Toyota Camry (Generation One): The Drive’s Daily Mileage Champion:

Here’s one that survived 31 years in the mountainous Deliverance country of North Georgia.

bySteven Lang|
Toyota News photo

When you think of a Toyota Camry, what comes to mind? 

If you're young, it's probably your parents or grandparents car. What the Impala was back in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Camry is today.  The Camry is a pleasant suburban commuter that usually blends in with the local traffic scenery. 

If you're mature and established (and not old!), it may be your own car. Or you may have traded it in for a Prius, a Corolla, or a RAV4, or something else that's marketed as a modern day version of 'Toyota Vanilla'.

But if you are a middle-aged guy like me who has a mild case of nostalgia for these rolling time warps, it was probably a used car that either you, a friend, or a casual acquaintance owned back in the day.

I'm in that third category - times three. Way way back in 1997 I bought a nearly identical 1986 Toyota Camry LE for all of $500 from a doctor who was simply tired of looking at it

He had already bought a new Camry and wanted to curb his old refrigerator of a car for a newer but equally "meh" version. 

This one drives like a bit of a douchebag in tight nerdy clothes thanks to a prior owner who thought that mufflers were of the devil. 

It drinks. It smokes. It hangs around with the bad boys. The identical LE version I had back in 1997 even hung out on the wrong side of the tracks thanks to my wife's work as a production assistant at a religious TV station that needed cheaper than dirt real estate to stay afloat.   

The 1986 Toyota Camry had two outstanding things going for it. It was engineered by quality nerds and it was easy to maintain. Although when a daily driver hits its 30 years, ease of maintenance is more a matter of what materials are cheap and  at hand. This allowed a 23 year old OCD nutjob to keep one going for nearly 100k miles. 

This Camry is so mind numbingly easy to keep up when it comes to basic maintenance that it's hard to even explain how simple everything was back when safety standards consisted of a working seat belt and tires that weren't bald. 

The oil filter, plugs, and access to all the fluids are right on top, and the drain plugs are just as easy to access underneath. 

This lame duck Camry was also fuel-injected so you could enjoy the open road without having to deal with the carbureted weaknesses of other cars that tried to marry computers with hypersensitive engine management systems that spewed whatever wouldn't burn.    

My 1986 Camry lasted 100k miles before she became pregnant (the wife, not the car) and we quickly ditched it for $2000. By that time, one of her many demands was that I stop being a tightwad and buy a car made in the same decade we lived in.. 

I got lucky with a 1997 Ford Escort SE that I got at an auction which had 35k miles, automatic, and power nothing. That I bought for $5000 and it never missed a lick. No repairs. No quirks. Just gas, oil, and tires.

Beyond the reliability, this generation of the Camry was an outstanding car for people who were either moving up from a compact import, like the Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla, or those folks who were getting burned by domestics that had defect levels up to seven times higher than Toyota and their lean manufacturing system.  

You either had to really hate American cars, or be completely in love with the idea of buying a Toyota to make this first gen model worth your time. But over 150,000 buyers did exactly that. The sales numbers for the first generation Camry tripled between 1983 and 1986, and the sales continued to spiral up nearly every single year for the next 20+ years. Thanks primarily to the long-term reliability of Camrys, and consistent recommendations by Consumer Reports, Toyota became a gold standard of quality that only Honda would rival.   

It would eventually become America incarnate in the Clinton Era. This particular one survived 31 years and 196k miles. Those miles aren't much unless you account for one thing.

This one survived family, college, and the winding mountainous roads of North Georgia for 31 years. For a Reagan era car that's the equivalent of 31 purple hearts. I'm handicapping this longevity by giving her an extra 100,000 miles because frankly, she deserves it. 

She's gonna retire. I'll be using her for local movie shoots that need cars that were made back in the 1980s. I bought it for $300 plus a $65 auction fee and the casting companies typically pay $200 a day for these 1980s cars. So maybe if the duct tape holds up and the car doesn't overheat, I'll be breaking even by day two.  


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