By on March 1, 2013

Because the Corolla had become such a hit in the United States during the early part of the Malaise Era, Toyota decided to confuse car buyers and parts-counter guys for eternity by adding the Corolla name to the first-gen Toyota Tercel. This would have been like Volkswagen selling a “Rabbit Fox” or Chrysler selling a “Dart Colt,” but it seemed to work fine for Toyota. Here’s a first-year-for-the-US Tercel I spotted in a Denver self-service yard last week.
These things were noisy and tinny and cheap, but they were more reliable than the other crappy little econoboxes of the Middle Malaise Era.
They were also quite slow, thanks to the 60-horsepower 1A engine driving the front wheels. Yes, it looks like a rear-wheel-drive setup, but it’s really an engine-over-transaxle assembly that made a lot more sense once Toyota started making four-wheel-drive Tercels.
5-speed manual transmissions were still somewhat prestigious in 1980.
I’ve long thought that the vaguely finny-looking taillight treatment on this car resembled the setup on some BMC AD016 models.
Cloth seats, gas-sipping engine, no frills. These cars sold like crazy, but they weren’t worth fixing once they got to be 15 years old and now most of them are gone.

When ventriloquist dummies need to urinate, they must ride in Tercels.

“Has a longitudinal engine… unlike any Honda!”

It does pretty well in a crash test, considering its insubstantial construction.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

46 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1980 Toyota Corolla Tercel...”

  • avatar

    I like the tweedy seats, they look cheap and cheerful. The size of the bumper is ridiculous though.

    About the picture from the tailgate: Is there wood trim applique missing from one side along the door, or has something been painted not to match? I can’t tell.

  • avatar

    Why am I not surprised to see a B5 Passat in the background. Perfect example of the difference in longevity between the 2 brands.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, it’s a B5, not a B5.5, so it’s anywhere from 12-15 years old. Depending on how much it was driven, that may not be bad at all. Not Toyota by any stretch, but not awful either.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, it made my heart drop to see that B5 wagon in the background. I have a 2004 GLX wagon with 56K. I bought it 2 years ago with 38K miles and in those two years: (a) alternator was replaced (removing the front of the car) for about $800, (b) the timing belt and water pump were replaced (removing the front of the car) at over $1000, (c) the coolant temperature sensor replacement crapped out (done myself, whoohoo!). I’m eagerly awaiting the moment when the other exotic and inaccessible components all fry themselves. Curiously, I see a lot of B5 wagons around still, and the asking prices on autotrader seem to be fairly high.

        Contrast that to my two P71 crown vics, which have an aggregate of 50K miles on them. NOTHING needed to be done on them other than routine stuff I did myself while partying in the engine bay. Of course, I did sink one in a lake accidentally, but that’s a story for another day….

        • 0 avatar

          The front of that car is DESIGNED to be removed, and it is not a difficult task. The smart thing would have been to do the timing belt early, while in there for the alternator.

    • 0 avatar

      Just a few months ago, I bought a 2001 Audi A4 Avant for myself. It came with a stack of receipts from the past 18 months alone totalling almost double what I paid for the car, and plenty more from then on back.

      I guess time will tell if I made a mistake despite the extensive repair history, from the day I bought it a little voice inside my head has been telling me that maybe I did…

  • avatar

    I’m sure the crash test praise was sincere rather than sarcastic, but the video sure looks scary to me. Are those seats even bolted down?

    • 0 avatar

      Starting at 2:51 in the crash video, I worried the driver dummy would hit the windshield, but no problem, the steering wheel rose up to smack it in the face! Didn’t these cars have breakaway elements in the steering column?

      (Yes, ~60 km/h is quite a clip, but I think modern cars do remarkably better in such tests. Feeling pretty good about driving a late model car, now.)

      • 0 avatar

        It was active steering used in several cars back then to shield the driver’s face from the glass.
        I think the loss of teeth and broken necks thwarted this particular safety feature’s popularity.
        It is amazing to watch videos of new versus old in terms of crash worthiness. Big, big strides.
        Tucker got a patent for collapsable steering columns back in the ’40s.

    • 0 avatar

      One of the unsung benefits of “unsafe” cars was always the opportunity to die a sudden and inexpensive death. Now, lingering for years on tubes in/tubes out, once-a-week diaper changes, and crippling family debt certainly has its attractions…

  • avatar

    Also, on the “Corolla Tercel” naming confusion… one similar example I can think of is Subaru’s “Outback Sport”, which was Impreza-based, versus the regular Outback which is based on the Legacy.

