By on December 14, 2021

The Toyota Camry made leaps and bounds after the model debuted as a sedan sub-variant of the Celica in 1980. The first Camry to stand on its own was the V10, a very boxy four-door on sale for just four years, from 1983 to 1986. In the North American market, the front-drive V10 Camry replaced the rear-drive Corona as Toyota’s compact offering. And though the V10 was designed in part with export markets like North America in mind, its successor the V20 used the North American customer as its starting place.

By the time V20 arrived, the American consumer expected different things from a Japanese car. The V10 was designed during the 1979 oil crisis and was engineered to be as space and fuel-efficient as possible with maximum attention paid to function over form. Skip forward a few years, and Toyota had established itself in North America as a purveyor of reliable and economical cars. The company wanted to head upmarket with the new Camry, and appeal to a larger part of its customer base: Middle America. Toyota also had to outdo its primary domestic competition as those speedy people at Honda released the third-generation (CA) Accord for the 1986 model year.

Toyota assigned the design of the V20 to Seichi Yamauchi, who’d managed the company’s design group since circa 1981 and penned the popular MR2. The V20 Camry was more stylish than the V10 and had a much more polished three-box look, albeit still made up mostly of straight lines. Camry’s looks were similar to the even more conservative rear-drive Cressida, the company’s only luxury car at the time. Compared to the V10, the V20 was nearly four inches longer, slightly wider (66.7 inches versus 66.5), and its roof was half an inch lower. The overall look was more American, and necessarily less faithful to the typical Japanese car as Americans knew it. Quality was improved over its predecessor, as Toyota spent lots more money on hard-wearing materials and improvements in production.

There were three body styles globally, two of which arrived in North America. The standard four-door sedan and its longer station wagon sibling were joined by a four-door pillared hardtop that was not imported. The hardtop was confined to the Japanese market, and served two purposes: It was the replacement for the liftback V10 which was no longer offered, and also served as the most luxurious version of the Camry. In the home market, luxurious Camrys were called Vista, and the line included a standard sedan as well as the much more expensive pillared hardtop. Although the Vista hardtop was very similar looking to the standard sedan, it used entirely different body panels. Toyota renamed the Vista the Camry Prominent in 1989, shortly before the hardtop had its light rework into the failure that was the Lexus ES 250. The Camry wagon was not sold in the Japanese market.

Production of the V20 Camry expanded considerably over its predecessor, which was built solely at the Tsutsumi plant in Toyota City. There was additional large-scale production at the new plant Toyota built specifically for the Camry in Georgetown Kentucky. The plant saw its first cars roll off the line in May 1988 for the 1989 model year. Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, or TMMK, was the first wholly-owned Toyota plant in the United States. Other global production included Port Melbourne in Victoria, Australia, and Chinese production in Zhanjiang, Guangdong. Camry was produced and sold in China as the Xinkai Camry, via a joint venture. Australian-produced cars wore Toyota badging but were also sold at Holden dealerships, where it was called the Apollo.

Though consumers may not have been aware at the time, the V20 used the same platform as the V10. That’s why although Camry grew larger in dimensions, its wheelbase remained the same 102.4 inches. The car’s suspension design was also almost identical from V10 to V20: Both cars used a fully independent setup with coil springs and struts, as well as anti-roll bars front and rear. The rear suspension in the V20 benefitted from the new use of a subframe that improved NVH characteristics. Said subframe was similar to the one Toyota implemented on the fourth-generation Celica in 1986 when the sporty two-door made the swap to front-wheel drive and the new Corona’s platform. The Camry maintained a front disc and rear drum braking setup, though on higher trim cars there were disc brakes at all corners.

In the V10 generation Camry, all engines had four cylinders and were either 1.8 or 2.0 liters displacement. 1.8 liters was also the starting point in the V20, but engine displacements included 2.0-liter mills with four or six cylinders, as well as a 2.5-liter V6, and 2.0-liter inline-four turbodiesel. The 2.5 was the star of the lineup (albeit not the volume seller) and had 24 valves and dual overhead cams. As before, transmissions were four speeds if automatic and five if manual. Notably, the entire engine lineup on the V20 used fuel injection.

For the first and only time in North America, there was a four-wheel-drive Camry in the lineup. Toyota’s proprietary system was called All-Trac and was full-time four-wheel drive. For a short time prior and only in the Japanese market, the system debuted under the moniker GT-Four and was offered on a high-performance ST165 generation Celica. Afterward, it was offered across several models globally between 1988 and 2000. The system was an impressive one from a technical perspective, and there was a locking center differential in addition to the front and rear differentials. The center one was very unusual in a standard passenger car. The system was electronically and vacuum controlled, and the version in the Camry All-Trac was a direct port from the GT-Four Celica. All-Trac was only available with four-cylinder engines and arrived in North American cars for 1988.

