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.
Ahhh girls and Toyotas! That’s how I separated the wheat from the chaff too, only I had an 84 van, the cab over kind. Called it the brick. I loved picking up a date and watching their face when they realized that THIS was the chariot! The other thing that was fun was coming in hot to a stop behind an 18 wheeler, and Hail Mary the brakes. Had more than one squirrel over the headrest backwards without taking off a seat belt!
I had a 82 Tercel, and of the 45 or so vehicles I’ve owned, it was one of my favorites. How different had my life been, had I just kept it! Personally, I have never understood why low optioned cars are so reviled. I love them. Your post makes me want to find a clean old example.
My wife and I met 6 years ago, and like you, it meant something to me that she had a Toyota. We have 3….our latest is a clean old 94 Pickup.
These were surprisingly good – and versatile – cars. We purchased a new 1984 2-door, 5-speed Tercel for my then-fiance (now wife) following a disastrous experience with her previous car, a 1982 Pontiac J2000. She loved the trusty Tercel every bit as much as she hated the unreliable Pontiac.
The Tercel was no rocket ship, but it accelerated and drove light years better than the underpowered and overweight J2000. I can’t recall a single repair that we had to perform on the Tercel other than routine maintenance. It was unexpectedly roomy inside – I can remember buying a standard 4-drawer file cabinet and easily fitting it in the back and closing the hatch, to the shock of the guy that we bought the file cabinet from (who told us over and over that we were crazy and that it would never fit). Thanks in-part to the 5-speed, the Tercel was a pretty good highway driver. My wife cared for it like a baby – it was washed and waxed religiously, and the interior was always kept perfectly clean.
After almost 9 years of faithful service, we sold the Tercel and replaced it with a Nissan Hardbody pickup. The Tercel still looked brand new, bright and shiny, without a speck of rust despite it seeing daily use in New York and New England. We sold it to the first people who looked at it – a gentleman who was looking for a reliable used car for his son; an engineering student who needed it to commute to his co-op job. Father and son both seemed exceptionally nice, and paid us the full asking price in cash, proclaiming the Tercel as being “perfect” for what they wanted.
A year or two later, we were shocked to see headline news that the college student had been killed in an industrial accident at the biotech company where he was working as an engineering co-op. The trusty Tercel was probably sitting in the parking lot, waiting for him to drive home. I hope he enjoyed it as much as we did.
Nice story, James!
I have something from the same lineage and era, although I think they made a few more of your model…happy motoring!
Hey that’s a real beauty of a Cressida there! Love the color. I’m probably biased by nostalgia for the ’85 Cressida my dad drove, but I’m glad to see someone out there appreciating and, more importantly, preserving them.
Also a fan of that generation of Cressida. Always nice to see a good one!
Great, heartwarming story; thanks for sharing. In CC terms, I wonder what the absolute ideal vehicle would be for a potential romantic partner: “Nice to meet you. Should we take my car or yours?”
“Oh, mine’s nothing fancy. Just an Aston Martin Lagonda I found in a junkyard and brought back to life. Rewired the electrical system and display screens myself.”
“Marry me now!”
A great story. And opposite from mine. It is hard to imagine cars more different from my 66 Plymouth Fury III and a girl’s new 88 Honda Accord. But we got married anyway. So opposites can attract too. 🙂
That generation of Tercel always struck me as an honest, unpretentious little car that would happily do what was asked of it. I had forgotten about the longitudinal engine.
The pictures of the Tercel here make it look pretty good, or maybe I’m almost nostalgic for something I haven’t seen in years?
I have to wonder what these might have been like with a 1.5 or 1.6 DOHC engine and wider/snazzier wheels and tires.
From what I remember about these: when new they struck me as disposable, the automotive equivalent of a paper plate. The interior, especially, looked so utilitarian….and not in a fun/quirky way.
Soulmates indeed. Sweet story.
Stephanie and I both drove Peugeot 404s, but not until she got her driver’s license, which she did not have when we first met. In LA, of all places.
Many decades or perhaps lifetimes later, this Yaris is a grandchild of the Tercel featured here.
Why didn’t Toyota just keep Tercel like they have Corolla and Camry? The constant name changing is too much like Chevy.
Toyota IMHO probably felt that the Tercel and Starlet which later became the Echo and Yaris size segment that they need more name changes because most people here in North America probably felt that the mini to subcompact sized car classes were more of an easily overlooked utilitarian appliances than the larger Corolla and much larger Camry have loyal followers. With Chevy, only the Corvette, Camaro, Malibu and Impala since they are popular and does not need any name changes. It is true however from Cruze to Spark, Chevrolet always had tendencies to change their names especially once their design gets old and replaced by an entirely different design replacements.
A wonderful story. My wife was driving a late model Nissan 300Z when we first met; it wasn’t the only reason I asked her out for a second date but it didn’t hurt 🙂 Meeting Carol was the deciding factor in me finally trading away my trusty (crusty?) Rabbit. She never said anything but I could sense that she didn’t really care to ride in the old VW.
