By on April 16, 2010

So just how exactly does one become the best selling car in America? The only reliable way one becomes number one in just about anything: doing your homework and practicing every day. And it really does helps if the competition has forgotten that formula.

Read old reviews about the first generation Camry, and the exact qualities that I felt and described in my recent review are all there, right down the list except for one (roomy): “quiet, smooth, solid, competent but not exciting handling, comfortable, well built, reliable, plenty of torque and power but not sporty”. Same car, twenty seven years ago; just add some super-sizing and drop the hatch, and the formula is as intact (and winning) as ever.

My first exposure to the Camry was in 1984, when the Chief Engineer of the tv station and I took a business trip together, and he talked me into renting a Camry. Having long learned to trust his judgment, we made sure one was available and reserved. Good call too, as the default rentals of the day would typically have been a floppy Buick Regal, Ford Tempo, or K car. The Camry’s obvious solidity and quiet manners despite it being a compact was immediately apparent, although it lacked the tip in and roarty zest of GM’s V6s, and of course the torque steer that came with it.

Who knows exactly, but I’ll guess that there were two cars under Toyota’s microscope when they designed the completely all-new 1983 Camry, a major departure from the long family of RWD cars (except the tiny Tercel): the Honda Accord of course, but also the Chevrolet Citation. Clearly, the Accord showed the way forward with FWD in the popular sized class. But I’m guessing that Toyota, like most of the imports, was more than a bit worried about GM’s highly ambitious X-cars (which we’ll take a look at soon).

The Citation had all the right ingredients: modern, space-efficient bodies, including five-door hatches that I’m thinking may well have influenced the design of the boxy gen1 Camry. But as we all know all too well, they were a flash in the pan that quickly sizzled out due to their lack of proper full development and a rash of quality issues. The X-Bodies’ flame-out, and the mediocre GM mid-sized cars of the times threw the gates to the now biggest sector of the market wide wide open, and the Camry glided in, in stealth mode at first.

Because before the Camry could live up to its name and take the crown (which is what “Camry” means as an Anglicized phonetic transcription of the word Japanese word kanmuri), it had to sit out the Taurus and Accord years at the top. But who’s in a hurry, when you’re thinking longer than average. The Camry truly is the tortoise. How it outran GM’s X-Bodies and even the Taurus is easier to understand than its ability to knock the Accord off the throne. But it did, in its silent but deadly way.

What’s somewhat remarkable is that the Current Camry is only the third truly all-new Camry since this one. The popular and quite successfully restyled gen2 (CC here)  sat on the same platform as its boxy predecessor, which made itself felt by the relative compact interior. The all-new and definitive gen3 Camry set the brutally high standard that wiped out the competition once and for all; its remarkably refined manners truly made it the Lexus of its competition, and was what most distinguished it from the decidedly tauter and sportier Accord of the time. The gen4 was a rationalization of the gen3, as Toyota found ways to cut costs like the expensive double seals on the doors. Hardly anyone noticed, especially since prices now became more directly competitive against Detroit’s ever-more pressured competitors. The Camry’s march downwards in price forced GM to fight ever more on price, and cut corners and content in the process, but it was a losing battle.

The differences in the gen5 and 6 are more subtle than ever. As I looked out my parent’s front window at my new rental and my brother’s ’05, it was all-too obvious that they share a lot of hard points. Let’s just call it a reskin. The profits that Toyota has made with three distinct generations of Camrys over 27 years have undoubtedly been remarkable. It wasn’t that long ago that some well leaked info suggested that Toyota was making 90% of its global profits in the USA. The Camry is the gold crown, regardless of the language or the spelling. And Toyota’s going to be mighty reluctant to see anyone else wearing it.

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37 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1986 Toyota Camry...”

  • avatar

    The 80’s were so unkind to many things. Cars were no exception. Only a few cars from this era of boxiness look good.

    • 0 avatar

      She ain’t pretty, but she’s in remarkably good shape for a 26 year old car.

    • 0 avatar

      What really impresses me is the shape of the interior. Look at those seats!

