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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, RWD
Location: Bellingham, WA
Odometer reading: 218,000 miles
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.
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.
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.
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?
(Image credits: Facebook/Craigslist sellers)