COAL: 1989 Toyota Camry Wagon – Family Practice

As I have been working my way through my Cars Of A Lifetime, I’ve been dreading the Camry years. While Camrys have been competent automobiles, they are nothing if not dull. Oh well, no cheating by skipping any models in this COAL series, so here goes.

The second generation Camry appeared in the US starting with the 1987 model year. While not a radical departure from the slab-sided first-gen car, the rounded edges hinted at where Toyota was heading in the nineties with oddities like the Previa minivan.

As the title alludes, we bought our silver 1989 Camry DX Wagon as a prelude to starting a family. Alas the car would be gone from the stable before our first child came along, but it did give us some practical experience with the utility of owning a wagon before they were all but banished from the US roads.

My previous experience with modestly-sized wagons goes all the way back to a 1965 Rambler Classic wagon my mother inherited from my grandfather. I was 10 at the time, and this was my mom’s first car. She didn’t learn to drive until she was almost 40, and we only kept the Rambler for a year or so, but I have always had a soft spot for mid-sized wagons.

At the end of the 1980s, I was still working for an electrical distributor in the Twin Cities—I stayed in that industry for the rest of my career except for a brief sabbatical during the crazy Y2K times, but more about that later. I had been promoted to Project Sales Manager, handling quotes for larger orders of lighting and electrical distribution gear, along with managing our inside sales team. One of our outside salesmen had mentioned a great deal he got on a new Toyota bought from an auto leasing-brokerage firm down in Rochester, MN. He was quoted a price with a fixed dollar markup over the dealer invoice, and the car was delivered to his doorstep. This was all pre-internet of course, so understanding dealer invoice was still somewhat of an art form, although you could get a good idea from the Edmunds price books. This predated the fixed-price/no-haggle shopping that Saturn pioneered with their introduction in 1990.

I gave these folks a call and gave them my specs: Camry wagon, DX trim, 5 speed, red if possible. They quoted me a price and told me they would be in touch. Some weeks later I got a call; they had found my car in silver, would that be acceptable? Never owned a silver car, so I said sure, I’d take it.

The car arrived at my workplace a couple of days later with about 300 miles on the odometer, but otherwise clean. Turns out they got the car from a dealer in Eau Claire, WI and drove it to  Rochester to be prepped and then drove it up to me in St Paul. I can see why this particular business model didn’t last, but it was a relatively painless way to buy a car back then.

Seat fabric in the DX level trim was a sort of herringbone tweed, not the plush velour of the upmarket Toyotas. My wife worked at 3M, so we were able to get a heck of a deal on Scotchgard fabric treatment. Don’t spray that stuff on with the doors closed though, I’m just sayin’. With the rear seats folded flat, we could haul a considerable amount, although not the classic full sheet of plywood as with full-sized wagons in days of yore. My memory of this generation is that it was competent, but dull. This would be my last Toyota for quite some time. Great cars if you wanted reliability, but not a sporting automobile by any stretch, at least among the family-car part of their lineup.

The Camry did have one glaring fault common to many cars of this era: automatic seat belts. If you were a regular seat belt user, as I was, these were worse than an annoyance. You had to wait what seemed like an interminable length of time for the belt motor to work its magic. And if you just wanted to sit in the car with the engine running, but had no plans to drive, tough luck, buddy; you’re going to get the motorized treatment anyway.

We had two warranty issues during ownership, both settled to our satisfaction by Toyota. First we had a problem with engine hesitation that was diagnosed as a bad throttle body, which Toyota replaced under a recall. And later, after about three years of ownership, the side body molding behind the rear wheels on both sides self-destructed; somehow water got between the rubber and the supporting structure and delaminated them. A common problem and the Toyota dealer replaced them without any hassle.

Halfway through our ownership experience with the Camry, we acquired a blue 1984 Mazda B2000 as a tow vehicle for a small sailboat. I finally got my first Mazda! The Camry would have pulled the boat just fine, but knowing that we would be replacing it soon, I was hesitant to have a hitch installed. That led to us owning three vehicles with a two car garage and a narrow city driveway, which meant constant shuffling of vehicles. We still owned that MR2, so a tough decision would need to be made, but not the one we expected.