    It’s a branding move that could make sense if you have a nameplate that carries huge brand equity: Corolla, Outback, Prius (C, V, etc). What would you rather have, a Prius C or a Yaris hybrid?

  • avatar

    I think the first Altimas had a Stanza badge on them somewhere as well.

    • 0 avatar

      The Stanza also introduced the “Maxima” name, although it was later moved to the Datsun 810 (called the 810 Maxima). I believe the Bluebird also had a Bluebird Maxima.

      • 0 avatar

        The Stanza and Maxima names were never connected. The Altima replaced the Stanza, which replaced the 510, which replaced the 710. That version of the 510 was no relation to the revered 510 from the early 70’s. That car’s place in the lineup was ceded to the 610, then 810, then the Maxima.

        • 0 avatar

          Not true! There was a Stanza Maxima. The Maxima was a trimline to indicate that it was the luxury/loaded version. It was Japan only in the late 70s:

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Toyota also managed to squeeze in a few Celica Supras a few years later.

    I love these old Corolla Tercels just for their funky looks. But it’s been at least ten years since I’ve seen one at an auto auction.

    • 0 avatar

      To their defense, at least the Celica Supra what a slightly longer hooded Celica (due to inline 6). Everything from the A pillar to the rear end was identical. That’s also one of the most beautiful cars Toyota ever made. I have an ’84.

  • avatar

    There was some hope of Toyota bringing back a car like this, basically a RWD Yaris hatch.

  • avatar

    Jim was a thrifty soul.

    Jim grabbed a beer from the fridge as he waited for his 2000-era Dell to power up. He logged onto Dreamland, anxious to listen to whatever subject matter would be discussed. “Chupacabra again?”, he scowled. He was hoping for more chatter on the latest government conspiracies. Disappointed, he opened a new window for the list of Craigs. He might as well get something done, since his “schedule” was now open, so to speak. As Dreamland broke news of another POSSIBLE goat-sucker sighting, he rolled his eyes, and typed up an ad.

    “1980 Toyota Corolla Trecel its a 5 speed runs and drives well,great little car,has new belts,rebuilt carb,tune up,recent tires,cv shafts,water pump, good shapre, very little rust.”

    Jim pondered for a moment, doing a mental exercise on whether or not to proclaim that the car’s floorboards would need attention soon. He decided to leave it up to the buyer to discover on their own. After all, he wasn’t selling the Tercel for a ton of cash. He was just asking $1500 for the old Toy. Now all he needed was a picture of the car. He dug through 1000’s of images of Grandkids and found a fuzzy shot of the car when he bought it for $150. “Good enough” he muttered. He stared at the picture for a moment. Taken by his son Tommy in about 1992, it was mostly focused on himself, standing next to the Tercel with a shit-eating grin on his face. He recalled buying the car for a song. It just needed a CV joint, and the orange paint job had a sunburnt hue. He bought some “Oops” single stage white paint from the Earl Schieb, and proudly applied it. It..somewhat..shined in the sun. For years Jim would ignore the orange peel on the rear flanks and focus his gaze on the part of the car where the paint actually shined, the roof. Every time he ducked into the car, his eyes would meet the glaze on the roof and he would smile as he admired his own work.

    Though the Toyota was a trusty steed, it was no longer necessary. It was his wife Lara’s car. After Jim retired, there was no need to have 2 cars sitting around. Besides, Jim’s Lumina van was a much more pleasant place to be.

    Over the weeks that followed, a baker’s dozen people came to look at the Tercel. Half of them were confused about the strange lever jutting up from the center console, prompting Jim to edit his Craigslist ad.


    One of the other prospective buyers climbed in, and immediately noticed his feet were supported solely by the carpeting. He assumed the standard Tercel operating posture of leaning forward, and buzzed off on a test drive. He promptly returned, saying he wasn’t interested. The two other gentlemen just came to look at the car, and offered the same amount, $300.

    Jim was becoming irritated at the trend of the tire-kickers. One of the low-ballers called him during his favorite program, again offering $300 and a sob story about how his son needed a car and they didn’t have much money to spend.
    “I’ll take no less than $350.”
    The buyer grumbled, then replied “Fine. Is tomorrow good?”

    Jim was displeased at the thought of giving away the Tercel, and the feeling of getting beat at his own game as he waited for Edwin and his son to show up. It could be worse though, he thought. They could show up and not want the car, starting the process all over again. He rinsed the Tercel off, vacuumed out the interior, and threw away the faded T-shirt that covered the disintegrating driver’s seat. It just looked gross.

