By on May 9, 2012

No, the first-gen Tercel wasn’t related to the Corolla, but the marketing suits at Toyota USA hoped that some of the Corolla’s reputation for reliability would rub off on their smaller, cheaper, front-drive subcompact. It worked, mostly because the Tercel really was as bulletproof as the Corolla. It was also noisier, slower, and less comfortable, but painful memories of the Iranian Revolution-fueled 1979-80 oil crisis made the not-so-thirsty 83-horsepower Tercel very popular in North America. Most entry-level subcompacts don’t survive 31 years on the street, Toyota or not, and so this example I sighted in a Denver self-service junkyard is a rare find.
The engine is mounted longitudinally, which meant that it was easy for Toyota to make a four-wheel-drive version in the generation following this one.
The differential is in a separate housing below the engine, which makes the center of gravity higher than it would be in a transverse front-driver. It also means you can do a transmission swap in about 30 minutes (sadly, replacing the clutch is a real hassle).
This car managed 155,512 miles before taking its last tow-truck ride, which works out to about 5,000 miles per year.
It may have sat idle for decades, however; this baseball card for a player who was with the Mariners for just the ’85 season was sitting on the back seat.
I also found this early-to-mid-70s Fisher-Price “Little People” Girl in the car. There’s something sad about an old toy destined to be crushed with a car, shipped to China, and burned during the steel-melting process.
Here’s an innovative aftermarket security system for the trunk.

OK, let’s watch some ads for this car! Here’s a puzzling Tarzan-themed commercial.

And here’s a very Late Malaise Era ad. The sound is bad, but you get the idea.

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33 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1981 Toyota Corolla Tercel...”

  • avatar

    Had an ’82 Tercel 2 door with a 4 speed manual. What a fantastic car.

    Pretty snappy off the line up to about 45 mph, where it seemed to have run out of gearing once you were into 3rd.

    I beat the ever living daylights out of that poor car and it never complained once, save for the clutch… which burnt out teaching too many friends how to drive a manual. Like you suggested, it was a huge pain to change.

    Still, great little car.

  • avatar

    I think the Tarzan obsession was because “Tarzan the Ape Man” starting a sometimes topless Bo Derrick came out that year.

    Hmmmm. Bo Derrick topless and being smeared with mud….

    Sorry, what were we talking about?

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    Wow, from the rear that thing looks like something straight out of a Mad Max film.

    Good find, Murilee.

  • avatar

    My guess is, judging by the rough body condition, that car probably lived a hard life by someone who can’t drive well and it may WELL have sat for a while.

    I say this because the back end looks more faded than the rest of the car and it probably was partially covered, either by a shed, carport or something because the rest of the car doesn’t look nearly so faded.

    I am guessing something major mechanically occurred and it was parked for a long while, judging from the oily underside of the drive train.

  • avatar

    Back in the early 90’s my mother purchased this car from my friend’s father and managed to keep it for 2 or 3 years beating the hell out of it. I don’t remember her ever changing the oil, rotating the tires or any other maintenance for that matter. That car made it thru horrible salty Chicago winters without ever getting stuck and I vividly remember the front left axle being bent, windshield cracked, rusty all over and the headlights was always dark yet the car started faithfully. She later sold it to a friend that had the same exact car and he had it painted and fixed up. Wow haven’t thought about that car in years!

  • avatar

    When my first wife left (the first time), she left me one of these (though I think it was a special edition with a 5-speed). I tried to wear it out and then kill it, couldn’t, and finally gave it away in ’93. Lordy, Toyota sure could make an economy car.

  • avatar

    Tell me you didn’t just leave the Fisher-Price girl to her fate. Didn’t you see “Toy Story 3”?

    I never had one of these but several high school classmates did (hand-me-downs from their parents). Does no one make a small, honest, indestructible car anymore?

    • 0 avatar
      Joe McKinney

      That’s a funny thing about little kids. Wherever they go, they always seem to leave a stray toy as evidence they were there. Sort of the pre-schooler equivalent of a calling card.

    • 0 avatar

      “Does no one make a small, honest, indestructible car anymore? …or preschool figure?

      • 0 avatar

        Too true. I had some of the Fisher-Price “people” as a kid, and they’re probably still in use somewhere (by my nephews and nieces, probably).

  • avatar

    I swear they only came in this red/orange color.

  • avatar

    The really odd early Tercel was the two-door hatchback with its oval taillights. Those didn’t sell well so Toyota rushed out some notchback Tercels to keep the dealers happy.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      Those were quite interesting looking with the all-glass hatch with a high liftover. They also came in a SR5 version. I used to see one around in black with red stripes and trim.