The lineup of sedans and wagons in the North American market was divided into (unmarked) base, DX, and LE trims, with the LE All-Trac a sort of rare halo model. The largest 2.5-liter V6 arrived in 1988 as an optional extra on the LE. As TMMK came online, Camry sedans were sourced in ever-greater numbers from Kentucky, while all V20 wagons came from Japan. Changes over the years included a light refresh in 1989 with new one-piece bumpers front and rear. Tail lamps were changed slightly, and a handful of interior trim bits were updated. 1989 saw the arrival of an ABS option, but it was fitted only to LE V6 trims and the All-Trac.

For 1990 there was a rework in the 2.5 V6, which increased horsepower by three to 156. There was another visual refresh in February of 1990, as the Camry wore Toyota’s new Urban Sombrero logo. Other updates alongside the logo included color-keyed door handles and matching grille trim on all trim levels except the base. There was a new interior cloth that was longer traditional Toyota Tweed, and DX and LE cars wore new wheel cover designs.

Camry continued on through the 1991 model year, as its sedans and wagons spread all across North America wearing their new sombreros. TMMK kept the last V20 they made, a white LE V6 with maroon interior, lace alloys, and motorized seat belts. By then the Camry name was very well-established, and Toyota was ready with its full-frontal, high-quality soap bar sedan. The benchmark Camry that defined what a midsize sedan of quality, reliability, and longevity really was: XV20.

Image: 1990 Toyota Camry V6 LEToday’s Rare Ride Icon is a very tasty one. A 1989 Camry in its base trim, with a few optional convenience extras. Air conditioning, power windows, and an automatic are present and functional on this 51,000-mile sedan. In maroon over light brown, even the wheel covers are in as-new condition. Yours in Seattle for $9,750.

[Images: Toyota]

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36 Comments on “Rare Rides Icons: The V20 Toyota Camry...”

  • avatar

    Is that a late-1980’s luggage rack on the trunk that never once held luggage? That almost seemed to be a standard feature on midsized Japanese sedans during that era.

    This, and the Accord from this era cemented Japan’s dominance in this market, and one can argue that that holds true today. You could get a Corsica, or a Tempo, or a LeBaron 5-door, or you could get an ultra-reliable, efficient, comfortable Camry or Accord. And they buyers made themselves known in droves. I recall an old neighbor of mine drove the 2 hours to Columbus, OH to be one of the first to get this model of Camry. Dealers weren’t haggling – it was like buying a Saturn. It’s this much, take it or leave it, and hundreds of thousands of buyers took it.

    As I recall, it wasn’t anything mechanical that removed these from the roads. It was rust. And over 30 years later, every once in awhile, I still see one of these Camrys on the road. They are beat to hell, but still running.

    • 0 avatar

      Camry started U.S. sales in 1983 and didn’t sell over 200K until 1988, 300K in 1994, and 400K in 1998.

      The Chevy Celebrity was topping this and then came Corsica/Beretta.

    • 0 avatar

      The luggage rack was a feature on most sedans of that era. I feel like almost every celebrity and it’s badge mates had one. Don’t really remember them on accords.

  • avatar

    I still see V20s on the road occasionally – I saw a nice clean one just a week or so ago.

  • avatar

    If I owned a Toyota store, i d buy this car and put it in the showroom.

    I had one of this era when my Buick Electra company car died and I rented a Camry. I was floored. Roomy, quiet, comforible. Ladden with features that “surprised and delighted.” I remember getting mid 30s mpg.

    The only thing that was odd was the shoulder belt mouse scamper to my shoulder upon starting the engine.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Good writeup.

    That example for sale is exceptional. Hopefully the next owner will care for it just as well.

    I miss the days of small-displacement V6s, such as the optional 2.5 V6 mentioned in the article. Smooth and low-stress at ~150 HP in the lightweight cars of the 85-00 era, they offered a very satisfying driving experience.

    • 0 avatar

      The 2,600 lbs and v6 was quite the ride back then. I remember coming home from work in my 1988 Beretta GT 2.8l V6 when I came up behind a similar era Camry V6 as I was passing traffic on a two-lane road. Then he would pass and I would follow for over 10-minutes this went on. He would go as fast as he could until he slowed for the next car before making the next pass on the slower traffic. That was until we got on the highway with the Beretta in tow. You should have seen the drop-jaw look on his face when the Beretta rolled by him at triple-digit speeds…hilarious!

