COAL: 1985 Toyota Tercel – and a Soul Mate

Sometimes a car lover just needs reliable transportation.  As a 21 year-old college kid, I drove a Toyota Tercel.  Very plain, very utilitarian.  The only excitement was its renowned Toyota reliability.  I’ve owned Corvettes, Mustangs, Camaros, and one Firebird.  I’ve owned other interesting cars too.   But this little gold-colored three door was very special to me.  To understand the reason why, you need some background.

Disclaimer: This is a story that will probably make the most sense to car guys.  Others will not find it believable, but it is true nonetheless.

I have been “into” cars since I was three or four years old.  Family members tell me I was playing with my big brother’s toy cars not long after I learned to walk.  My father was a manager at National Rental Car and one of the perks was the use of any rental they had on the lot.  As a five and six-year-old, I would wait for him to come home so I could try to identify the car du jour as he pulled in the driveway.  Then, if he would allow, I could spend a few minutes “exploring” it while it was parked in the driveway.  I don’t know how many young boys there were in this world that carried around the encyclopedic knowledge of cars that I seemed to have back then.  I’ve forgotten a lot over the years.

I got the Tercel at the Chevy dealer in my hometown.   I was back from college for the summer, and had recently bid farewell to a Datsun 510 COAL here.  I needed transportation.  I found the sad, plain Tercel parked in the very back of the dealership lot where all the auction cars were.  It was not detailed, and there was no fluorescent writing across the windshield.  If I remember, it had 101,000 miles on it and for many people that meant “used up”.  I knew better.

The Tercel was quirky.  It had a longitudinal engine, yet it was front wheel drive.  Think of the Riviera or Toronado and you’re on the right track.  The funny thing was Toyota had rear-wheel-drive small cars (like the Starlet), and “normal” transverse front-wheel-drive cars (Corolla FX).  The Tercel would later be offered in a wagon variant with four wheel drive, so perhaps Toyota saw longitudinal as a better path.

I got the Tercel cheap and drove it for a couple years.  It survived a hailstorm.  It was the first car I ever installed a windshield in (because of the hailstorm).

But I digress.  Here is why that plain vanilla import was an unforgettable car:

I had dated a few different girls in college and always wondered who the “right” one was going to be.  I was unsure.  I always seemed to have reservations.  One girl in my education class caught my eye.  Soon we began hanging out and really seemed to be hitting it off.  I had a good feeling about her, but I still wasn’t sure.  It had only been a couple weeks.

One evening we were in the University library and we bumped into a guy named Dave who incidentally drove a Daihatsu Charade.  My goofy friend Dave was always looking for a way to make a buck.  He had tried a dozen different schemes, anything other than a regular job.  He told us how he was now doing auto detailing.  He was learning the business and for now, was detailing cars at a discount.  Then it happened.  For me, the next few words of the exchange came in slow motion.  He said to my young lady friend “I’ll detail your car, cheap.” Then he asked “What kind of car do you drive?”  As she replied, I heard angels singing. “A Toyota Tercel.”  God spoke from heaven.  There was no longer any doubt in my mind.  This was the girl for me.  She and I drove the same car.  Not that it was a particularly great car, but it was a match.  My gold Tercel had a mate.

Hers was one year newer, an ’86.  The 1985 and 1986 Tercels were nearly identical, save for the grill and CHMSL.  She drove a white five-door automatic, mine was a three door with a four-speed.  This generation Tercel was hatchback only, although the prior generation had a coupe/sedan option along with the hatchback.  Ours were both mostly trouble-free, albeit boring.  These vehicles were point-to-point transportation.  Appliances.

After we married, the Tercels were usually parked right next to each other.  A matched set.  I believe the wheelbases and overall lengths were identical.  When the baby came, I sold off the gold one and we shared the little white one.  Our oldest daughter came home from the hospital in that white 1986 Toyota Tercel.  After graduation, we drove half way across the country to grad school.  That little Tercel came along, behind the Uhaul on a trailer.

That Tercel is long gone now.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was still running, somewhere.  Oh, and nearly 26 years later, that girl and I are still together.  True Story.