I know these sort of “listicle” articles (the name is from a portmanteau of “list” and “testicle”) are often derided as internet filler-crap, but I have to be honest: sometimes, they’re just right. And I think now is one of those times, because I want to tell you some interesting things about the first-generation Toyota Tercel 4WD wagon, but I don’t necessarily want to do a huge deep-dive, at least not now. I just want to make you a nice sandwich, not a full dinner, because it’s Friday afternoon and, full disclosure, I have yet to write any Trivia Night questions. So, indulge me, please, and let’s just consider this handful of fascinating things about this wonderfully peculiar car.
The First Thing: Badging On The Inside Only Visible From The Outside
Look at this; I’m pretty sure this is the only car ever made (I’ll likely get proven wrong with that, but certainly the only mass-market car made, at least) that has badging designed for exterior viewing but is mounted or installed on the inside of the car. In this case, the TOYOTA logo is molded into the plastic trim in the cargo area, but on the outer surface, and can only be seen through the cargo area window, from outside the car.
It’s already strange to block window area with plastic as it is – why have a bigger piece of glass if you’re just going to block the lower two inches of it? It’s such a strange design choice, and makes this one of the few cars that can lose some of its identifying badging if the windows are dirty.
The Second Thing: It Had A Styling Element Nicknamed The ATM On The Back
This was always the first thing I noticed about these Tercel 4WD wagons: the deeply strange and wonderful and clunky styling decision to incorporate license plate, tailgate handle, and reverse lamp into the largest chunk of gray plastic Toyota’s advanced manufacturing might was capable of producing. I mean, look at this thing:
It’s amazing, right? People called it the ATM because it was about the size and felt like a wall-mounted automated teller machine. Replace the license plate with a little green-phosphor CRT monitor and stick a little keypad on there and boom, it’s an ’80s ATM, except it has no money to give out, which, if I’m honest, was my usual experience with ATMs in the ’80s.
You can see there were US/Japan-spec versions with a shorter plate and a bigger handle area and a wider-license-plate-area Euro-spec one that also incorporated a rear foglamp. I don’t know exactly why I like this so much, but there’s something about the wonderfully ham-fisted way it conveys “ruggedness” by making these normally afterthought-level car design elements into this huge, robust thing that looks like a military grade unit called a 2709-A Rear Identification Tag Housing with Integrated Rearward Travel Illumination System, or something.
Also, for something that big and bulky, how the hell did they not incorporate that little locking knob into it? That’s ridiculous!
Thing The Third: The Engine Layout Of These Tercels Is Way Weirder Than You’d Think
So, the thing about Toyota that you likely know is that they tend to be a very conservative company, technologically. They usually are late to most industry-wide advancements because they don’t want to do anything until they know it works well. That’s why they were one of the last major automakers to embrace transverse engines and FWD, or, really FWD at all. In fact, the Tercel was their first mass-production FWD car, and they didn’t even feel ready to do a transverse FWD setup, so they hedged their bets and made the Tercel a longitudinal FWD layout.
This is hardly the most common FWD setup, but it’s by no means unheard of. Cord was doing it very early on, and Citroën has been doing it this way since the 1930s, and companies like Auto Union (and then later as Audi) have been doing it, too. Oh, and Saab, of course. But almost all of these companies would either have the transmission ahead of the engine, or mount the engine well ahead of the transmission.
Toyota looked to a much more obscure source for how they pulled this off: Triumph.
Yep, Triumph. The Triumph 1300, in fact, which had a longitudinal engine and a transmission shoved in below the engine with the power taken off the front of the transmission, below the engine’s sump. It was weird; there’s a great article about it here, and how it influenced Toyota.
The result for Toyota’s first FWD car was that odd sort of squiggle-shaped drivetrain you see up there. One plus of this strange layout was that it made taking power to the back wheels relatively easy, as you can see behind that engine diagram, with an extra driveshaft off the back of the transmission to a differential at the rear. This let the Tercel 4WD switch from FWD to 4WD pretty easily. It’s still just strange.
The Fourth Thing: These Things Had A Granny Gear!
How did I not know about this before? You know what a granny gear is, right? It’s an ultra-low sub-first gear used for things like towing stuff or pulling an obstinate yak out of your garden. I have one on my old Ford F-150, and that’s the sort of context you expect these things to exist in. On a little Japanese economy wagon? Not so much. And yet here it is, an ultra-low gear to help that perhaps underpowered 63 horsepower engine get your little wagon through mud bogs or deep sand or whatever. It was called EL (extra low) in the Tercel, and could only be engaged in 4WD mode, I guess to keep people from laying rubber at every stoplight.
Finally, The Fifth: They Plopped One Of These On A Real Iceberg For Ads And Some Other Stuff
From what I’ve heard, the iceberg you see in the ad above is a real iceberg off the Alaskan coast, and it sank alarmingly when the Tercel was placed on it, via helicopter. For whatever reason, Toyota had some real iceberg mania at the time, and even shot ads with the regular front wheel drive, not intended for off-road use Tercel on, if not the same iceberg, something quite similar:
Why? I’m not sure. Was it just because of the “tip of the iceberg” tagline, or did that just come after it was established that whomever was in charge of these ads had a major iceberg kink? I have no idea.
Oh, speaking of wintry ads, here’s one for the Japanese market version of the car, which was called the Sprinter Carib over there, and “Carib” was not short for “Caribbean,” but rather “caribou.”
Also, that’s an absolutely absurd amount of effort to make a shitty yet literal sno-cone. Just eat some ice cream, dummies!
Oh, and the Tercel 4WD had some fantastic lumberjack-plaid seats and the same inclinometer unit that Toyota put on the Land Cruisers!
There! Now we all appreciate these peculiar boxy beasts just a bit more than we did before, don’t we? If so, then I have done my job here. Go in peace.