  • avatar

    That interior is close to the pinnacle of design for driving. It’s functional first and foremost, with all controls easy to use and all instruments easy to read. Yet the elements are laid out in a harmonious manner, and the shape of each object is pleasing to the eye. The forms and materials are comfortable for people. Technology has moved forward and enabled manufacturers to do different things with car interiors, but too often, they do what they can, without adequate consideration of what they should.

    • 0 avatar

      @SPPPP – very true. That’s on full display right now with that never-ending Tundra video that clogs up the screen. That Tundra dash and layout is a hot mess of screens, odd shapes, hard plastics, and zero form follows function. There’s something that can be said about controls with larger buttons, easy to read instrument panels, and soft touch plastics that lend themselves to a more premium feel. I get that cars are more complicated now with far more features than anyone in 1989 dreamed about, but that still doesn’t excuse the quality of materials being used today.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    At the time I purchased a 3rd generation Accord sedan instead. And stand by that decision Pop-up headlights!

  • avatar

    At that price, we are seeing even pedestrian family cars of Peak Japan taking on collector’s status.

    A ’91 with 210,000 miles makes a regular appearance at our place when its owners rent our Sienna. Champagne-colored, 4-cylinder, immaculate interior. The owner loves it, just doesn’t road trip it anymore. I’m sure he predicts it’ll run forever, and he’s probably right. I told him never let it go, it’s a classic. If I were smarter, I would tell him it’s junk, and make him a low-ball offer!

    • 0 avatar

      “If I were smarter, I would tell him it’s junk, and make him a low-ball offer!”

      Integrity is worth its weight in gold. Not sure if this would work with cars but could you buy a right of first refusal contract with the owner?

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I always saw a bit of an Audi influence in the styling of these V20 Camrys, later to embodied in the Galant and revolutionary Taurus.
    The wagon version of these was more of a rare ride. The next generation 92-96 as well as the Cressida wagon had the dual rear tailgate window wipers. By many accounts they weren’t more effective than just one wiper.

  • avatar

    Wrap me 2, to go

  • avatar

    • I would take a PU11 Maxima over this V20 Camry. (My driveway, my choice.)

    • I have never liked the ‘new’ Toyota logo. (Ask Toyota if they care about my opinion*.)

    *After that, put together a display board with the Toyota, Honda and Hyundai logos [just the shape, not the words, just like we see it on the front of your vehicles] on it. Take it to the local mall (or Target store) and ask a random sampling of 30 adults to identify each logo, unaided (no cues). Then ask yourself if I’m as clueless as you thought. [Answer: Yes.]

    • 0 avatar

      “I would take a PU11 Maxima over this V20 Camry.”

      A bold choice.

    • 0 avatar

      You so critical. I would take one of each. + 1992 Accord. And Mazda929

    • 0 avatar

      @ToolGuy – What, you don’t like the bean-wearing-a-sombrero logo? I’ll bet you don’t like the stupid pop-up video of that bean-wearing-a-sombrero vehicle that’s been polluting this site for the last several days either.

      • 0 avatar

        Mmmmm… beans. I sometimes prepare ‘Mexican’ food at home. Here is the breakdown of my plate:
        • Under the last administration: 50% Chimichanga, 25% Refried beans, 25% ‘Spanish’ rice
        • Last week: 50% ‘Spanish’ rice, 25% Refried beans, 25% Chimichanga

        My sincere apologies for:
        I) The potentially inflammatory language in this post
        II) Me dwelling on an issue [“Inflation” – shhhhh] which is clearly a) Transitory and b) Completely Unrelated to Any Government Action

        • 0 avatar

          yes I’m sure you’re down to eating rice and beans because trump lost the election, Jesus H Tap Dancin Christ…get a grip

          • 0 avatar

            As explained, I was already eating rice and beans (and some meat) – the rice % has increased (doubled). Absolutely true – you want pictures?

            Dollar Tree is going from $1 to $1.25 (plus a new section with ‘Five Below’-style pricing).
            $1.25/$1 = 25% increase! (Oorah)

            Two questions, JD-Shifty:
            a) You teaching religion now? (Interesting venue if so)
            b) Do you ever post an original thought, or just snipe on others?

