By on August 18, 2009

I’d say we all could use some R&R after exhaustively documenting the Vega’s innumerable weaknesses and frailties. So how about we spend a little time communing with its polar opposite in almost every conceivable way possible (while still being a small wagon). I could have picked any of some thirty or forty Tercel wagons still hard at work on the streets of Eugene to shoot. But check out the impeccably-restored 140 year-old Carpenter Gothic house behind this one. The house and the Tercel are both owned by my nearby neighbor David Gusset, a renowned maker and repairer of fine violins, including my 1833 Valenzano. If anyone can appreciate a well made instrument built for the long haul, it would be him.

I also picked it because it pricks the myth that all old Tercel wagons are driven by hippies. Pricking myths is my shtick, especially automotive, as in this editorial here; its how I found a home at TTAC. No doubt I’ve been called one too, probably more than once, especially in the comments of that one. I digress; back to Tercel wagon facts and myths.

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. 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. But there is one amongst us on this website who casts aspersions on that most distinctive of hatches, claiming that they all rust out prematurely. Anyway, how is it that any rust on a twenty-five year old vehicle is worthy of scorn? Just goes to show what a heavy burden it is to have the Tercel’s reputation for near-immortality.

Well, I have taken up the lance to defend the maligned Tercel, and photographed the first ten hatches that I came across (believe me, that didn’t take long). The results can be seen here. Only one of the ten had a modest-sized rust patch; the rest are spotless. Since then, I’ve spotted at least ten more; one had a bit of rust. Ten percent is hardly the stuff of legends. Now how do I prove that Eugenians don’t wait thirty days between taking showers?

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, but the Santa Monica dealer’s well-adjusted asking price was a lofty $15K. That’s over $30K in today’s money, 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, and made the Big Three (and AMC) look a lot healthier (for a while) than they really were.

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.

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46 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1984 Toyota Tercel Wagon...”


  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    I miss the old Toyota. Unassuming, utilitarian and durable as anything. We don’t see many of these in midwest salt country anymore. It seems that it took a few more years for the Japaneese companies to get their rust-resistance up to the level of their mechanicals.

    The other reason owners stick with these old wagons is that there hasn’t been much made like them since the 80s. For awhile, tall wagons were all the rage, then – nothing. For my money, my Honda Fit is the best modern comparison I can come up with.

  • avatar
    threeer

    Great, tough old ‘Yota! This, along with the mid 80′s Toyota Van always hold a place in my heart…you couldn’t find many vans with a manual tranny, bucket seats and the option of a mini-fridge! I hold these older Toyotas in a much higher regard than the new stock (which is probably why I love my 1997 Tercel so much!). One of these wagons would be great for the montly camping runs with the Scouts…just simply stuff the camping gear in the back and leave it there until needed.

  • avatar
    tigeraid

    Nope. Sorry. I’ll take the Vega Wagon. Or even the Pacer.

    You can swap their problimatic engines out without much trouble.

    You can’t fix hideous.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    Not to nitpick or be singled out in a future editorial, but a nice skid mark of rust is forming under the driver’s side rear cargo window.

    Just saying,,,,,

  • avatar
    BDB

    You can’t fix hideous.

    Yeah, it’s pretty darn ugly, but most cars of this vintage are.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Unassuming, utilitarian and durable as anything.

    Wait, wait. I remember these cars at the time and both this and the Wagovan were derided as being toyboxes that were weird for the sake of weirdness. The Van (which my parents owned) doubly so.

    The Yaris and Matrix (which are the Tercel and Corolla Wagons’s spiritual sucessors) are still unassuming and durable, but they benefit, if you can use the word, from contemporary styling and safety requirements. In twenty years, they’ll look dated and utilitarian, too.

    You have to think in context, both of the Tercel’s within the market and the time period. By that standard, the Yaris isn’t much different (it is smaller)—and the Fit is practically a dead ringer for the Civic Wagovan.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Nope. Sorry. I’ll take the Vega Wagon. Or even the Pacer…You can’t fix hideous.

