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Sport Rally 5-Speed: 1981 Toyota Tercel SR5

When I started this gig for Barn Finds, I never thought that I would be covering the likes of a Toyota Tercel, not that there’s anything wrong with that…It’s just not the stock-in-trade that comprises a lot of what is featured here. And I’m no stranger to Toyota, I’ve owned several, but admittedly, not in recent times. I have good friends, a couple actually, that bought a Tercel in ’81 and I have always wondered what motivated them to make that purchase. Well, now I can examine, objectively, just such an example and see what’s up – though we are now 39 years after the fact. This Toyota is located in Spokane, Washington, and is available, here on eBay, for a current bid of $1,150, four bids tendered so far. Thanks to Quinn for this unusual tip!

The Toyota Tercel, or トヨタ・ターセル, as it is known in Japanese, was a sub-compact car produced between 1978 and 1999 and supposedly the name Tercel is derived from the Latin word for one third, as in it is smaller than a compact car, but obviously, not a third of the size. My how times have changed in the U.S., today we pretty much start at five thirds and work our way up. Anyway, this Tercel is a member of the second generation (’82 to ’86) and was offered in two-door hatchback, four-door sedan and station wagon body styles. There were various different mechanical and safety versions produced based on the intended destinations of Japan, Western Europe, or the U.S.

This Tercel example is an SR5 model that adds a bit of sportiness to the rather staid image but it is not a performance enhancer in his case. According to SR5 added the side stripe, alloy wheels, tachometer, FM stereo, a sunroof, pop-out quarter windows, simulated leather coverings for the three-spoke steering wheel, and shift knob; things of that nature. So how has this 115K mile example fared? Pretty well actually. It has the usual scrapes and dings, there is a broken passenger side turn signal lens, the white finish is flat, the windshield reveal molding is coming undone, the flat black trim is faded and the black rubber trim, bumpers, and what have you, are starting to degrade, all typical for a car nearing its 40th birthday. This car still presents well and while I wouldn’t think of white-stripe tires in concert with a Tercel, they seem to work, and they and the brake pads are claimed to be new.

This Tercel is a front-wheel-drive arrangement but the engine is longitudinally mounted as opposed to the more commonly found transverse alignment. It is a 63 HP, 1.5 liter, in-line four-cylinder engine connected to a five-speed manual transaxle – hardly a world-beater but adequate in this case. The seller adds, “Brand new Redline Weber carburetor,  spark plugs, fuel filter, air filter, and oil change. Comes with a new timing belt and water pump, spare oil filter, and original carburetor.”  He doesn’t elaborate much about its operating prowess other than to say, “runs excellent“, but does suggest that this Tercel could use a new battery and a clutch replacement – a potential ouch cost-wise. He also references a front-end shake at 35 MPH which could be a number of things. Note the blue firewall and fender channels, perhaps a repaint from blue to white?

As I recall my friend’s Tercel was fairly roomy for being a sub-compact – hardly commodious but not a torture chamber as some sub-compacts are for those that are long-legged. The interior screams early ’80s Toyota, the color, upholstery, and door hardware (plasticware?) has similarities to a Celica that I owned years ago. The interior looks tired but it is not, yet, worn out. I’m not sure what’s up with the backseat, the bottom rest shouldn’t be tan.

There is nothing here surprising, it is about what one would expect and has probably held up considerably better than many circa 1981 domestic auto fans thought a Japanese compact would. The mileage is of no concern for a Toyota engine that has been properly maintained. The verdict is that these were competent, reliable, and reasonably priced small cars, just what many first-time buyers were looking for in ’81. Concerns here? Primarily the clutch, being FWD, I doubt it’s a simple as yanking the Muncie four-speed and clutch out of a ’67 442 while it is perched, straddling the street and the curb – done that and it’s not too bad. While the current bid is reasonable, I’m not certain what the market for a Tercel would be. A RWD Celica or Supra, sure, but a 39-year-old, unremarkable, FWD subcompact? It’s probably limited. What do you think, who would be most likely to make this acquisition and why?


  1. Al_Bundy Member

    Shared my comments about the life and death of my ’72 Mercury Comet GT. My first ticket came in an ’81 Tercel with a female friend. Her brothers car… Had my license two weeks and was learning standard shift. Loved shifting and drifting so much, I got nailed for 61 mph in a 40 zone ! Honestly was,not trying to speed. Besides that, this was a super easy car to learn on. Oh what a feeling !(Toyota ad campaign lol). Love the write up. Honest accounts of good times.

