buyers and dealers, Toyota’s baby steps took instead the easy-on-the-eyes, not withouth its drawbacks, longitudinal location as case of study and base to improve on. (If the 1300 was really studied, Toyota would have taken inspiration in one of the few vehicles that started as FWD and reverted to RWD. Were they playing that safe?).

An alternate future arrives to Toyota, in longitudinal form.

So, the Tercel, Toyota’s first FWD passenger car, opted for a longitudinal engine ahead of the gearbox. Said transmission sat low, beneath sump and crankshaft, in similar manner to the Triumph’s, creating a somewhat tall set up that Toyota’s stylist managed to disguise fairly well with some very 80’s TDK graphics (youngsters, Google it). Questioned by the longitudinal tall engine choice, Toyota made note the layout would make easy adaptation to 4WD, a model that indeed was released not long after.

Toyota’s first FWD passenger car, the Tercel. No TDK graphics on this one. Cohort photo by nifticus392

More careful footsteps, the Tercel would vow in 1979 exclusively in Japan, being the sole FWD vehicle in Toyota’s roster. Everything else remained safely in RWD camp, even the similarly mini-sized Starlet. By 1980 sales of the Tercel expanded worldwide, with Toyota starting a gradual process that would see both RWD and FWD models selling side by side in the next few years. That said, Toyota’s next FWD vehicles would follow the then-becoming-standard transverse engine layout.

Appearing first on other models, modernity finally reached the Tercel on its 3rd generation, launched in 1987. Its FWD traverse engine displaying proudly a very low steep bonnet, a low hood with a pointy profile that was becoming the norm across the maker’s line. Usually coy Toyota now even seemed to be… bragging.

There, flaunt that prow baby!

By the time the 3rd gen Tercel came to be, transverse engine, space efficient compacts with independent suspensions were not a novelty but the norm. The car came into the world, not raising one eyebrow in notice, never developing any accolades besides reliable usage, selling in numbers AMC would have killed for, 100K units yearly being the average.

Options were limited in the US, the 78 horsepower 12 valve engine -with variable venturi carburetor- being the norm. A later EFI version would appear. As always, engine choices in native Japan were wider. Gearboxes were the 4 manual and the obligatory automatic. Additional body types? In the US, a notchback, while a 4 door was available elsewhere. As for driving dynamics… I mean, really? Should we delve into it? It was never in the brief.

4 door version. From the cohort, by canadiancatgreen.

Yes, un-excitement was the Tercel’s main attribute, which leaves this particular COAL short of anecdotes. Let’s try, and leave the car aside, bringing the players instead.

Mom, ever the direction-challenged driver, and without dad to guide her, kept us confined to Mayaguez’s narrow grid, sticking to the reduced footprint of Puerto Rico’s largest west coast town (300K inhabitants). Driving from home to school, school to work, work to home, and on occasion to the mall, travel adventures didn’t come easy. Any other outing required weeks of pleading and offerings to selected saints.

One of the few trips that came to be, after months of pleading, was to her much-dreaded El Faro (the Lighthouse). About 20 miles south of Mayaguez, this somewhat remote beach rung only red alarms on her head. “It’s far… no one I know goes there, something could happen, we don’t know the way… Only unruly college kids go there to binge drink!”

El Faro beach, Puerto Rico.

Still, off we went, a memorable Sunday afternoon, with me being copilot and her steering and muttering her discontent. These rare trips had a sitcom set pattern by then, with her slow driving at play, faster cars passing us by constantly, and her in a never ending stream of lines that stuck to known script: “We’ll get lost, you know?… Are you sure is this way? We’re so far, we’re gonna get lost, better head back…”. Each line filled with guilt-inducing delivery, she would do her best to dissuade you from asking to go on such a venture ever again.

Finally, we made it to the beach by midafternoon. A somewhat lost enclave of marshes, turquoise water, white sand beaches, dramatic cliffs and an abandoned US Government-built lighthouse. It was a gorgeous site.

Seacliffs around El Faro.

We took to walk around the grounds, taking photos and going excitedly from site to site. Unlike most other beaches in the area, this one was indeed sparsely attended, the most notorious visitors… some college guys binge drinking while sitting in their car. Mother frowned on the whole set up.

Still, we went on. Going uphill, towards the lighthouse. Beneath our feet, if one paid attention, the ground was imprinted with the fossilized remains of sea crawling creatures (Puerto Rico’s landmass is of very recent geological origin). We were walking on an ancient sea floor!

Reaching El Faro, after collecting some fossilized shells, we took our time to wander around the cliff. The sealed lighthouse rose against the sky, with beautiful vistas around us. It was an outing I never forgot, worth every minute, even if it meant no more trips anywhere for the longest time to come.

So, it is 1988, did teenage me agree with little 5 year old me? Was I excited to own the ‘shape of the future’ in Miso flavor? Not really… nor was I displeased. Never thought much about it, actually. Were Toyota’s stylists set on aping the Pacer? As non-trend-setting as the Pacer was, its shape still inspired a few makes (Mitsubishi’s ’83 Colt). Curiously, on ‘85, Toyota released the Corolla FX, a car that had –to a lesser degree- a truncated backend that slightly resembled a Gremlin. Was there a secret admirer of AMC products at Toyota’s styling center?

The Tercel went to have a successful run in Toyota’s lineup, and at times developed loyal customers. Mom was one, buying a 4th gen shortly after its launch, a car whose lines were meant to emulate then new Lexus (squint hard). A revised version was to emulate then popular 3 series (squint harder, you might see it, when planets align). After the Tercel expired, replaced by the Echo, mom went full Corolla up to this day.

Breeding? Seduction of the compact? Compacts were starting to lose their appeal in the early ’90s, some PC sex appeal was needed.

The future is a hostile place, for AMC came across the bruising reality; people who wanted compacts really wanted a compact (Tercel’s mid 80’s sales attest to that), and those who wished for a bigger car were willing to drive a few more times around the block in search for parking space, perfectly willing fashion victims.

Modernity being a passing fad, the Pacer got its brief moment in the sun. The ‘compact’ for the ‘compact hesitant’ did not turn into Rolling Stones longevity. Who knows? It could have worked, stranger fads (Richard Simmons?) and shticks have taken hold of the American populace in ways no one suspected. Too bad for AMC that theirs was a ‘Tony Orlando’ moment (youngsters, Google it), instead of the Blondie (once again, Google) they at least needed. Their particular brand of fashion didn’t engender enough victims to recoup the losses.

Toyota’s fashion brand was quality, a memo that got to American car makers (Ok, mainly GM, and yes, some Europeans) a bit too late for some. While the Tercel’s styling was not a shape for the future, not even turning into a fad, its intrinsic qualities gave it a viability beyond its external clothing. Mom certainly took to that kind of fashion, no victims were necessary.


1979-1982 Tercel

1975 Pacer, the Spacer X

Vintage R&T Pacer review