    I’m sorry, but the Pacer was hideous. The Tercel’s competition, at the time, was the Chevette and Escort, which might be marginally more attractive. In a way. Sort of.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    MSRP for ’84 Tercel wagons:

    2wd stick: $6588
    2wd auto: $6888
    4wd stick: $7458
    4wd auto: $7758
    4wd SR5: $8278

    If you want to find MSRP for ’84-and-newer vehicles:

    http://www.michigan.gov/sos/0,1607,7-127-49534_50300_50310-30109–,00.html

  • avatar
    Old Guy Ben

    When this was new, I was driving a Pontiac Phoenix.

    Now THAT was a horrid car.

    Didn’t the Tercel have an optional sunroof? Just in case you needed some more light, I guess. Not enough windows.

  • avatar
    Starion

    Curious That people Trash 80′s Japanese Economy cars, calling them tin cans and the like. The domestic and european cars of that era are no different.

    You will still see these on a regular basis.

    Tell me, where are your 1984 Cavalier and VW Quantum Wagons? Oh, right.

    Japan really hit it off in the 80′s, and it shows.
    Both of my 80′s Japanese cars give me no problems.

  • avatar
    Juniper

    I was around when this thing came out. It was Fugly then and it is Fugly now. Only a Saab owner could love this thing.

  • avatar
    turbosaab

    Here in New England, these were quite popular as well, but I haven’t seen one in years – presumably they’ve all rusted out.

  • avatar
    tigeraid

    psarhjinian :

    I’m sorry, but the Pacer was hideous. The Tercel’s competition, at the time, was the Chevette and Escort, which might be marginally more attractive. In a way. Sort of.

    Oh absolutely a Pacer’s hideous. But less so. A Pacer with a nice paint job, slight lowering and nice 15″ wheels with fat rubber actually looks somewhat attractive.

    Starion :

    Curious That people Trash 80’s Japanese Economy cars, calling them tin cans and the like. The domestic and european cars of that era are no different.

    You will still see these on a regular basis.

    Tell me, where are your 1984 Cavalier and VW Quantum Wagons? Oh, right.

    Japan really hit it off in the 80’s, and it shows.
    Both of my 80’s Japanese cars give me no problems.

    They sure did. But not with this. Toyota’s sporty cars were great for the era (RWD Corolla, MR2), and so were Nissan’s. But there were plenty of misses. 80s Toyotas had HORRID premature rust/paint peel issues. Which you can see plenty of evidence of still today.

    Besides, for every ’84 Tercel you can show me, I can show you a mint ’87 Mustang or ’85 Camaro. It’s all in the owner’s desire to keep the car, I think. :P

    Oh and Dodge’s fwd offerings from the era still hang around a lot too. The Spirits and Shadows and Daytonas. Your Cavalier example (and Tempos, that sort of thing) are the bad side of the coin.

  • avatar
    dash riprock

    Out here on Vancouver Island, these wagons are as popular as in Eugene. Neighbour buys a beaten out tercel(or two) every year to fix up, drive to the mountain for skiing, and then sell for a profit. Always has a buyer able and willing. Great little cars that have lasted the test of time. Still can’t figure out why small wagons and hatches don’t sell nearly as well as small sedans and coupes.

    Oh and you can also see a fair sampling of similar generation cavaliers. civics etc.

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    While a hard-working luthier may not be a hippie in the “how do you starve a hippie? Hide his foodstamps in his workboots*” sense. It is still a pretty suspect occupation.

    * Credit http://www.myspace.com/frogsjokebooks

  • avatar
    Lokkii

    It was Fugly then and it is Fugly now. Only a Saab owner could love this thing.

    My mother had one of these in 4WD, bought new. She loved it – (Note – yes, she had been a SAAB owner). It was small and slow, but sturdy and reliable. Sort of like a Shetland pony pulling a cart.

    The little Toyota rusted away…but that wasn’t so unusual in NW Pennsylvania and it was running perfectly on the way to the crusher.

  • avatar
    don1967

    Here in Ottawa, Canada, those old Tercel wagons were not driven by hippies, but rather bearded university professors. Oh wait… same thing!

    As for the hatches, they did not rust out any faster than the rest of the body; the whole car was pretty much Swiss Cheese within a few years thanks to judicious use of road salt. I can’t remember the last time I saw one on the road.

