COAL: 1991 Toyota Tercel- The Stripper

A slightly doctored view of our 1991 Tercel, parked near Gold Beach, Oregon. (My wife was standing up against the car in the picture, but she wanted me to edit her out. Respect your wife’s wishes!)


Remember “stripper” cars? I don’t think there are any new cars on the market today that truly qualify as a “stripper” in the sense that I remember them. Just taking a quick look at the current line-up from Hyundai, for example, I see that the base model Accent, their cheapest car, comes with power steering, power windows and locks, A/C, Electronic Stability Control, back-up camera, anti-lock brakes, a 6-speed manual, and about a jillion airbags. No, to find a real stripper, you have to travel back in time. Let’s say to 1991.

The 1991 Tercel which is the feature of this post most certainly qualifies as a bonafide, nothin’ fancy here, just get my butt to the store with as little fuss as possible, “stripper.” But wait, Matt, didn’t you own that sweet, sweet Celica? I know you had that rather “unfortunate” incident in Lincoln City, but you got that sorted, right? Why on God’s green earth would you dump that car and buy a base-model Tercel? Are you daft, lad?

The Tercel parked at my wife’s place of employment, about 1992. Yes, it looks like a house, but it’s actually an office. She was a social worker and non-profits aren’t exactly swimming in cash. I worked at a historical society. Hence, the base Tercel. It was in our price range.


Well, we hadn’t planned on doing that. Driving home from Medford to Ashland on Interstate 5 one evening in late December 1990, we encountered something large in the lanes of traffic. Ms. D (that’s what I’m going to call my wife from now on- a touch more personal while still respecting her anonymity) thought it was a dead animal. I just saw a bulky beige object. Whatever it was, we had to swerve to avoid it, and when we did, we lost control of the car, crossed the median, and plowed into the side of a brand-new 1990 Honda Accord EX Coupe. Miraculously, no one in either car was seriously hurt. But that was the inglorious end of the Celica.

The insurance gave us a decent enough settlement for an 11-year old car with 120K- about $2300 ($4500 in 2020 dollars), but now we were car-less. The pastor of our church let us borrow his second car, a 1978 Corolla, until we found a new set of wheels. We debated what to do. Having soured on pre-owned cars, what with the carb problems of the GLC and the “Incident in Lincoln City” with the Celica, Ms. D and I decided we’d take the settlement and put a down-payment on a brand-new car. We debated our options, test-drove several different makes (an Escort Pony, a Civic hatchback, and a Tercel), and decided on the Toyota. Despite our experiences with the Celica, I knew that Toyota made excellent cars and Consumer Reports rated the Tercel highly when it came to reliability. The Civic was a great car, too, but quite a bit more expensive.

At the time, the nearest Toyota dealership had a bad reputation for, um, screwing people, so I decided to look elsewhere to purchase the car. I bought a copy of The Oregonian and found a new base-model Tercel for sale at Beaverton Toyota, near Portland, for $6500 ($12,700 adjusted). So I hopped on the Greyhound and headed north to buy our new car.

Sidebar (indulge me): that was the last time in my life I rode on a Greyhound. If you’re old enough, you may remember that Greyhound was mired in a months-long strike around this time. Yep, our driver was a sub. And he was quite the character, which, when you’re talking about a substitute bus driver, may not necessarily be a good thing. When he took the exit for Grants Pass, he got on the PA: “Grants Pass, folks. Anyone know where the bus station is here?” A little later down the road he announced, “You know, Greyhound is still hiring substitute drivers. If they’ll hire and old fart like me, they’ll hire just about anybody!” It was simultaneously amusing and unnerving. In Eugene, we took on a lot of extra passengers- too many passengers, actually- some people ended up standing. The driver instructed the seatless riders to crouch down in the door well and hide if we saw a state patrol cruiser. Yikes.

I was more than happy to exit the bus in Salem, where my folks were waiting for me. In the morning, dad drove me to Beaverton and the dealer still had the car. I was expecting a “bait and switch,” but to my amazement, they didn’t try to upsell me. Maybe they were shocked I actually wanted to buy such a basic car. Whatever the case, I signed on the dotted line and was now the proud owner of a 1991 Toyota Tercel, which I then drove back to southern Oregon the next day.