      And I guess I’m showing my age, but with the exception of the oversized front bumpers this car looks preety good to me! You know, it looks like a car. Plain and simple.

  • avatar

    Re GM’s X-car: “they were a flash in the pan that quickly sizzled out due to their proper full development”

    I guess I’m missing something, how does “proper full development” result in a flash in the pan?

  • avatar

    Slight correction – the one you have photographed here is actually a 1986 model, per the government-mandated CHMSL. The 1983-1984 models also had a different taillights design as well quad sealed-beam headlights, both of which were updated in 1985 to look like this.

    Great write-up, as usual. I remember requesting this a few weeks ago, and here it is. I’m sure you were planning to do one anyway, but… thanks.

    Also, where can you actually read reviews of a first gen Camry? I enjoy reading any car review from decades past, but they are few and far between on the Internet, unfortunately. Any suggestions on where to look?

    • 0 avatar

      CHMSL the thing Elizabeth Dole will always be remembered for in her tenure as head of the DOT. I remember when the old Caprice Wagons that my Dad’s boss bought for his salesmen suddenly got them.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      I was just waiting for someone to tell me the year; why do I keep forgetting the CHMSL intro date?
      There are a few bits via google; but it’s mostly from memory.
      And, yes, I try to remember requests; yours specifically was in mind. Any others?

    • 0 avatar

      Well Mr. P., since you asked…

      How’s about something truly “exotic”? Any old Fiat, Renault, Peugeot or even who knows Lada or Dacia. Being Eugene and all, there’s bound to be some of them “roaming” the streets.

    • 0 avatar

      I always thought the CHMSL wasn’t mandated until the 1993 MY. My dad owns a 92 Chevy Astro without one.

    • 0 avatar

      Regulations were different for light trucks, where the CHMSL wasn’t required until 1994 MY. The Chrysler minivans had them since 1991 though, for some reason, and I’m sure there are a couple other early examples.

      Which reminds me – I have a 1985 Oldsmobile sales brochure (full-size FWD Nintey-Eight), and it shows the CHMSL as a factory option. Not sure how many were actually equipped with them that year, but I’d guess quite a few. I think a couple other 1985 GM cars offered it early too.

    • 0 avatar

      TG57, when my father ordered an Olds 98 Regency from the factory in 1985 he picked the then optional CHMSL. Perhaps it is my childhood in a GM family (my father is a GM retiree), but I remember this as a really nice car; a nice deep red with a tan interior, twilight sentinel, fiber optic indicators to check the various bulbs, and a rudimentary trip computer. My father loved that car, but sold it a little over a year later when he realized how much the insurance went up when I got my license. He’s never forgiven me for that one.

    • 0 avatar

      TG57: 1991 was a refresh/redesign year for the Chrysler minivans. Up through 1990 they all had the tall grilles and large headlights, but in 1991 the grilles became vertically “pinched” and the headlights were much shorter than they were wide, with a more rounded nose. I am sure since Chrysler wasn’t going to be doing a major redesign until the MY1996 vans and they knew the new CHMSL regs were coming into effect before then they went ahead and implemented.

      I do remember that passenger cars had them on a different schedule. It was mid-80s I remember living in the parents’ old house (they moved in late 1986) my dad bought an aftermarket CHMSL kit to put in the 1984 Voyager, but it must have been made for a sedan’s package tray and wouldn’t fit to his satisfaction. Never did add a CHMSL to it.

  • avatar

    I hate to be That Guy but I doubt the car in the pictures is an ’83 model. My mother’s ’84 had the recessed headlights. My father’s ’86 had flush headlights, flatter grill, and interior trim like this one. I suspect this is an ’85 or later.

    Speaking of the folks, I realized I had become like my father before even realizing it when I owned a tan Camry (this one a ’98) with the radio usually tuned to NPR.