  • avatar
    zaitcev

    My daughter’s boyfriend had one of these, but he got rid of it when it clocked 300,000 miles. Tough as they were, they weren’t ethernal.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    Very, very few of these saw thier 10th birthday in Maine. Most failed inspection and needed welding by age 5, just like the rest of the 70′s and 80′s Japanese tin. Doesn’t matter how reliable the drivetrains are if there is nothing left to bolt them to.

    A friend of mine killed one of these in High School – lost it on a curve and left the road into the trees. Given the fact that it had the acceleration of a tree slug, that was quite an accomplishment! His father replaced it with an AWD 5dr Dodge Colt, IIRC it even had the twin-stick tranny!

  • avatar
    Liger

    eggsalad-

    Thanks for that link, really interesting info.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    My father bought a used 85 Tercel about 93. It was a 4wd with the granny gear. He drove it about a dozen yrs until it was too rusty. He replaced it with a Tacoma 4×4.

  • avatar
    menno

    Super little car. My youngest son had one as his 2nd car, and he and my eldest son took a road trip to California in the little ‘yota, which didn’t let them down despite 200,000 miles and having a couple of decades under it’s belt. The AWD was nice, but his was an automatic (a little newer than this one?) – though it didn’t seem so sluggish as to be a rolling road-block, to me.

    Son #2 gave it to son #1 when son #2 got a car passed down to him from grandma, and son #2 destroyed the ‘yota (as he does everything he touches) within a month. Something to do with not checking the special Type T automatic transmission fluid which was slowly dripping (hey, it had over 200,000 miles much of which had been in the New England states then in Michigan).

  • avatar

    Good work Paul, an excellent defence.

    I’ve sharpened my Tercel-spotting skills since we last debated the topic, and have managed to capture a few more with my digicam. I now (partially) retract my “all have grotty hatches” statement from earlier this year. Now that I’ve noted the range of colors these cars came in I’ve also noted the Tercel Rusty Hatch Syndrome seems to be confined to three particular colors: The beige ones, such as your example, being the worst. All but one that I have seen (and yours, so two total perhaps) of the beige Tercel wagons I have seen have the Rusty Hatch. Next in line are the silver and white ones. They seem to have rusty hatches at about a 40% rate. Rest of the car? Fine. Hatch? Grotty. Go figure.

    The bronze, white, dark blue, and maroon Tercels I’ve seen have virtually all been rust-free on the ass, unless accompanied also by accident damage.

    The beige color seemed to have been the most popular, by far (no accounting for taste in the 80s I guess!) around here though and their rusty hatch rate is simply astounding. I just saw one yesterday on I-5 in Marysville, WA… rust spots right of the ATM/handle and lower passenger side corner of the hatch. How your sample has escaped this cancerous fate boggles my mind. Perhaps it is particular to the AWD drive SR5 version? Note that your example has a hatch key opening in the exact spot where the rust spot normally occurs on the SR5. Was this the way the stock 2WD Tercel wagons were delivered? I wish now that I had noted if my rust-free sample was the same model. Ah the subtleties of the game eh?

    BTW: The old jag starts now on every push of the button. It was a bitch of a job, but a very satisfying result.

    –chuck

  • avatar
    twotone

    During the early-mid 1980′s my ride was a Datsun 510 sedan — a poor man’s BMW 2002. Still wish I had it.

  • avatar

    somehow, seems to me a violin maker is closer to a hippie than to a corporate type. No, maybe not exactly a hippie, but definitely a creative, thoughtful type, like my friend, Oded http://www.kishonyviolins.com/. Anyway, beautiful house, and I’ll read the editorial with interest later. couldn’t resist skimming.

  • avatar
    Monty

    That was our very first work car! We bought a used ’84 FWD automatic in light green. What a friggin’ workhorse that thing was. It was the start of my love affair with Toyota (specifically Tercels).

    We used it for sales calls, delivery of printing, pick-up of supplies, and my partner used it as the family hauler. It lasted twenty years, only to be t-boned, sadly just short of 400,000 kms. By this point it had long ceased to be the company vehicle and had been a spouse’s car for close to a decade.

