Curbside Classic: 1985 Toyota Tercel Wagon: Built For The Really Long Haul

(first posted 3/17/2011)     What would a maker and restorer of old violins drive? For the last twenty five thirty years that is. And what would he live in, also for the last twenty five years, since he saved it from the wrecking ball and moved it here (not with the Tercel though)? Yes, David Gusset,  a nearby neighbor and luthier knows what will last for the long haul. His 140 year old Carpenter Gothic house and Tercel wagon are testimony to that. But he’s not the only one to bear testimony to the indestructible Tercel, by far.

There are dozens of these Tercel wagons around, but I picked David’s because it pricks the myth that all old Tercel wagons are driven by hippies. Exactly 82% are. Seriously, that label is so broad and tired, especially in a town like Eugene. Anyway, I don’t remember real hippies flying off to spend a weekend gambling in Las Vegas.

This Tercel doesn’t get pampered like the violins in David’s shop behind his house; it’s sat outside for a quarter of a century. And it regularly pulls a trailer for hauling wood (violin makers and house restorers tend to need a regular supply). But then I doubt very few Tercel wagons ever spent time in a garage. It’s an outdoorsy sort of machine, the kind that tends to gravitate (along with their owners) to places like Eugene, there to commune with their soul-brothers: Nissan Stanza wagons, Subaru wagons, and Honda Civic Wagovans.

These four boxy kindred spirits share certain qualities that particularly endear them to their Eugenian long-term owners: compact, yet tall and roomy; economical and reliable to an extreme; genuine Made In Japan quality; and all available with four-wheel drive. They’re just the ticket to get you to that favorite clothing-not-an-option hot springs or swimming hole, in rain, snow or shine.

Our featured Tercel is a lowly FWD version, which makes it a bit of an outsider in more ways than one. My unscientific guess is that about eighty percent of these wagons sport that big 4WD badge on all four sides, as well as a pretty creative drive train hiding under the box. The Tercel lent itself to conversion to 4WD in a particularly advantageous way.

The original Tercel of 1978 was Toyota’s first-ever front wheel driver. The engineers were thinking outside the ubiquitous transverse engine-transmission econo-box when they designed the Tercel. The engine sits longitudinal (north-south), right over the front wheels, like in a RWD car. The transmission extended partly to the rear, than back forwards, under the engine. Kind of like the Olds Toronado, without the primary chain drive.

It’s not like they had 4WD in mind at the time (I think). But when the SUV/4×4 boom hit hard in the early eighties, Toyota was quick on the draw. It was a cinch to extend the output shaft out the back of the transmission, and connect it to a driveshaft for the solid rear axle, which itself was sourced from the still-RWD Corolla. All very simple, rugged and functional, in that old-school Toyota way.

But that wasn’t the end of the tricks. A low-gear transfer case is pretty much out of the question for a FWD to 4×4 conversion. So Toyota slipped in an optional sixth gear in the (manual) transmission, a super low 4.71 ratio “stump-puller”. Well, with the little 1.5 liter mill churning out all of 62 horsepower, let’s forget stumps; blueberry bushes maybe.

And it all (still) works like a charm in deep snow, mud or sand. Not on dry pavement, though, because like most 4WD systems of the time, it had no center differential.

Of course, it was a pokey little puppy loaded up (or even empty) on long up-hill highway grades. But who’s in a hurry when the scenery is so good, and you’re living the perpetually relaxed life of an under-employed Eugenian?

The Tercel wagon has earned its near mythical durability/reliability status. Good luck trying to prick that one. Even its asymmetrical tailgate is the stuff of legends. Well, it does look odd, and has been often been likened to an ATM.

I have a theory about one of the reasons that folks don’t part company with their Tercel wagons if they bought them new: it’s because they’re trying to amortize the rip-off price they paid. We looked at buying one in 1985, during the peak of the Japanese voluntary import restrictions. I don’t remember what the MSRP was ($8+k for the SR5), but the Santa Monica dealer’s well-adjusted asking price was $11K ($22.5 k in 2010 dollars).  That was the first five-figure little Toyota I had ever laid eyes on, and it seemed stiff  for a 62 hp economy wagon. Those import restrictions caused Americans untold tens of billions in higher prices, put billions in extra profits into the Japanese coffers, made the Big Three (and AMC) look a lot healthier (for a while) than they really were, and funded cars like the original Lexus 400. Live and learn.

We passed, mostly due to Stephanie’s veto, and bought a similarly over-priced Jeep Cherokee. At least it was a lot cheaper on a per-pound basis. But then, if I’d listened to my practical side, I’d probably still be driving the Tercel today, mostly trouble-free, unlike our long-gone cantankerous Jeep. Instead, I’m driving the Tercel wagon’s direct spiritual descendent, but minus the 4WD. Toyota kept that feature for the Japanese market xB only!? So much for Toyota’s impeccable judgment. Now that’s an easier myth to prick.

(Update: David is still driving the Tercel wagon. It’s his only car)