  • avatar

    It’s a shame that this size 4 door hatch has all but disappeared from the NA market. A hatchback really makes a car more versatile, but the remaining hatch options are all too small to carry 4 adults for any trip greater than 30 minutes. My wife drives a Malibu Maxx, which is the only one of its kind left, and GM stopped making them. It’s only average as cars go, but the hatch plus fold down seats (including the front passenger) make it a great cargo hauler as well as a decent people hauler.

    • 0 avatar

      Then I think it’s time to get your lovely bride a Panamera.

    • 0 avatar

      I was thinking along the same lines as jmo…it’s funny that the 4-door hatch used to be utilitarian transport, and now it’s trying to be the hot new thing…Panamera, Crosstour, etc. I prefer the clean, honest lines of this Camry. Although it is getting dangerously close to the infamous late-70s GM fastbacks.

    • 0 avatar

      “Then I think it’s time to get your lovely bride a Panamera.”

      If I could afford a Panamera I wouldn’t need to be able to haul cargo. I could afford to pay to have it hauled so that I wouldn’t muss up my Italian leather driving gloves.

      Things like the Crosstour and Venza are hatches, but anything like a CUV seems to jump $5K-$10K in price without offering any extra value over the comparable sedan. I liked it when many sedans offered a hatchback version for no more than a 2% premium. Who knows, now that BMW and Porsche offer hatches, maybe it will trickle down to the more pedestrian makes again. Everything old is new again!

    • 0 avatar

      If sales continue to languish, you might be able to get the Crosstour at a big discount. Then the questions is, how to deal with the ‘polarizing’ exterior style?

  • avatar

    So that’s what happened to the Toyota Crown! I thought I knew a ton about automobiles until I started reading your Curbside Classic articles. If I read enough of these do I get a degree in Car-ology?

    • 0 avatar

      The Toyota Crown is still being made in Japan, just not exported to the US. It’s actually a large range of cars from inline 4 CNG powered taxi cabs to V6 or V8, even hybrid powered luxury sedans, all RWD.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Actually, it’s Autology. I received an honorary degree from the U of I in 1963:

  • avatar

    I like the molded-in stitches around the dashboard vinyl …

  • avatar

    I remember well when the Gen4 was being introduced. Motor Trend, IIRC, did an in-depth story about de-contenting the Camry. At that time the dollar/yen was killing the advantage that enabled the Japanese to add content/quality while still maintaining an affordable price. At least until the stealership got finished with the useless crap they added to jack up the sticker, but that’s for another time. Not only did the double seals go, but so did other stuff like minimizing assembly costs. That’s why the front clip looks like an air conditioning return grille. As many parts that could be eliminated by minimizing complexity were removed by simpler design. Even stuff like the rear seat material was cut in quality to reflect the less wear and tear the rear gets. Dash material was cheapened, and I believe the variable speed hydraulic fan clutch on the V6 was dumped also. This was the beginning of the GM-ification of Toyota. Too bad that GM was doing the same, only they were well ahead of Toyota in decontenting. So as Toyotas became worse, they were still light years ahead of GM.

  • avatar

    I bought a new ’84 Camry LE in August of that year (traded my ’81 Accord in) and have nothing but praise for that car. It could comfortably seat 5 adults, which was quite a feat for a sedan back then. One of my friends had bought a new Mazda 626 with a 3-speed automatic and the easy cruising of the Camry – e/w the automatic with overdrive – at highway speeds, compared to that 626 (which ran at about 4000 RPM at 60 MPH) along with the difference in build quality made that guy regret his decision. The Mazda was a better looking car, however.

  • avatar

    I bought an ’84 hatchback from a little old lady and got 2 good years basic transport, once I got the carbon out to restore all 92 hp. I used a can of Mercury outboard engine cleaner, sprayed into the air intake at idle until it stalled; restarted and drove it ~1/8 mi. trailing a huge cloud of white smoke. It ran perfectly afterward!

  • avatar

    I learned to drive on my parents’ ’84 LE hatchback (it had all the options except for two-tone paint, including the relatively useless graphic equalizer) — it was a nice car, though a little numb through the wheel (compared with my uncle’s Citation, it just felt Novocain-ed) and short on power — with four adults on board, it struggled up I-90 West departing Spokane, even with the “OD” (4th) disengaged via the pushbutton on the shifter.

