COAL: 1996 Toyota Camry Wagon • Glass Onion

Last week I told about my trip out West, from Toronto to Seattle in my 1973 Dodge Dart. It was a grand trip, too; we stayed there for a few months, tended and improved the house and garden, ate in, ate out, went round with friends, and all of that.

By and by, though, it came time to go home to Toronto. I parked the Dart in the garage and disconnected the battery, we packed up our stuff, called a cab, spent all day flying, hailed another cab, and finally arrived: tired, cranky, in wretched withdrawal from house and garden and friends—we were both tired of Toronto—and carless. Oops, yeah, I guess I was so eager to get out west that I kinda drove away without thinking that afterpart through.

It is certainly possible to get around Toronto without a car. Many people do it every day. There’s an extensive public transit system of generally reliable, reasonably affordable and safe buses, streetcars, and subways: the TTC, which at that time was doing a heroic job keeping ancient rolling stock—New-Look buses and suchlike—in daily service and good condition because they were chronically underfunded and couldn’t afford to replace them.

Here’s the thing, though: I grew up in the suburbs of Denver, where public transit wasn’t much of a thing, and I was kind of afraid of it. Not that I feared mugging or assault or scary people, or thought the bus would break down or the subway would stop and I’d miss whatever I’d headed for; it was nothing so rational as any of that. Rather, it was this very uncomfortable nagging fear that I’d somehow (wrong bus/train/streetcar/whatever; wrong stop…) wind up far away from where I was supposed to be, unable to figure out how to get unlost. I’ve got better about this over the years (and now there’s that smarmy git who lives in my phone and gives mispronounced but generally accurate turn-by-turns), though now with the pandemic on, there are other things to worry about in using public transit. But at that time, transit was this opaque black box to me: a freakin’ miracle if I exited the system and found myself about where and when I intended.

Plus, I had no skill, strategy, or experience for managing daily life by transit. Sure, okeh, if I needed to get from A to B and had planned enough ahead to have time, that was probably manageable, but how was I supposed to go get a week’s worth of groceries at the supermarket? Or a few things at whatever store on short notice? In fact, there were numerous smaller stores within walk distance, and one shops more often for less, but I was a suburban boy accustomed to thinking and living on suburban terms.

I was really in a bad way, feeling depressed and sad and stranded and interrupted. I would have to buy a car quickly. And that, I reckoned, meant buying something I knew well enough to evaluate. Problem was, the AA-body Mopars and other oldies I was familiar with had all been used up and dissolved; Toronto is Salt Country as a matter of deeply-held, vigourously-celebrated religious belief.

Plan “B”, then: buy a reputably dependable car. You can’t go wrong with a Camry, right? Everyone knows that, right? My aunt and uncle, for example—they’d had terrific, reliable service out of their ’92 Camry sedan. I quickly found an ad for a ’96 V6 Camry wagon advertised for $3,000. It had 240,000-some-odd kilometres on it (about 150,000 miles), but the ad said it had a new genuine Toyota timing belt and other nice things.

Over a lot more time than I was accustomed to crosstown trips taking, I made my way to what turned out to be sort of a cross between a used-car lot and an auto repair shop, without signage. This was not encouraging, but there I was (at long last, and with no immediate way home), so I might as well take a look at the car.

It was quite intact, with some wear around the edges. All the equipment seemed to work, including those squackadelic dual backglass wipers. No funny noises or behaviours from the engine, transmission, or brakes. No obvious rust. And I saw Toyota labelling on a fair number of parts under the hood: alternator, serpentine belt, battery, etc. The option (wait 45 minutes for another bus and spend another hour and a half getting back to the station and then walk home from there) surely made Objects Including the Mirror Appear Nicer Than They Were, and I went ahead and bought it. As-is and where-is, of course!

I did not love driving the Camry. Didn’t hate it, either. Some of the features, like the power seat, were kind of nifty. Whatever. Mobility. I rummaged in factory parts cattledogs to see what headlamp upgrades might be possible. It seemed fine.

It wasn’t fine. I took it in for its emissions test, which it flunked. The seller had shushed the Check Engine light just long enough to sell the car, which had EGR faults. It needed a new EGR valve—It was a couple of hundred dollars and didn’t stop the fault code. Seems the EGR pipes were clogged, too, and fixing that would require significant disassembly, and the expensive pipes themselves might well need replacing.

But wait! There’s more! Not much of any body rust on the car, but the fuel lines were leaking near the rear of the car. Not a big leak (yet), but enough to flunk inspection. My mechanic explained the difficulty and steep expense involved in this common-on-these-vehicles repair. He suggested I sell the car to someone outside the emission-test region. I decided he was right. H’m. Maybe that cars-cost-three-thousand-dollars thing in my head isn’t helping.

I drove to a nearby mall (yes, of course it was called the Galleria; it’s condos now) and Bill took the photos you see here today; I put an ad with full disclosure in the Auto Trader, and sold it to the first looker for $3,000. I owned it for I think about 19 days, and if I divide up what I bought and sold it for plus what I spent on it, that works out to about $19 a day. Not a bad rentcar rate, is how I chose to think about it.

It’s only just while writing this account that it dawned on me: I picked and bought this Camry not too differently badly than my father picked and bought the Stinkoln Clown Car. Each of us just blindly went “I guess one o’ those…okeh, there’s one” despite what should have been glaringly obvious red flags all over the place. His was a 7-year-old Lincoln with something like 50,000 miles, faulty by dint of bad engineering and design and shoddy build; mine was a 14-year-old Toyota. Double the years and triple the miles in a much harder climate, faulty because of long use. Interesting.

Like father-like son, I guess. I also guess I learned, even if not the whole lesson, something important from him: cut and run –soonernow.

That was my shortest ownership of any car. It was a quick and graphic look through the bent-back tulips to see how the other half live: a beige Camry is going will sell immediately, or at least a whole hell of a lot quicker and easier than any of the unusual cars I was really into; for those you have to wait around and wait around and wait around until the right buyer comes along.

Next week I’ll tell about being the right buyer for an unusual car I was really into.