    It had a bullet-proof drivetrain that was poorly maintained (we were a lot younger then) yet soldiered on with out a whimper. Top speed loaded was probably a little less than 65 mph, and it took about a half hour to get to that, but it was cheap on gas, cheap to maintain and cheap on insurance. It was the perfect car for a small business that needed a multi-use vehicle on the cheap.

    Funny thing is, I still see 1st and 2nd generation Tercels around town. This car is why people starting putting such stock in Toyota.

    The Tercel was followed by another Tercel, a Corolla, a Sienna and now a Rav-4. Next up? Who knows, but we will shop Toyota first (another Rav), followed by Ford (Transit Connect) and possibly Mazda (Mazda 5).

    I was so happy to see this as the Curbside Classic!

  • avatar
    ivyinvestor

    Just saw a cream colored Tercel Wagon the other day – right after a (ubiquitously colored powder blue Stanza wagon within a block of one another: Waltham, MA. Neither had any rust, though the Stanza was pretty dented.

  • avatar
    eh_political

    I used to run around British Columbia with a wooly old first generation CRX. I loved everything about that car, but suspect a 5 speed Wagovan would have been just as entertaining. Forget about the four wheel drivetrain-it saps power and is simply not relevant.

  • avatar
    WaftableTorque

    My family grew up with a 1984 Tercel 5 door hatchback bought new. It and the Civic were some of the few acceptable subcompacts at the time, it was our “good car”. It felt fun to drive, had a versatile interior and it was as roomy as our 1976 Pontiac Grand Prix or 1975 Mercury Comet. It was also extremely reliable, requiring little more than gas and oil changes.
    I still remember driving the car from Edmonton Alberta to Eugene Oregon, no A/C and cruise control; we got 36 mpg. We did the trip later in a new Mercury Sable and got better gas mileage but in an infinitely more comfortable car. We stopped buying penalty boxes from that day on.
    The family has collectively bought 10 other Toyotas/Lexuses due to our good experience with the Tercel, a good reason why no car company should ever neglect their entry level vehicles.

  • avatar
    t-truck

    Small, simple 4wd wagons why doesn’t anybody make them anymore?

    We have the next generation after the Tercel, 1991 Corolla All-track dead on reliable and economical to run.

    I guess the Matrix would be the closest thing, still it feels bloated and impractical in comparison.

  • avatar
    Hippo

    Value for your money. What a concept.

    Those little cars are what buried the American auto industry, because eventually people see the truth.

  • avatar
    SOF in training

    Bought a 1986 4wd manual in 1990 with about 40,000 mile for something like $4600. My daughter took it from me (“You said I could have it.”)this spring when she moved out. 245,000 at the time, and still running well. She did bring it back for new half shafts, and I did recently change the timing belt again.

    Rusty – you bet. Looking at the car after I bought it, much had been repainted, and it was probably a rebuild. Because of this, it has rusted, but not in any place that matters.

    I’ve used it for family vacations and pulling a trailer with two motorcycles from the Seattle area down to Auburn CA and back among other things. Slow, boring, ugly, and reliable. I figure that for every $1000 spent on a car, you must get 10,000 miles out of it, so this car has paid for itself many times over. Now if I could only get it back from my daughter…

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    Mrs. Panhard and I were driving through North Carolina once, and I saw one of these in the rearview mirror of our Ford Fairmont wagon. It was closing fast, at cop-like speeds. Another look in the mirror, and it was closer. And closer. And then, right on our rear bumper. The driver, a woman, looked familiar.

    Then she made the move to pass us, so I looked left to get a better look at who was driving. At the wheel was Tammy Faye Bakker. No fooling.

    It was the all-wheel-drive model.

  • avatar
    TAP

    Bought this exact one used in ’91 for $3200 with 80K on it. Wouldn’t go, stop or turn, but put on 100K more with few problems. Drivetrain reminded me of my old beetle-harmonious and bulletproof.

  • avatar
    PeteMoran

    @ Old Guy Ben

    When this was new, I was driving a Pontiac Phoenix.

    Now THAT was a horrid car.

    Good to have the old guys hanging around! A sense of perspective is necessary to appreciate these older cars.

    What were the alternatives at the time is always a good question.