    The sound of rattling tow dolly and a Windsor V8 expelling spent gases through faulty manifolding announced the arrival of the buyers. Jim was surprised to see the tow dolly. “Why don’t they just drive it?” he thought. Edwin and a disinterested 30 year old stepped out of the battered F-250. They quickly worked, almost as if they had done this before. Edwin sorted out the paperwork and cash while the “son” clutch-dumped the hapless Tercel only the dolly rather violently. He then procured the sets of ratcheting straps from the truck bed, tossing one carelessly onto the roof as he worked, it’s heavy buckle banging the sheetmetal. Jim was about to scream “HEY! Be careful!”, but held his tongue, as he remembered it was now Edwin’s baby. A quick handshake, and the two were gone. The Ford tick-tick-ticked off into the distance with the little Toyota bouncing behind it.

    Jim ranted as he went inside.

  • avatar

    Ahhh…the memories. A car just like this was my first auto in the mid-90s, though in the malaise-brown exterior. It was pretty used up by the time I bought it for $500, and it lasted about a year before I had to drop it at the scrap yard. Recollections:

    1) In typical Toyota-tradition, it never left me stranded–though I barely made it to the mechanic a time or two as the rusted-out bits gave way.

    2) Not so good in a headwind. I remember a few road trips where I couldn’t get past 50 mph when driving into the wind.

    3) The heat was weak. Using it in northern Wisconsin, there were times when I couldn’t get hot air to come out when the temp was below zero F. Best I could do was get slightly less frigid air.

    4) This car introduced me to the wonders of a hatch. I was truly amazed at how much stuff this car could fit inside. Very useful when moving in to and out of student apartments.

    Though I was sad when I had to give it up, I was much more in love with the “new” ’87 Honda Accord LX-i (3-door hatch)that replaced it. Still kind of miss that car. After all, it had pop-up headlights…

  • avatar

    I have friends, a couple actually, that bought one of these new in 1980. It was bland beige color with the same plaid interior. I didn’t think much of it then and forgot that the Tercel even existed until this post; I probably haven’t seen one in 15 years.

    That said, I have to believe that there would still be a market for a real barebones, inexpensive car like this; a new millenium version.

    I guess KIA has come closest to trying to fulfill that niche but I haven’t read too many encouraging things about their cars and other manufacturers don’t seem to be interested in pursuing this path now, at least in the U.S. Sonic maybe? – which I do have experience with and rate as a very poor alternative.

    • 0 avatar

      Take the purchase price and adjust for inflation, and you’re close to $9k. Then add in the mandatory safety features, and it’ll sell for the same as a Yaris.

    • 0 avatar

      Here’s an encouraging word about KIA – I rented the 2012 Sportage and drove through the rockies and the desert – through storms and intense heat . It handled crisply and precisely, was comfortable and , to my eye , quite beautiful. A great car.

  • avatar

    I remember them. First Toyota FWD in the US. Used the Audi format, longitudinal in-line 4 cylinder. Made the most atrocious gear noise! Gen 2 improved quickly, in true Toyota fashion.

  • avatar

    This thread piqued my curiosity, so I decided to check and see if there were any of these survivors for sale out there. And we’re in luck:

  • avatar

    We had one of these in coupé form in the TTAC “Get Off My Lawn” Special Edition: 4-speed manual (sorry, 5-speed was too fancy!), AM radio only, vinyl seats, no A/C, roll-up windows, no power steering. $4K in 1980.

    Sold in the 90s with only about 70,000 miles because we had moved on to bigger and better with A/C. It wasn’t as bulletproof as people think of Toyotas today from my recollection, but neither are today’s Toyotas. I wonder how rusty it was — it spent time in a salted climate early on, but later moved to somewhere where cars are known to be relatively rust-free.

  • avatar

    I almost forgot that I had one of these as my second car. My grandfather gave it to me after all 5 of his kids had used it up and no longer wanted it, my aunt was the last to use it in college before she bought her own new car. It was a great bright blue color, completely matte in finish before matte was cool, literally no clear coat left. And a complete stripper base model, not one option, not even a radio. No A/C either. In South Florida. Thanks incredibly thrifty grandpa! It was beat but mechanically fine, I used it like a Jeep, left the windows down all the time since there was nothing to steal. Eventually the clutch went bad and I lacked the $400 or so to get it fixed, plus I was tired of arriving everywhere with sweat soaked clothes. My local Honda dealer couldn’t get me financed on a new CRX but they could get me into a used Civic Si with 100k miles. It was red and gloriously more fun than the Tercel, and it had AC. The clutch gave up the ghost on drive over from the mechanic’s shop. I literally pushed my Tercel onto the lot and drove home in my “new” Civic. I think they gave me $300 for it on trade too.