Internet image grab of a ’91 base-model Tercel, driver’s view. How can I tell it’s a base model? No trip odometer. Also note the blank panel where the clock is supposed to be (upper right).


This view of a ’93 or ’94 (notice the airbag) shows the “nothing to see here” interior.


There’s a special feeling when you drive your first brand-new car, no matter what it is. I felt like I was driving a Mercedes. But, as I mentioned, this car was a stripper in the truest sense of the word: two-doors (for cost-saving, not style), fixed passenger-seat windows, 4-speed manual, no A/C or power anything, manual steering, vinyl seats with fixed headrests. Not even a bloody radio (though we did later add a nice unit). On the outside black bumper covers, a single driver’s side mirror, and regular ol’ rectangular headlights added to the aura of cheapness. The car rode on puny 13-inch steel wheels. No wheel covers. Not exactly the Celica. Heck, it wasn’t even the GLC if you did a straight-across features comparison.


In 1991, the Tercel’s styling was fresher and more up-to-date than that of its competition. Left: Ford Escort Pony. Right: Honda Civic base hatch.


Despite the Tercel’s stripped-down exterior, on the “plus” side it looked very fresh and contemporary compared to its competition, and its rounded aero styling was ready for the 90s. It wasn’t an “econobox,” I joked when we bought it, it was an “econobubble.”

Power was delivered by Toyota’s 1.5-liter SOHC 12-valve* four that put out 82 hp. And while that sounds pretty underwhelming, you have to remember that the base Tercel had a curb weight of only about 2000 pounds. The car also had something else our first two lacked: electronic fuel injection. That was a revelation, for sure. The Tercel seemed almost sprightly, all things considered. In fact, thanks to this Tercel, I developed a genuine fondness for little cars. Sure, the ride isn’t the greatest and there’s often a healthy dose of road noise, but there’s also a “go-kart” like quality that I find fun and satisfying. Maybe I’m a little damaged in the head, but this fondness for diminutive drivers would factor into much later car purchases.

Ms. D and I absolutely loved this car. It’s funny how a car that sounds so mediocre on paper can make such a different impression when you drive it every day. It did what was asked of it and did it with an almost eagerness that’s hard to describe. We drove this car everywhere: to the Redwoods (a 3- hour drive), across northern California, out to the high desert, the coast, Crater Lake, up to Portland (many, many times) and it never gave us a bit of trouble during the 80,000 miles we put on it.

We also took it into the mountains in winter. We regularly cut our Christmas trees from the forest and I remember one winter in particular we went up to about 4,000 feet in elevation and cut two 7-foot trees, one for us and one for a friend, and stuffed both of them into the Tercel’s trunk. Sure, they hung out about 4 feet, but we hung the red forest service tags from the tree-tips and we were good to go.

Shasta red fir, or “silvertip.” Imagine stuffing two of these into the trunk of a Tercel.


Another time we drove on packed snow on Oregon 140 at night. No chains or studs. Just front-wheel drive and careful driving. Maybe that was foolish, but I never felt unsafe. It makes me question the notion that we need to have every possible bell, whistle, and then some in our cars or they won’t be usable. This bare-bones Tercel proved otherwise. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely appreciate the power-steering, power locks, A/C, airbags and all the other things I have in my current driver. God knows that cars, even at their most basic, are safer today with their back-up cameras, stability control, anti-lock brakes, and airbags (plus all the other stuff that will eventually fail and cost thousands to repair). But even now I try to ask myself, “what do I truly need in a car?” Sometimes simplicity is its own reward.

For the three and half years and 80,000 miles we drove the Tercel, we definitely got our $6,500 worth. But there was one feature the Tercel lacked that we were going to eventually need: two extra doors. We were done with college and working and knew that soon we’d appreciate those two extra doors in the event our family grew. So, in 1994, it was time to say a sad goodbye to the Toyota. For our next car, we did the unthinkable (cue sinister organ music): we bought American. You’ll read all about that in my next installment.

* I’m scratching my head to think of other car engines from this era that had three valves per cylinder. I think Mercedes had some. Feel free to chime in.