    The Camry replaced a GM lump for us (Olds Cutlass wagon — the one whose rear windows never rolled down and which smelled vaguely of grape soda, the product of a hot day, the seven-year-old me, and no ventilation) and it was where we learned the importance of changing your timing belt on time — thankfully it was a non-interference design, though.

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    Didn’t know they did these with a hatch , we only got the 4-door saloon version in Europe.

  • avatar

    Has the Camry dispatched the Accord?

    I remember reading in another publication that the Accord has outsold the Camry in retail sales in most years, Honda doesn’t do fleet like Toyota.

    Or incentives.

    That’s shows up in the Honda’s superior resale value over the Toyota.

    I also believe Honda was already set to be the most profitable Japanese auto manufacturer this year, even before Toyota’s recent meltdown.

    More profit and fewer platforms. Maybe Honda should have a greater product advantage going forward. Especially considering Toyota’s escalating troubles with Consumer Reports, the decontenting of the Camry and their truck heavy line in an era when truck share is sure to decline.


  • avatar

    I very briefly owned a two tone ’86 Camry. Replaced the cv axles and passed it onto my sister inlaw you managed to write it off three times in a month. I remember it being quite sluggish (automatic) even with the power button pushed on the transmission.

  • avatar

    Here’s what flash-in-the-pan means in the context of GM’s X-cars:

    They hit the streets in the spring of ’79, just as Iran turned off the oil spigot. They drove well, felt like regular GM cars, were practical, comfortable and got good gas mileage. Result: instant hit. X-cars were in short supply for the next 18 months as gas prices went through the roof.

    By mid-1981, gas prices and supplies stabilized. By then, the word-of-mouth on the X-car’s awfulness was already out for engine, transmission, brake and exhaust problems. Consumer Reports’ reliability scores were terrible. Sales took a nosedive from there, especially as the second-gen Accord, the first-gen Camry, the K-car and Fords really put GM’s shoddy quality control to shame.

    Only the Chevy and Buick versions of the X-car were still around when GM quietly euthanized them in the 1985 model year. You all know what happened from there.

  • avatar

    What? No mention of the diesel option?

  • avatar

    Classic- LOL. Throw away appliance more like it. Maybe one of the better ones at the time but truly throw away. I haven’t seen one of this generation since college in the 90’s on the road. I remember an aunt that had one just like this expect it may have been an 85. I used to wash it and detail it for her back when I graduated from high school in 89. It was already rusting around the rear quarters and rockers, burned several quarts of oil between changes prompting her to always carry a spare in the back hatch, broke it’s timing belt twice leaving her stranded both times(thank goodness it was a non interference valve bending design like Hondas at the time)had numb steering and wishy washy handling, was slow as a dog with automatic and was always reffered to as the Camry Salon aka Olds ugly fastback Salon of the 78-79 time period! The transmission finally died at around 120K and she was put to rest. Her next car was a brand new 1991 Olds Ciera Cruiser wagon loaded to the hilt that she loved and kept until she passed away in 2002. That car seemed to eat brake rotors every year but was dead reliable other than that!

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    Also owned an 86 to replace the horrendous 80 Xcar Buick I finally had to give up on, one of my biggest regrets in life was NOT replacing the engine on my 86 Camry and instead getting a 98 Corolla, inferior in every way.

  • avatar

    An ex-gf of mine had one of these. Maybe she still has it, for all I know. She loved it, though I didn’t really get it at the time. It was used when she got it, and I was blind to its charms. She wouldn’t hear a bad or ever indifferent word spoken about it though, and she was deeply offended when a neighbor of mine mistook it for my similarly silver and boxy Audi 4000CS quattro. Her Camry replaced a Cherokee and a string of Saab 900s, all of which were purchased new and stranded her with total regularity. The realization of a car that always completed round trips was such a novelty that she still had it when we met up seven years later.

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