  • avatar

    I owned à blue Station Wagon like your first picture. It was very difficult to find a manual transmission. It was the first year of production. I remember Car and Driver writing this cas was like a BMW…
    A lot of space, exceptionnaly good front seats, relatively powerful, but lack of precise handling.
    A lot of premature rust on the rear. Toyota was very reluctant to pay for a repair on my two years old car. I traded It for a Passat next year.

    I live in Quebec and during an holiday in Victoria BC six years alter, I saw my old car with my old stickers on the windsheeld. What a surprise! But the car was completely rusted.

  • avatar

    Damn. If that Camry had a V6 I’d be seriously tempted to pick it up.

    I agree with the couple of comments above saying that the third-gen Accord was a more appealing car overall, but the V6 was a more appealing engine than the Accord offered. The base carbureted engine in the Accord (which my LX had) was a complete turd. The fuel-injected engine in the LXi was substantially better, and competitive with Toyota’s four, but still not in the same league as the 2.5 V6.

  • avatar

    When I first met her in ’97, my ex-wife was driving a very rare ’90 V20 Camry. Base trim, 5-speed manual, no A/C. It was the dealer’s “Bait-snd-Switch” car – GET A NEW CAMRY FOR $9999! (vs. an MSRP of $11,500)

    She never changed the cam belt, because no one told her to, and that car went 180k until it died in a wreck while her son was driving it.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I always liked this generation of Camry. Corey you could do a whole series on the Camry and one on the Accord both such great cars with an interesting history. My wife had a 77 Accord hatch CVCC with 5 speed manual and a manual choke for over 17 years. Her Honda was a great handling car and got 40 mpgs. The tin worm finally got it but I still miss that car.

    • 0 avatar

      I may cover the equivalent Accord next!

      • 0 avatar

        @Corey Lewis – that would be an interesting read. It has such a long history in the US, and you still see 30 year old Accords with the robo-belts still driving around. Peak Honda, hands down. There’s how they set up shop in Marysville when other Japanese automakers were still only building in Japan, the cars being built so well that GM bought Accords (and Camrys) for the sole purpose of tearing them apart to see what made them last so long and run so well, and how Honda pounced and had the battle to the death between Accord and Camry after Ford dropped the ball on the 1996 Taurus and was really only making their numbers through fleet sales, cheap leases, and tons of cash on the hood.

        I’ll vote for a series on the Accord – there’s plenty of history for a few articles.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    Oh the memories, my schoolteacher aunt has only owned 3 cars her entire life. She got a later start moving from Italy to NYC , then to MO.
    Her 1st was a new Corolla 4dr, blue/blue , her 2nd was a copper/tan v20(just like the interior in the FS link) . She basically gave it away to wife’s sister in 2008 for their 16 year old to drive.There was no rust on it as she didn’t want to drive in inclement weather . It was in such good shape his dad wanted to keep it for himself, but his wife new he’d eventually trash it so their son got it.It had less than 100k on it and it was unfortunately rear ended before he graduated HS.Everything was still working including A/C
    The insurance company totaled it and he finished HS in a 2000ish Taurus that was considerably more troublesome to keep running.

    My aunt replaced her Camry with…another Camry.2008 Grey /grey that she still is driving today. I’m the reason she sold her v20 , you know, because of airbags and ABS.
    I guess Toyota got the whole Midwest marketing right.

  • avatar

    The one that comes to my mind when thinking ‘Camry’ is still the V20, even though the XV10 sold FAR more, and I still see metric craptons of those on the road.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    The paragraph on the Vista and Camry Prominent isn’t quite right.

    The V10 Camry proper was offered as a sedan at the Corolla Store, while the very similar Vista was offered as a sedan and hardtop at the Vista Store. All of these were 4-cylinder cars (either gas or diesel). The Camry Prominent introduced the hardtop body and 1VZ V6 to the Corolla Store lineup. The Vista continued, but did not get a V6 option.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    @theflyersfan–Agree about Corey writing a series on the Accord and I would like to see a series on the Camry and a series on the history of both Honda and Toyota. Toyota started out making looms for the textile industry. Honda’s founder modified Model As to make them faster.

  • avatar

    My folks had one of these, an 88 or 89 model, white with the maroon interior, 4 cylinder, auto, lace alloys. I thought it was a good looking car and pretty good to drive.

    Then they got a 91 Accord EX which just blew the Toyota out of the water. Such a better car. That Accord was reputed to still be alive and well, or running at least, as of 2 or 3 years ago.

  • avatar

    I have your next Rare Ride.

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