COAL: 1996 Toyota Tercel – Donor Turned Kids’ Car

I never meant for this Tercel to live long. It was purchased as a donor car for the Innocenti but somehow eked its way into our lives as the new kid’s car and general run-around mobile.

How do you make a Tercel look big? Park it next to an Innocenti!

As we determined last week the Innocenti I had brought home was in a bit of tough spot. It would only briefly run even after swapping multiple fuel pumps both mechanical and electric, nothing electrical worked beyond the starter and ignition, small TRX “metric” tires that were impossible to find replacements for, but on the plus side it had an almost completely rust free body shell. I had bought this Tercel as an electrical and mechanical donor for the Innocenti but as usual it did not quite go as planned.

The end-of-the-run Tercel offered a very physically small 93hp DOHC engine and five speed manual gearbox shared with the Paseo. A Japanese market turbo version of the engine was available if I ever wanted more power. If I went full hog on the project and swapped the suspension components as well for better parts availability (and more common wheel bolt pattern) the Tercel offered struts up front like the Innocenti and an easier to narrow beam axle at the rear. While the engine was an iron block, the Tercel promised to be electrically simpler than an Echo. I managed to find one for sale offered at a somewhat nearby rural location. Given buyers’ general reluctance to travel to smaller centers in general when buying I hoped to snag it for a song.

Since I was buying it as a donor I threw away most of the usual car buying advice. The seller could only meet after working hours which meant in the dark during the Alberta winter. He only spoke a little English as I believe he might have been some variation of a Hutterite or Mennonite which meant he could not explain where his rural location was so we met at a gas station. Once there I did not overly concern myself with the condition of the body, interior, tires or suspension. He explained he only used the car to drive back and forth on a back road to his work assignment. It had an expired plate on the back. Lots of red flags …

Both the engine and interior were filthy. Through gestures he got the point across that he had accidentally left the oil cap off after filling it with oil thus the mess under the hood. A paint mark from a scrapyard on the oil cap backed up that story. The interior also looked like it had been used to transport an animal or two at various points. On top of all of that, the car had almost 350K kms (217K miles) on it which is quite a lot for a northern climate area car. So lots and lots of red flags for a reasonable car purchase however the engine ran very well and the gearbox felt good so we negotiated on a price of $480 Cdn. I figured I would recover a decent portion of that selling parts and scrapping the shell.

As I drove it the roughly thirty kilometers home I realized that while the interior was a very smelly place to be it drove extremely well. Annoyingly it was not a bad little car and had a remarkably solid body. It was even Sport model, which meant a tachometer, body cladding and a front roll bar. Once home I made the mistake of mentioning this fact to my wife and she immediately jumped on the idea of replacing the kid’s Honda Civic (as used in the 2017 GBC) with the Tercel. This did two things for her; removed the battered and scarred Civic from in front of our house and killed my engine swap project which she was never keen on. Grumbling a bit I took to a more in-depth assessment of reviving the Tercel to street duty which initially involved a lot of cleaning. A huge amount of cleaning in fact. It was now that I also noticed that the tires were almost bald which is remarkable as it drove home in the snow just fine. Credit goes to light weight and narrow tires I guess.

The interior was partly stripped for cleaning to remove hay, animal droppings as well as a huge amount of mud and dirt. It had an unhealthy helping of general grossness that does not show in photos but did come remarkably clean. Eventually.

The underside was also coated with a thick layer of farm dirt which took several attempts to penetrate.

The engine compartment was completely coated in a layer of oil and was cleaned with many, many workshop towels and rags. Once clean I had to admit it did look pretty nice and certainly looked miles better than the Civic with its paint peeling off the trunk, hail and accident damage combined with a recent addition of another dent from hitting a dumpster. When the alternator died on the Civic that sealed its fate. While an alternator replacement is a straightforward and not massively expensive the Civic had a whole long list of other needs which made it non-economical to repair even for someone with low standards like me. In the end I was okay with it as the Tercel had an appealing and cheerful nature to it.

The first item on the list was a rather big annoyance with the front door handle. It was broken on one side and while the previous owner’s fix with twine was workable once you mastered the correct opening technique, it would soon become really old to have only one functioning door. Door handles are a known weak point on the Tercel but at least the replacement part was quite cheap. The parts were sold as a pair so I have a passenger side one ready if the need should arise.

There is a decent amount of labour time involved in the replacement as the interior window winder and door cards need to come off. There are a couple bolts behind that door that were initially frozen on. I was able to work them free. One side went smoothly but the other side dug into the plastic of the handle and just spun so I had to cut it off. Why is it that I need to use the angle grinder for every job?

The end result of a fully functioning door handle was worth the time however.

The other big snag was that it was pumping out all sorts of white smoke on startup. Not sure how I had missed this at purchase time but probably had something to do with the fact that I did not follow any good used car buying guidelines. My first thought was head gasket, but although the oil was filthy it was free of coolant.

Sometimes a good reader is worth its weight in gold. Incidentally this Tercel was one of the first cars with OBDII.

A new EGR valve was shockingly expensive and almost as much as I paid for the whole car. A good cleaning of the intake and EGR valve was a good place to start. The throttle body had to come off for access. There is a tiny, tiny little passage in the intake that leads to the EGR valve that was completely clogged. In that bump above the throttle body is the small passage but after much awkward cleaning I was able to blow carb cleaner though it. The EGR valve was cleaned as well and happily the smoke went away.

The tires on the car were in awful condition and the next piece of the puzzle. Luckily they are very cheap on the second hand market if you can find them. I was able to find these “all year” winters tires in almost new condition. They are essentially a longer wearing compromise tire between a traditional winter and all season. The rims are from a Corolla SR5 but really the same as what I had on the Tercel. The cost was actually cheaper than what it would be to get a set of tires mounted on rims. They had even been recently painted. As a bit of a bonus they were wider at 175/70R13 than stock at 155/80R13.

An oil change was definitely required with whatever oil happened to be on sale at the time.

For spark plugs Toyota specified these dual electrode style plugs which took a while to track down. The Tercel has an interesting ignition set up with two coil on plugs and then a second spark plug slaved off each with a wasted spark firing. The dual electrodes are supposed to cut down on electrode wear.

With all that work done is was now time for the tough part; teaching two teenagers to drive stick shift. After many stalls and some roasting of the clutch around a new neighborhood development with roads but no houses yet they were both competent enough to be set free on public roads. My wife included this handy reminder so the car did not roll off once parked.

The Tercel was turned into the Hamborghini for the Great Beater Challenge 2019 which you can read about at the links below.

Vehicle Selection- Plan B

Vehicle Preparation and Theme – Creation of the Hamborghini

The Teams

Day One, Part One

Day One, Part Two

Day Two, Part One

Day Two, Part Two – Finale

After the Challenge the decorations were removed and the Tercel returned to a more mundane life of being the kid’s car.

I treated the Tercel to brand new brakes all around with new pads, rotors, shoes and drums.

For winter I also tossed on the winter tires and rims left over from the Honda Civic. I bought these quite cheaply due to the blue color from someone who used them on a Volkswagen Golf. They are 14″ rather than the stock 13″ rims. The Tercel is now near unstoppable in the snow and is serving well as the kid’s car as it has recently passed the 350,000 km (217k miles) mark.

My whole COAL series so far