    Like 1
    • Des Member

      I learned to drive stick on this exact car in 1983, my brother’s. His had black interior.

      Like 1
  2. Moncton(was Winnipeg)carnut Member

    I took Driver’s Education on a 1981 Tercel hatchback 4 speed. March 1983. Easy to learn on. Not really capable enough to get in trouble with.

    Like 2
  3. alphasud Member

    Basic transportation of the times. These cars were invisible to me the same way the basic washer and dryer were in the basement or laundry room. You depended on them to get the job done. I seem to remember the engines were not as robust as other Toyota’s offerings or it could have been they type of customer who bought one was frugal and didn’t maintain them.

    Like 1
  4. Howard A Member

    Another Asian car made of tissue paper. I remember, they were popular for a spell, but I think these were the fastest rusting Asian cars ever, and turned many people off. They did one thing well, got super gas mileage, but in true early Asian car fashion, had lousy seats, poor heaters, paper thin doors with poor door latches and window controls,, let’s just say Toyota came a long way after this car. Amazing to see one at all.

    Like 4
  5. chrlsful

    got one back of the shop that will B moved into the race trailer for the winter soon. Equipped w/the tacoma & turbo duz 9 sec in the 1320 w/700HP. It is older than this one having a metal frame around the window (the 60 series, 2nd gen) 1978/84, named starlette…

    Like 4
    • Bhowe Member

      Starlet was a different model entirely. Starlet was rwd. Tercel front wheel drive

  6. Royal

    This car was initially blue as evidenced by the door wells and under the hood

    Like 3
  7. CJinSD

    I’m not sure how easy replacing the clutch is, but I read the Car and Driver introductory review of this Corolla Tercel just other day. Toyota chose the longitudinal engine placement in order to make servicing for the LONG lifespan of these cars economical. My grandparents first two Toyotas were Tercels. They lived in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Rust ate their Nova, Duster and Omni just as fast as it consumed their Tercels. The only difference was that the Tercels didn’t break down and always started in the bitter cold.

    Like 4
    • Jim

      Actually, replacing the clutch in this Tercel is not that bad a deal if one is somewhat familiar with the car. If it is not the 4wd model, it is even simpler. Done a bunch of them back in “the day” when I was a Toyota tech. Believe it or not, it can be done without completely removing the transmission from the car.

      Like 1
  8. Jim

    Love seeing these cars on Barn Finds. These are the cars that no one thought a thing of when they filled the streets. Today, Mustangs are plentiful, but these type of vehicles are seldom seen. Keep doing more “utilitarian” cars… it.

    Like 3
  9. Dan D

    When I was looking to purchase my first new car in late 1981, this was the car I really wanted. However, it was a bit more than I could afford at the time, and finding a manual transmission was difficult (my one non-negotiable item) so I ended up with a Dodge Colt with the 4X2 transmission. Loved that car. Glad I purchased that one.

  10. Car Nut Tacoma

    Nice looking car. Although I was too young to drive a car at the time, I remember first seeing a Toyota Tercel. At the time, I didn’t find it as attractive as the Corolla Liftback of the same vintage, or the more upscale Corona and Cressida.

  11. 370zpp 370zpp Member

    This. is by my definition a Survivor. Sure back then they were prone to rust, and were almost a completely different scale (paper thin doors, etc.) of automobile – compared to what Detroit was making at the time. But with a little bit of finesse and care, these were actually great little cars. And this one might still be.

  12. Jaker76

    Had a 1980 model as my get around town car back in the mid 80’s. Great driver, altho I ditched the 12″ tires and installed 14″ from another Toyota from a junk yard and loved this little car! Even at freeway speeds it got 40+ mpg. Had several friends search out used ones as they were perfect for running around a city, ease of parking and cheap to operate! Actually if a person is mechanically inclined the clutch is not a big deal to replace, we did mine but won’t share the trick, once you have done one you know what it is! Had a person wreck me and that was it for this little jewel! some questions on this one but if just looking for a small around town car, these are the berries!

  13. Gary B

    Just wanted to add this is actually a first generation Tercel hatchback. You had the model years right for the generations, but then somehow didn’t notice this was a 1981. As I was just getting my license back in ’81 I would see these everywhere in the PNW. I think for the first generation like this it was just a choice of a 2-door sedan or this hatch, which was the deluxe version, SR5 or not.

  14. Christopher Gentry

    Love it

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