      • 0 avatar

        That was the type I had as my first car. Not too bad, with the. Down exterior and the tan and brown plaid seats. Rust got the best of it after a couple of years, and I dropped it off at the scrap yard for 50 bucks. Replaced it with an ’87 Accord LXi 3-door and never looked back.

  • avatar

    In late November 1982, my S.O. and I (then living in the cold upper midwest) flew to Maui, and we rented a 4-door Tercel that I drove all the way to the end of the Hana Road (that is, to the Hotel Hana Maui*) and back again. Seemed to be a good choice for that road – short and narrow to negotiate the tight curves, and no possibility of needing to accelerate fast. Also, FWD likely added to the sense of confidence – perhaps it should have been made clearer by our host that this Tercel was the very first FWD Toyota offered in the U.S. market, a few years before the FWD Corolla and its first-generation NUMMI-mate the Chevy Nova (later Geo/Chevy Prizm).

    *No, we didn’t stay there – just a day trip.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    In a world where a 16 yr old, 300k mile Camry is going for almost $3 grand, this little gas saver could be rescued and put back into service for less than 2 grand, I suppose.

  • avatar

    83 horsepower is not accurate – a 1983 VW Rabbit GTI had 90hp, and there is no way a Tercel was anything close to that.

    According to wikipedia, the Tercel’s 1,452 cc engine put out 60hp.

  • avatar

    Rare color. ALL of these cars were in electric blue or sometimes tan. In the early 90’s I had a 2 door 1982 version, electric blue with blue interior, with a FIVE speed. Apparently that was a big deal as they actually put a 5speed sticker on the back of the car.

    I wish I still had it. It really wasn’t that reliable, but it had what so many cars these days don’t have: character.

    It had A/C too, that worked until the end. Never changed the oil because it always needed oil. After that, got my first new car, a 1993 Mazda 323 hatch, in electric blue :)

    • 0 avatar

      Oh, and NO WAY it had anything close to 80hp. My FI 323 was only 80-something hp, the Tercel was a dog. No power steering either.

    • 0 avatar

      I absolutely adore the 1980s blue interior that was used in the Toyota especially when the matching exterior was also a blue. In those days they probably used vinyl for the seats too. Awesome and something that was distinctly Toyota-esque like the digital clock that had a green backlight or green LED.

      Miss that stuff, these days everything is a bland black.

  • avatar

    A non car buddy of mine had one of these years ago, it was blue. Despite the fact that he took average care of it the engine was starting to smoke at around 115k.
    One day I went to Cleveland with him to pick up his wife’s car, it’s been so many years that I can’t remember why we had to do it.
    Anyway, I drove his tercel back while he drove his wife’s car. To this day it was the worst piece of junk I ever drove. The road noise was excessively loud, and I’m a person that doesn’t mind road noise within reason. It was at least as slow as a chevette, only chevettes were much quieter and felt like they were built like a tank compared to a tercel. My buddie’s was one of the last I saw in this area, as they all returned to the elements in short order.

  • avatar

    I have doubts about the hp rating. I had a third gen ’89 Tercel and I’m quite sure it had 78 HP. The first gen probably had 60 some hps.

    I always liked the first gen Tercels, especially the 2 doors with the glass hatch/trunk. They have become very rare.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    It’s interesting how the 1st generation of Japanese fwd cars to come to the states in the late 70’s; the Datsun F-10 and the Tercel had longitudinally mounted engines while the Civic had the east- west configuration.

  • avatar

    Could someone please explain this to me…

    Why do all our scrap cars get sent to China???

    Why can’t the metal be reused here in the states???

    • 0 avatar

      Scrap metal, carboard, plastic, a lot of that stuff is sent to China from many places.

      Why? It could be because thats where a lot of stuffs built.

      My question is, whatever happened to building things with pride?
      When did the country get taken over by bean counters?

  • avatar

    My buddy bought one new in ’81.
    Decided to change oil himself, but drained the trans. instead!!
    After adding 4 more qts. to the engine, he got ~8 mi. up I-95 from D.C. and ground to a smoky stop.
    He had to buy a used transaxle, but still got 170K out of that car!

  • avatar

    Nice find! I had an ’83 hatchback. It was a bit flimsy, but a great car.

  • avatar

    Theres a 2nd Gen at a pick n pull in St Louis, it has the engine in longitudinally.

    The insides not that bad, but it looks to have been off-roaded with all of the rust and mud on it.

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