If you want a cheap, rock-and-stick-simple, gas-sipping car that can handle mud and snow without flinching, you’d have a tough time surpassing the 1983-1988 Toyota Tercel 4WD wagon. Known as the Sprinter Carib in Japan, these cartoonish-looking little wagons proved quite popular in North America, despite their tippy handling and patience-building double-digit horsepower, and I still find plenty of them in junkyards to this day. Here’s a first-model-year example with the luxurious (by early-1980s Tercel standards) SR5 top trim level, found in a Denver yard last winter.
I think this must be the lowest-mileage Tercel wagon I’ve ever seen in a car graveyard (most show very impressive final odometer readings, the sort generally matched only by diesel Mercedes-Benzes) averaging just 3,390 miles for each of its 37 years.
Why, then, did someone give up on this intensely practical car? Rust. Always the greatest weakness for Japanese cars of the 1970s and 1980s, corrosion took great bites out of this Tercel over the decades (or maybe it spent just a few years in places like Illinois or Michigan).
Someone tried using a large economy-size barrel of body filler and some nearly-matching paint to cover the worst of the rot, but this never works for very long.
For some reason, even otherwise non-rusty Tercel wagons will get these holes behind the rear license plate frame. I had a couple of California Tercels that developed this problem.
The incredible early-1980s-style brown-and-beige-and-tan plaid upholstery really brings the interior together.
This car’s final owner had at least one very sheddy dog.
The SR5 Tercel 4WD wagons came with the same super-cool inclinometer rig on the dash that went into the much more expensive Land Cruisers. Someone bought this one before I reached this car, but I’ve already got a nice one in my collection.
Automatic transmissions could be had in these wagons, but I can’t recall the last time I saw one with two pedals. The lever behind the gearshift selected between front- and four-wheel-drive, and you would tear up your tires or worse if you drove for long periods on dry pavement in four-wheel-drive mode. Toyota developed the true-AWD All-Trac system a bit later in the decade, and the Corolla All-Trac replaced this car soon after that happened (actually, sales of the Tercel 4WD and Corolla All-Trac overlapped for the first part of 1988).
The engine belonged in the same A family as the wild DOHC screamers that went into the AE86 Corollas and MR2s, but the carbureted, SOHC 3A-C had way more tortoise than hare in its genes. Just 63 horsepower, but you couldn’t kill it. I’ve owned several of these cars, both front- and four-wheel-drive varieties, and they’re really, really slow.
From the era of separate California and “49-state” emissions regulations, this sticker shows that we’re looking at a car not sold new in the Golden State.
You could drive it to the mountains, pick up some snow, and bring the snow back to town for a tasty dessert!
Oh oh oh oh what a feeling!