  • avatar
    Flipper

    This lineage carries on today as the Scion xD (fwd > USDM)& Toyota urban cruiser (4wd > EDM)

    http://www.leftlanenews.com/toyota-urban-cruiser.html

  • avatar
    panzerfaust

    Oh yeah, and it’s got the front of an ATM maching stuck on the tailgate.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Other similar wagons availiable with 4wd were the Subaru Legend, the two Colts, the Axxess, and the beautiful Toyota Corolla 4wd wagon that t-truck mentioned.

    The Tercel wagon’s 4wd setup required raising the floor, which in turn led to the distinctive bumped-up roof. One weakness of this body design is that in a minor rear-ender, the body folds on the creases that extend up over the roof, and the frequent result is a write-off.

    The Corolla 4wd wagon also has the raised floor and roof, but lowered the roof behind the rear seat so the car could use the same rear hatch as the 2wd version. Then they added a big spoiler to conceal the adaptation.

    Excellent cars all, and their absence forces people to buy cuv’s.

  • avatar
    t-truck

    brandloyalty :
    The Corolla 4wd wagon also has the raised floor and roof, but lowered the roof behind the rear seat so the car could use the same rear hatch as the 2wd version. Then they added a big spoiler to conceal the adaptation.

    Hey I never knew that with the tailgate, thanks for the tip.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    My phrase: “same rear hatch” is too general a comment. Obviously the cosmetic sheet metal and trim were different, while the strategy allowed use of the same hinge mounting and structure that surrounds the hatch on the 2wd wagon.

    Whenever I see one of these that’s still in top shape, I get that “I wish I had one of those” feeling. Seems to me they are/were much-coveted used cars with a high resale value. One of those cars that gets passed to relatives or friends.

  • avatar
    Kevin Kluttz

    Wow, it even has air conditioning.

    My ’85 Corolla GT-S still tops the list. Long gone, but never forgotten. Drove the piss out of it for 2 years, then traded it. (sigh)

  • avatar

    “Small, simple 4wd wagons why doesn’t anybody make them anymore?”

    Up until the last restyle, Subaru’s Forester was every bit the utilitarian 4×4 equivelent of the fugly Tercel. Unfortunately, Subaru succumbed to the pussification of making it more mainstream and the latest version is far removed from the basic do-all car we loved.

  • avatar
    Hanksingle

    Of all my mother’s odd vehicles from my youth, her silver 4WD Tercel Wagon was my favorite – I was in middle school and cannot recall exactly when she got it, only that it replaced a tan Tercel sedan and that I was completely enamored with the 4WD. Fitting for the time I remember mostly that it never once gave in to outrageous New England weather, had a great heater and a ton of space – it was also a bit of an oven in the summer, but not enough to make me hate it.

    I have often thought how much I would love to drive one of these even now – but road salt here is unkind to anything from the 80s and they appear very, very rarely.

  • avatar
    Fredabelle

    Howdy from Saskatchewan, Canada. Just bought a 1984 Toyota Tercel SR5, in perfect shape with no rust for – get ready- $47.62. I love it!!!!

  • avatar
    thospend

    We lived at the top of a tall hill in E. Tennessee when I owned a 1984 Toyota Tercel SR5. Ice, snow, mud, that car went. Had to use an Army entrenching tool to pull snow out from under it one day — 24+” snow, roads packed down, parking lots FUBAR. Car started up hills on ice and stopped going down hills on ice (imagine a side road dumping into a highway facing north with a LONG down slpoe to get there – that is where the 6th (Granny) gear came in handy use it and let the car idle down the hill). Sorry to see it go, but some people use too much salt on the roads….

  • avatar
    Cancerian719

    I so loved my ’84 SR5 — it was perfect for everything I did. I bought it used (found the 1,001 use for duct tape – car was covered in it, then sprayed over with gold paint – sad, very sad). I see one on my way to work every day. I don’t think any of my other cars have been this well thought of or performed as well as my SR5. (although the checkerboard fabric seats were very frugly). I’d do about anything to have one again.
    Thanks for the additional memories Thospend.

    Toyota needs to bring it back — the Matrix is NOT the SR5 :(


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