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.
Your impression of this Camry as competent but dull is exactly the same as my impression of these. I got one as a rental and drove it for a couple of weeks after my 83 Colt got wrecked and before I replaced it with a used 86 Fox Marquis wagon.
We got the Camry (a 90 or 91) when our other car was an 88 Accord, so we got a rare opportunity for a apples-to-apples comparison test. I liked the looks of the Camry, but did not enjoy it at all. The Honda was engaging. The Toyota was kind of there. In fairness, our Honda was an LX and the Camry was a lower trim, but as one who had been bored with GM cars for so long, it struck me as what GM would build if GM had been able to build a first class car at that time. It gave us no problem at all and did everything it was supposed to. I presume it went on to serve owners for a long time. But that experience made me a Honda Guy, where I had been kind of ambivalent about the Japanese brands before.
This generation of Camry Station Wagon was on my targeted to acquire when I looked for a vehicle to replace my 83 Caprice sedan in early 90s. But it was expensive on the used car market in Philly region where I lived. I assume it was a very good vehicle to drive unlike the later generations of Camry. Moving forward, I now actually own a Camry station wagon, 2011 front drive V6 Venza. On paper, it is almost a prefect vehicle. But after owning it for almost two years, my conclusion is it was a failed design attempt for Toyota. My points are I am surprised to realize how bad the vehicle was driven, I am not a spirit drive, but did Toyota spend anytime to tune a vehicle a bit better? Today vehicles don’t drive like a old American sedan. Its interior design also needed to greatly improve. It has very bad visibility from inside, compounding with wide body and large turning circle, making it a not easy car to park even in parking lots. Let me hope the new Venza is better.
The parents of my Best Man were antiquers and had a ’91 Camry wagon during the early nineties when the Best Man and I were dorming together at Cornell. I had come from Big GM Wagon so the little wagon seemed like an inadequate joke. (Joke’s on me I got a Subaru wagon!)
And I will vigourously agree on the Venza. The subie was turning eleven and we test drove a ’15 Venza, and it had no pull and drove like a marshmallow.
Theoretically, I’ve long wanted a tall wagon with a low floor, but sitting in the previous Venza at a car show did not impress me. If I remember, it was still short of head room, and like all Japanese cars I’ve tried, the head restraints hit me in the base of the neck.
Great cars. Learned how to drive on one many moons ago, a ’91 DX wagon, purchased off lease in Feb. 1995. It was the first nice car my parents owned.
Nothing unusual about the car to report. It was equipped like most Camry DX’s. Automatic, AC, power package.
As trainee cars go, it was about perfect. It was comfortable, sized just right – not too big, not to small, and not enough power to get in trouble with. Visibility was also excellent. You sat up high by the standards of the day, with a panoramic view. Remember when you could actually ‘see’ out of cars? I do miss those days.
As for our Camry wagon, did I mention it was about perfect? It was comfortable, and reliable, with excellent build quality and materials. Modern Camrys pale in comparison.
The one Achilles Heel of that car was it’s marked propensity to rust. By 2001 there were bubbles on all the fenders. A couple years later, two had rusted through. So by 2004 the Camry was gone, to be replaced by a brand new Camry LE. The ’04 Camry was larger and much more powerful, but lacked the rich, almost decadent build quality that made the ’91 feel special.
I’ll bet you did just fine selling the Camry as they are known to hold value extremely well.
Any idea where to find Edmunds Price Guides online? I am especially interested in 1966 and 1967. Thanks in advance.
Hey, if you’re going back in time to buy a car, would you buy me a Karmann Ghia? Of course the bills from our time are very different from then but still…
Problem there is Oh, lord…won’tchya buy meeee a Karmann Ghia doesn’t quite scan. Right number of syllables, but the emphasis falls on the wrong ones to fit the song.
A new Camry is even more dull but highly competent than the older models.
My 2011 Camry was tolerable. I put 39,000 miles on it in 3 years.
My 2019 Camry was SO dull that I felt the need for a strong cup of coffee after driving it for more than 5 minutes at a time. The spastic and bipolar transmission was it’s downfall.
When it was almost 2 years old, with all of 4,700 miles accumulated on it, I finally admitted to myself that this was not the car for me.
The first person that looked at it bought it, no dickering, $300.00 above the NADA retail book price.
A few months later I honestly cannot recall what the buyer looked like! He must had been as dull and boring as the car he bought from me.
I believe you. My ’07 Accord, too, is dangerously dull. I’m not exaggerating; it is so strongly soporific on long drives that I actually checked for carbon monoxide in the cabin—nope, that’s not it; it’s built into the car.
AWD versions of these wagons were thick on the road back in the late-80s. Excellent car for ski trips. I had an ’87 2WD, in a darker shade of gray, top trim level automatic with red velour. I got used to the motorized seat belts but if you left the sun visor flipped over to the door side the retracting seat belt would jam it and crack the visor base. The only problem I had with it was a broken rear anti-sway bar. The silicon grease used on the bushings dried up, the bar seized in the bushing, and the bar snapped clean in half.
This gen Camry may have been boring but they were competent. I remember Consumer Reports caught flack in their extremely positive review in which they exclaimed that the car had clean styling. Subscribers were aghast that CR would comment on a car’s style.