Great heart warming story, not just about the romance, but about you and your Dad and cars. Back in the old days they said that the less “stuff” that a car had, was just less to break.
That’s what I say, too, esp. as a car gets older. Makes me appreciate my low-optioned old Ford. There’s not much there that ~can~ break.
I enjoyed reading the Tercel story; a match made in automotive Heaven!
Great story James, glad it has such a happy ending. However much these Tercels were influential in establishing Toyota’s strong reputation for quality, I wasn’t a big fan of the exterior design of this generation. I didn’t like the handling of the rear wheel arch swooping over the rear bumper ends. As see on the Camry as well. It reminded me of the similar look as seen on the 1965 Studebaker Cruiser. I thought it was a dated design element. I felt other two box designs of the early to mid 80s looked cleaner, and more modern. Like the 1981 Mazda GLC, probably my favourite two box design example from this era.
Of all the Toyotas I liked, The ’84 Tercel Wagon was the one I really loved. It was cute, and kept up with its competition really well, and was a good complement to my Imperial FS coupe. Both were very exciting and it’d be good additions to a car collector’s stable.
My very first car was an ’83 Tercel 5-door purchased from Joey and Mary Jo Buttafuoco’s neighbor on Long Island, shortly after that story broke. At the time, my dad had an ’86 wagon and my best friend an ’83 SR-5.
These were pretty basic and very un-cool cars, but they were super reliable and insanely practical. And very good in the snow! Many unwise, youthful adventures in that car. And it was incredible how much you could fit inside with the seats down (people and cargo). In 5 years I put well over 125k miles on mine and drove it all over half of the US.
I got to relive some of that simple Toyota goodness many years later with a first gen Xb.
Thanks for triggering some very fond memories!
Excellent story. I’ve sometimes felt like I’m a bit of a crazy person for (over-)interpreting what someone’s choice of vehicle says about them, but every so often it really is revealing. You captured some of the excitement that kind of revelation can bring, and glad to see it worked out well for you too.
Who’d bother to get a Tercel detailed? Seems like opposite priorities to me!
In 1985, I was 22 and in college, driving a ’62 Chevy Impala that I loved, but my 25 yr old sister had a ’71 Plymouth Duster, copper paint with the white stripe and white bucket seats, a little hot rod it was, but she hated it, thought it was an old beater. One day she was so excited, she had gotten a brand new, fire engine red Tercel, the 2 door variety, automatic, black cloth interior. I thought she was crazy, but that Tercel served her well into the 90s, practically trouble-free. Oh, and my beloved ’62 Impala? In early 86 it was stolen in downtown San Antonio by “chop shop” low riders. A few months later, I was one of the first San Antonians to drive the newly arrived Hyundai Excel GL. That’s a whole other story!
Great stuff, just need to find a lady that likes Volvos or Saabs myself…
Great story indeed! Those Tercels definitely were simple but honest little cars. A girl I knew in college had one, though hers was a ’91, two generations removed. Replace all the angles with rounded lines, and make it a 2-door sedan rather than a hatchback, but same concept. Unlike you, I didn’t end up with that girl–sadly (for me at the time) she already had a long-term boyfriend. They’ve been married for 12 years now…
I ended up meeting a girl with a car that was nothing like mine, and it still seemed to work out OK. 🙂 That Alero’s frequent maladies did give me the opportunity to earn some affection when I was able to fix it!
Tercels were marvelous little cars no doubt. I had an ’84 Tercel which was a great car, but its driving dynamics were very benign. I ended up trading my tercel for a well optioned ’87 VW Golf which drove oh, so sweet. Sadly my Golf was not as reliable as my Tercel. After the Golf’s warranty was up I ended up spending thousands in repairs. But the Golf drove so damn well, had the best seats of any car (even today’s cars), perfect steering and a perfect driving position. The Golf was also an extremely safe car made to withstand 100 MPH collisions and come out alive. The Tercel was not a safe car in crashes. I had to compromise in whether it was economical to keep my Golf or go back to a Toyota. I decided to keep my Golf even though it was not the most reliable car, but by far one of the most perfect driving small cars there ever was.
Omg, I had one. An ‘86 that looked exactly like your gold one. A friend of the family had it and her adult son was changing the oil. He drained it, put the plug and filter on…. then got distracted by a shiny object and wandered off. That my friends is the ONLY way besides a wreck that you can kill a Tercel; it grenaded the engine. There was shrapnel that embedded into the starter motor. Anyway they knew I had an eye on it so they gave it to me. I picked up a tested wrecking yard engine, put it all back together (long story short) and after enjoying it for a few weeks, flipped it on for a surprising profit. Love the visceral experience of that little 1600 engine churning away like a little sewing machine. I do miss it.