Curbside Classic: 1984 Toyota Tercel Wagon

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic 1984 toyota tercel wagon

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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  • Cancerian719 Cancerian719 on May 04, 2012

    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 :(

  • Sneaky Pete Sneaky Pete on Aug 10, 2023

    Bought my first new car, a 1984 Tercel FWD wagon in October 1983 for MSRP of about $7400. Drove it for 250000 miles over 12 Michigan salted road winters; it didn’t use a drop of oil over my 3000 change interval. Finally had to sell it when one morning I got in the car to go to work and the driver’s seat dropped to the driveway due to the rusted out floor. Put a classified ad in the paper and got over 30 calls on it the next day. Sold it for $600.

  • Legacygt Great review. I've only driven one Wilderness model (an Outback provided as a dealer loaner) and I found the handling a little sloppy on-pavement. It's good to hear they managed to give the Crosstrek the Wilderness treatment without hurting the on-pavement experience.And this is the first time I've read a review that dared to criticize Star Tex seats. I find the material interesting and low maintenance and fairly comfortable but I totally agree that it rates very poorly for breathability. It's so bad that I think Subaru should offer it with some sort of ventilated option. 5 minutes on a hot day and you're sitting in a pool of sweat.
  • Analoggrotto Too bad they don't sell Kia Telluride, the greatest selling vehicle in it's class over the pond in the UK who burned Washington DC down but that's ok.
  • Analoggrotto Kia Telluride never faced such problems and now offers a superior offroad trim for those times where soccerdad needs to go get the white claws from costco.
  • Zerofoo There's a joke here somewhere about Tim's used car recommendations, Tassos, and death traps.
  • Tassos Subaru really knows how to take fugly to ever higher levels, and sell every one of the (of course very few) it makes. As if the number of sales negates the fugliness.Don't hold your breath. I bet this will NOT be the vehicle James Bond arrives at the Casino in Monte Carlo with in his next flick. (if any)