Curbside Classic: Toyota Camry (Gen 1) – The Chevrolet Impala Of Our Times Could Have Been A Ford Galaxie

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(first posted 3/31/2015)    The Toyota Camry is a curious thing, given how it’s capable of stirring up such emotions. Well, it doesn’t take Dr. Freud to figure out why: this car, which looks so much like it could have been a generic GM X or A-Body, is more responsible for the downfall of GM than any other car, save perhaps the Honda Accord. Curiously enough, it could have been a Ford.

Romania Chevrolet

Now the fact that the partially boarded-up building right over the Camry’s spacious trunk was once this splendid Chevrolet dealership is just an ironic coincidence. But the symbolism is not lost. The Camry has become America’s full-size Chevrolet, and this particular high-trim version one I found sitting here is in Impala trim, with its alloy wheels, two-tone paint and plush interior.

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Chevrolet Impala? And yet it could have been a Ford Galaxie? Well, more like the Ford Taurus. In May 1980, Eiji Toyoda sent a letter to Ford President Donald Petersen proposing a joint venture to build Toyota’s new up-coming Camry in the US. Why?

After Nissan and Honda announced that they would build the first Japanese transplant factories in the US, Toyota didn’t want to get left behind. They hired three research firms to investigate the best strategy, and a joint venture with one of the Big Two was considered a more conservative and prudent way to go. And of course Ford was the preferred partner, given Ford’s great influence in Japan due to its pioneering quality efforts and manufacturing controls back in Ford’s glory days of the Model T and A. In 1980, the Ford name still stood for something, in Japan anyway. In the US, Ford had just come off its worst decade ever, and had a near-brush with bankruptcy thanks to Lee Iacocca’s tenacious love for fat boxy broughams.

Petersen went to Japan in June of 1980 and full-scale negotiations ensued. The proposed Camry was rejected by Ford, because it would be too close in size to its upcoming Taurus. When Toyota offered to scale it down, Ford demurred again, as then it would have butted heads with its Tempo. So instead the talks devolved into some consideration of Ford using the Toyota Town Ace van, which later was imported by Toyota as its first van. But that never went anywhere, and talks ended in 1981.

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So poor old Toyota was spurned, and had to go it alone. And although the Taurus was more advanced stylistically, the Camry, which preceded it by a few years, ended up vanquishing it totally.

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These gen1 Camrys started it, even if they weren’t quite the giant killers yet. But they were competent, roomy and very well put together, which sealed its reputation from day one (1983). Which of course was perfect timing, as GM’s ballyhooed X-Cars were just then flaming out, having arrived quarter-baked and already turning into GM’s Deadliest Sin ever. The Camry was similar in size and conception, and was ready to scoop up Citation buyers, as long as their cars could make it to the nearest Toyota dealer.

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Although the Camry’s golden years were still ahead of it, these first ones were already exuding the qualities that soon endeared its buyers in a generation or two. The body exuded solidity, and the ride was plush, if not exactly sporty. Material quality was good, if not as spectacular as the vaunted gen3 Camry.

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And given its modest dimensions (102″ wheelbase; 174″ length), its back seat was already quite roomy too.

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But most importantly, even though the Camry was Toyota’s first transverse-engine FWD car, as were GM’s X-Bodies, the Toyota arrived fully baked; maybe even a bit overdone. There were zero teething problems; in just about every way, it was the anti-X car.

It was probably just as well that Ford didn’t bite; Ford was on a roll in the 80s, and its Taurus was a smash hit, and even Toyota had a few things to learn from it, design-wise. And it’s probably an even better thing that Toyota didn’t even approach GM at this point, as their later joint venture NUMMI didn’t quite work out either all too well.

No; joint ventures with the Big Three were all doomed for failure, for one reason or another. Dancing with the Big Three turned out to be deadly. And it’s not like Toyota didn’t manage to find its own way, all by its little self.

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There’s still a fair number of these on the streets here, but this one takes the Camry cake; the queen of the fleet. It’s absolutely pristine, and appears to likely belong to an older owner who probably bought it new. A shiny reminder of how square and innocuous the Camry started out life, before it became rounded and ubiquitous.


Related reading:

CC 1986 Toyota Camry: Toyota Builds A Better Citation, Forever

CC 1980 Chevrolet Citation: GM’s Deadliest Sin