I’ll wager subscribers were aghast not so much that CR commented on the style of a reviewed item, but that they commented favourably. I have a CR issue from the early 1960s, in which toasters are reviewed and CR throws a tantrum about pointless vanity frills like a curlicue or scroll design stamped into the chrome housing of one of the models. And in their 1983 test of the Chevrolet Caprice, they said You must rotate a medallion to insert the trunk key, a nuisance. I think CR readers are, in their way, like NASCAR fans or hockey fans: they wanna see blood.
They are, absolutely agree. Ralph Naderish in their ideology. But it takes all kinds to make the world go around. In their small way they are valuable inputs in the automotive world. Back then I had a hankering to write in: If a new car had the handling and brakes of an F1 car, the ride of a Cadillac limousine, the MPG of Chevy Sprint, and it looked like a ’57 Nash Ambassador, would you criticize it for having dirty styling?
Competent but dull pretty much sums up my impressions of Camrys, and I’ll also note that you chose to buy it in one of the dullest ways possible, in perhaps the dullest color available. But really, that’s the whole point (of your excellent article). Sometimes we find ourselves in places in our lives where “dull” is exactly what’s called for. It’s good that dull and competent are not mutually exclusive characteristics.
Over the years, I’ve found myself recommending Camrys (and occasionally Accords…same deal, i m o) to friends who ask for advice about needing or wanting a car that will competently get them from place to place, be widely repairable, and that will usually hold up well as used cars. I’ve found them generally bulletproof as family vehicles when the family has new drivers coming onto the scene. Or when the primary objective is to have something reliable to drive on long boring suburban commutes. In other words, never the stuff that fills our automotive dreams, but in fact a lot of what fills many people’s transportation realities.
Thanks for helping us think about the dull cars. 🙂
Any car with manual transmission can’t be all that dull.
It’s highly unusual for Camrys to be equipped with manual transmissions, even in the early generations. I’ve probably seen two equipped in the last 38 years
Certainly nothing wrong with dull and while this car maybe be dull it isn’t DULL. I see nothing wrong with a competent dull car if it can get you from point A to point B five times a week for 10 years with not a burp. Get your more temperamental sporty car for the weekends. My 86 626 sedan wasn’t sporty but it did the Point A to Point B job well for 20 years at over 350,000 miles with only one burp. A replacement cylinder head that I did the labor on in one weekend.
We owned a 1st gen (1984) Camry LE in that tan, champagne color and put around 68k miles on it in the 3.5 years we had it. With our 3rd child well on the way (and hamstrung by the space required for car seats), I decided to sell it and replace it with a new ‘87 Dodge Caravan, which also served us well.
In 1984, a well-built, reliable, affordable car that could seat 4 adults (5 in a pinch) in comfort was fairly rare. In fact, it seemed to be too much to ask of the Big Three and most other manufacturers. The Camry was a great example of focus and competence IMHO.
If one equates dull with no drama, dull wins out. On my 3rd Camry, clocking in @ 281K miles of reliable, cost effective service.
Toyota should have named these cars, the Coma.
I think they are great cars – for other people to drive. It is a driving appliance.
I drove a new one last year on a 2000 mile trip. It thought it was smarter than I was and I wasn’t permitted to experience anything thrilling. It didn’t matter how hard I hit the accelerator pedal, that car launched the exact same way – like I was 70 years old and looking for the closest parking spot at the farmer’s market.
You know the drill.
I’ll take an occasional drama covered by warranty, over any Camry. I like driving.
Sigh…I miss the variety of body styles that Toyota used to offer…I think the peak was in 1984 or so with the Corolla, they had several models (think that year they were transitioning from RWD to FWD, so maybe that’s part of the reason there were so many models…but still nothing near compare to now when they only really offer one body style of the Corolla, at least in the US. I think they had wagons, hatchbacks, 2 and 4 door sedans, and at least one coupe (maybe 2?…can’t remember). But the writing was on the wall, and Toyota expanded the different models it offered later in the decade, only to limit the number of different body styles (especially on the Corolla, but also other models, like the Camy hatchback which I think was only offered 1st generation, and of course the wagon which also eventually was withdrawn so that only the 4 door sedan was available. Of course, wagon sales were on the decline I guess because of the minivan (the SUV wasn’t yet a sales phenomenon it would be starting about 1990). The Accord started out as a 2 door hatch, then it was offered along with the 4 door sedan, after 1989 they withdrew the hatchback (not sure if the Crosstour was kind of an Accord hatch, though it had 4 doors plus the hatch instead of 2).
A similar thing seems to be happening with 4 door hatchbacks disappearing, guess they want us to instead buy small crossovers or SUV instead. Even minivans seem to be pretty scarce offering now, though they replaced wagons, the SUV now seems to be the designated replacement for most prior car owners. I think I get why this is happening, the automakers can’t have endless offerings of models/bodystyles, and trucks/SUVs seem to have take over (especially with domestic makes). In some ways, it makes some sense, as the population ages, they tend to prefer taller seating so we don’t have to squat so much to get in or out. But I lament the dearth of offerings, it seems that if they have a niche model that only sells in low volume, they either want to charge a lot for it (as in being a “luxury” model) or else it eventually will be discontinued..