Home » Two Flavors Of Cheap Wagons: 1989 Toyota Camry vs 1979 Datsun 510

Two Flavors Of Cheap Wagons: 1989 Toyota Camry vs 1979 Datsun 510

Sbsd 8 16 2023
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Have you ever heard someone get all excited over a car they found, and just… not get what they see in it? Yeah, I know – sixty percent of what I post on here, right? Well, yesterday morning, it happened to me, and got me thinking: What would I buy instead? Could I do better for the price, or close to it? I think I did, but I’ll let you all decide. But first, let’s see which project you dragged home yesterday:

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Well, hear ye, hear ye–the Heralds take an easy win. I agree; I don’t think it would be much fun to drive that rusty Chevrolet. And I always liked the Herald, especially in convertible form.

Today’s challenge was inspired by a thread on Opposite Lock. User “flatisflat” posted a link to a Toyota Camry wagon on Facebook Marketplace, singing its praises, and several people went nuts over it. As a recent former owner of a Toyota with a bazillion miles on it, I couldn’t see the appeal. Yeah, it’s a wagon, which is more useful than the sedan version, and it’s a manual, which is a welcome sight on any Camry, but it’s still dull as dishwater. But it’s a running, driving car for nine hundred bucks. Could I really do better? I headed for my preferred hunting grounds – Craigslist – and set the search terms for $1000 or less, and manual transmission. How did I do? Let’s take a look.

1989 Toyota Camry DX wagon – $900

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD

Location: Redmond, OR

Odometer reading: 313,000 miles (or more)

Runs/drives? “Drives okay”

It’s easy to forget, because nearly all of the early ones are gone, but the Toyota Camry nameplate is now forty years old. Introduced in 1983 as a modern front-wheel-drive replacement for the Corona, the Camry really hit its stride in 1987 with this second generation, and then proceeded to take over the world. Everybody has some connection to a Toyota Camry somewhere in their past or present. It’s like that Kevin Bacon game, only with a car. You can’t escape it.

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It’s no wonder, then, that these ubiquitous suburban ferries spark some warm fuzzy nostalgia. But nostalgia, as a wise man once said, ain’t what it used to be. Your first girlfriend’s mom may have had a Camry wagon just like this, and seeing it makes you think of her, but that doesn’t mean the car itself is necessarily worthy of your adoration. Toyotas famously “run forever,” but to quote another wise man I may have already quoted here once, that’s a mighty long time. Stuff wears out, even if it still works, and a Toyota with three hundred thousand miles is not a nice car. Besides, it has those motorized seat belts, and nobody is nostalgic about those. They’re like the Windows Me of the automotive world.

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It is, however, still a pretty reliable car, especially with a stickshift. The Toyota 3S-FE four is one of those engines that just runs and runs; feed it a fresh timing belt once in a while, fix a few oil leaks, and it’ll happily keep spinning. Likewise, barring abuse from an overzealous young driver, the five-speed gearbox should last essentially forever with an occasional new clutch, and a fluid drain and fill if you think of it. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the mileage may be considerably higher than listed: the speedometer cable is broken, so the odometer is no longer keeping track.

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So what we have here is a dirt-cheap beater that should get you back and forth to work for a while yet. That is a good and noble thing, and I would never disparage it. But it’s certainly not something I’m going to get all excited about.

1979 Datsun 510 wagon – $1,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, RWD

Location: Bellingham, WA

Odometer reading: 218,000 miles

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Runs/drives? Yep!

Now this, I could get excited about. This is a Datsun 510 wagon, not the cool late ’60s/early ’70s 510, but the later 510, an Americanized version of the Nissan Violet. It’s still a neat little car, still driven by the correct pair of wheels, and still with a slick little overhead cam engine under the hood. This one, like the Camry above, is also a wagon, and also requires you to select your own gear ratio.

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This 510’s L20B engine runs great, but it also includes a spare engine and five-speed gearbox out of another wrecked car, and an extra cylinder head, as well as boxes and boxes of other parts. It also includes an extra full set of nice chrome wheels with tires; the rusty steelies on it now wear winter tires. This is a reliable, durable car to begin with, but with all the extra goodies, you could keep it on the road for a good long time. Or you could try your hand at some modifications: Ever wanted to try porting and polishing a head? Have at it. Want to see what it’s like with a welded diff? Try it, realize that it sucks, and replace it with the un-altered extra diff.

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This car was originally yellow, but now wears mostly primer gray. The seller says that the only significant rust is on the right rear door, which should be reasonably easy to patch up. Once that has been attended to, this looks like the perfect candidate for that Rust-Oleum and foam roller paint job I’ve been hearing about for years – yellow again, of course.

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Inside, it’s scruffy, but functional. The seller has added an aftermarket tach, and it’s probably on its fifth stereo, but other than that it’s ready to party like it’s 1979. Someone tried to steal it a while back, and popped the ignition, so it’s bypassed, but among the many spare parts are two replacement ignition cylinders including keys.

It’s all a matter of opinion, of course, but presented with these two, no way am I bothering with the Camry. I’ll take the rear-wheel-drive option, with plenty of opportunity for tinkering. But what say you, Autopians? Which dirt-cheap wagon are you driving home?

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(Image credits: Facebook/Craigslist sellers)

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Myk El
Myk El
9 months ago

I really expected this to be even more lopsided in favor of the Datsun. It’s totally my jam.

Farty McSprinkles
Farty McSprinkles
10 months ago

How is that Datsun not the only one getting votes? There is no contest for me. I am probably biased, because I grew up working on old Datsun’s with my dad, but it is a RWD manual wagon.

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
10 months ago

Camry should be winning…looks so much better especially the blue…I’m biased though…1st car was an 87 sedan, light blue & ran perfect- that was one of the best cars I ever had…even got it up to the fastest I’ve ever gone- 120mph

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
10 months ago

Mark, are you nuts? I have owned more than a few Toyotas over 50 years. My last truck was show quality with well near 300K. I hope that maybe misinterpreted what I read.
So I got to choose this Toyota. It’s dirt cheap. Easy to work on, and just about a unicorn. And it’s crap enough to do whatever you want to it without feeling like a future collectable is being screw with. And there are probably a shit load of parts available both NOS or DT style.
Actually have experience and PTSD from my Mom’s Datsun.
Now if this was the first generation 510 wagon, or sedan then you’d really have something that could totally kick ass for cheap.
Sorry but this particular Datsun is good for, well let me get back to ya on that…

I want this Camry wagon. And would snatch it up if it wasn’t on the other side of my world. I mean shit, $900 bucks? Sign me up.

Last edited 10 months ago by Col Lingus
Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
10 months ago

Gee most of the bits for a Locost build, and a Datsun 510 wagon thrown in for free? Wish it were a bit closer.

Ricardo
Ricardo
10 months ago

Datsun for me.
In the 90’s I found a nice one unregistered and got it back on the road (with 12 months rego) for $1600. Used it for 6 months and it was fun. Sold it to a friend who then used it for another 4 years as her daily driver until the rust got that back that you could put your hand through the holes and it was getting musty inside from leaking water. Even then a wrecker gave her $500 for it because the engine started on a flick of the key.

Hotdoughnutsnow
Hotdoughnutsnow
10 months ago

I see more potential in the Datsun.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
10 months ago

The Camry for me, I dislike the “fake” 510 plus the Camry is about 15 miles from my house

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
10 months ago

Datsun. RWD wagon that isn’t a land barge! I’m feeling some “whoosh-pew” would go nicely in that engine bay. Nothing crazy but wake it up enough to halve the 0-60. Or find the factory turbo I6 to swap.

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
10 months ago

Mouse belts?!?

Brother Maynard! Bring up the Holy Hand Grenade!

Pie Iesu domine, dona eis requiem

Theotherotter
Theotherotter
10 months ago

A $900 5-speed Camry wagon? Take my money.

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
10 months ago

I had a 1989 Toyota Camry 4-door with this engine/transmission combo. It was one of the most stolen cars in the US for many years running. Once the key and cylinders wore down enough it could be opened and started by any vaguely key shaped object, plus it was worth more in parts than as a runner. Mine was found in the back of a chop shop 18 months after it was stolen. Other than than draining the gas and reinstalling the factory AM/FM radio (CD player was gone), it was none the worse for wear and I drove it for another year until some idiot hit me and totaled it. Automatic seat belts suck, though.

Last edited 10 months ago by MAX FRESH OFF
Dan1101
Dan1101
10 months ago

My first impulse was the Camry, but those automatic seat belts are a deal breaker. Gimme the Datsun.

Gubbin
Gubbin
10 months ago

I’m always gonna pick the Datsun anyway, but I’d rather visit Bellingham than Redmond. And I’ve already ruined my share of Nissan L-series engines so what’s one more?

Mike F.
Mike F.
10 months ago

The Datsun is obviously the better choice for weekend tinkering, but the Camry is the one I’d pick. Basically, I don’t really want/need either of them and assuming there are no unstated significant issues with the Camry (maybe a leap, I know), I’m pretty sure that I could drive it down here, flip it, and double my money.

Beer-light Guidance
Beer-light Guidance
10 months ago

Only one wiper on the back of that Camry. Gotta go with the Datsun.

Cyko9
Cyko9
10 months ago

I’m a 510 fan, and the price is good for all you get, so it got my vote. If I lived in WA, I’d seriously think about it. It’s boring, but ’70s boring, which was better than a lot of overstylized designs. The Camry? I don’t see the deal. The price is good, but maybe at 200k miles it’d be worth it. I guess it looks better than a Corolla wagon.

S13 Sedan
S13 Sedan
10 months ago

This is tough because both are legitimately good deals and if either of them wasn’t on the other side of the country, it’s very likely that one of them would actually end up in my driveway.

I was already set to pick the Datsun but the extra parts was the icing on the cake. It’s nice enough to drive as is but not too nice to where you can’t have fun with it and you already have a decent stock of spares in case something goes wrong. It’s a no brainer here.

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