  • avatar

    i suspect they took a good look at the mgb GT when designing that rear end ;)

  • avatar

    It may look a bit like a BMC 1100, but the Tercel’s mechanical layout is a close copy of it’s Coventry rival, the 1965 Triumph 1300. The sedan even matches the Triumph’s rather odd proportions.

    The Toyota was designed in the mid-late sixties, then kept on the shelf as a first line of defence if the world suddenly went front wheel drive mad.

    When it finally came to market it had a decently up to date engine gearbox, but plenty of barely disguised ’60s styling cues.

    Triumph dabbled with 4WD adaptations of the layout too, but never got the production act together.

  • avatar

    5 speed ? That would be the SR-5 edition then. High end Tercel :D

    I like the glass hatch first gen. I recently got a ’81 4 door auto Tercel I will start restoring next winter. Everyone thinks I’m crazy. Even perfectly restored, car is worth next to nothing. I will use it to learn how to work on cars and restore them. I only know the basic stuff. My Supra doesn’t need restoration and I wouldn’t dare using it to learn.

    I planned to learn on a 3rd gen Camaro or such, but this Tercel was given to me and I kinda like them. Especially since I haven’t seen one on the road for over 15 years.

  • avatar

    These were great cars. I don’t remember mine being particularly tinny or slow – although everything then was tinnier and slower. I loved it – a wonderful car.

  • avatar

    Why would Toyota brag about a longitudinal engine layout in their marketing? Is there any perceived or tangible benefit to this layout that would cause someone to say, “They’re right! Honda doesn’t offer a longitudinal engine layout. I guess the Tercel is the car for me.”?

    • 0 avatar
      Brian P

      Given that the longitudinal engine lasted through the second generation (they had to pay for the tooling …) and then went transverse and never looked back, that would suggest “no”.

      It did make the all-wheel-drive variations easier to design, though. I don’t think anyone had thought of putting the engine transversely and using a set of bevel gears to drive the propeller shaft at the time.

      I suppose that back then, the longitudinal layout was more familiar to mechanics and the general public, and perhaps it was easier to deal with on the assembly line (and they would have been set up for rear drive at the time).

      Keep in mind that every real Audi and every real Subaru has a lengthwise engine to this day, so it’s completely wrong to do it that way.

  • avatar

    I had one of these – mine was an ’82, with the less-functional trunk instead of the hatchback. Mine was yellow with a brown vinyl interior – I affectionately called it the Piss Yellow Shitbox. But it did get 30+ MPG and was dead reliable, even after 5th gear failed – I continued to drive it at much higher RPMs on the freeway with chunks of metal bouncing around in the gearbox, for almost a year.

    I probably would have kept it longer if I hadn’t moved to California – back then it would have cost me about double what the car was worth to register it in the state, so I just kept driving it on the old tags and let the city keep it when it got towed after they expired.

  • avatar

    Hi there. My name is Henrik lArsen and from Denmark/Euro. Back in the 80’s a grove up on the back seat of a car allmost like this. In Denmark we did not have this hatchback version, but only the 2 and 4 doors. My dad loved this car and we still talk about it once in a while. After years of reschearch I have now Founda a car like this 3 doors hatchback. It need some restauration, but thats Alright. I need some parts for the car, and as the car is rare in Denmark, is it Them by any chance possible that some one could help with parts from this White tercel ? I need to get the car back on the Road for my old dad! Thanks Henrik

  • avatar

    “This would have been like Volkswagen selling a ‘Rabbit Fox’ or Chrysler selling a ‘Dart Colt.\'”

    And South Korea’s Hyundai almost called their first U.S. product offering the “Pony Excel.”


Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • Art Vandelay: Sony makes great phones. They don’t have a carrier deal so they aren’t huge in the US....
  • golden2husky: Fleet use is probably best suited to deal with the shortcomings of recharge times – they...
  • ToolGuy: I am unreasonable and irresponsible. My Porter-Cable 737 corded “Tiger Saw” reciprocating saw...
  • Eaststand: until electric vehicles offer an advantage to IC, no ones buying these novelties en masse. There has to be...
  • loopy55: Here in San Diego the US has its own “border” just before the entry into Mexico. This has license plate...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber