Tercel 4WD repair - what would I be getting myself into?

I’ve been looking for one of these little gems for a long time - why? Because I’m a lunatic. A lunatic with rather cheap taste in 4WD vehicles, apparently. Now I’ve found one for sale by the original owner, an owner who knows all it’s gritty history, and I’m not afraid to take it to a mechanic for the price he’s asking - assuming I wouldn’t have to do (rather, pay to have done) a complete transmission rebuild. My father would be very happy for the advice of those who would know what I’m getting into, since he’d undoubtedly have to rescue me if it stranded me somewhere. Here is the full transcript of the ad, and our accompanying email exchange so far:

The ad:

“ONE OWNER! 1983 Toyota Tercel wagon. This has been an amazing car for our family over these past 25+ years. It has 173,000 miles and still runs well but does need some transmission work. It has new Michelin tires. [contact info deleted]”

my questions:

“Hi there!

We’ve been looking for a Tercel 4WD for a while - we finally settled

for a Camry wagon to tide us over. I would love to buy your car (it

reminds me fondly of the 80’s wagon that was the family car 'til my

sister and I started driving it to school together).

I do want to know what I’m getting into though, so please be brutally

frank about how much transmission work we’re talking about, here.

(My father will thank you, especially. Do you have daughters? If so

you know how this story ends.) I’m not afraid to send a car to the

mechanics for this price, I just want to know if you got an estimate

for the work and said, nah - we’re ready to let go of her now - or if

you just have a sense that’s what is the thing that will go.

Also, since you’ve had her since new, you’ll know if she’s had

regular oil changes and what-all’s been done to her so far, yes?

Just a quick rundown, that’s all I’m looking for, not a master’s thesis.

All if she’s still there, of course.

Best to you,

[my name]”

he replied:

“Hi H[rest of my name],

Thanks for your interest and enjoyable note. Here is my ‘frank’ response:

My wife and I have two boys; ages 20 and 17 (no daughters :O). They have

been sharing the car over the past 4 years. The 20 year old is in college

in Monmouth and has been driving the car on the freeway which has become my


The car runs well, doesn’t burn or leak oil (which has been changed

regularly, usually by me, every ~4,000 miles).

The following are new within the last year to year and a half:





Exhaust system


Here’s the problem - 4-5 weeks ago the car started popping out of 5th gear.

As you reach 50-55mph (3000rpm) and shift into 5th it just pops back into

neutral. If you’re willing to stay under 55 in 4th gear all is well but you

can understand why I don’t want my kid on the freeway with that limitation.

The synchro in downshifting into 1st has also become more difficult. I had

assumed a clutch issue but have been told it may be a ‘gear box’. I’m not a

motor-head and I haven’t had that diagnosed or had a cost estimate done.

As you can tell from the above new stuff, we’ve put more than $1,500 into

the car over the past year+ and frankly have decided it’s time to retire it

in favor of a late model Toyota or Honda that our boys could take long road

trips in.

This car is two years younger than our marriage and it will be a tearful

goodbye. If you decide you’re interested you will no doubt have to put some

$$ into it. But I think it’s got many more miles in it if you do.


C[his name and number deleted]”

So. Bearing in mind that this has been driven by not one, but two teenage boys; that it is clear some transmission work is needed; and the mileage and service history (which I don’t think is bad for this age but may indicate shorter trips in greater number, like around town) - would you buy this car? How much would it cost to repair the slippage?

Call 2-3 junk yards for transmission price it may be best way to go. Get a warrenty.
Rebuilding that one would be best but you start buying gears bearings and other parts it adds up quick plus the only way to find out is to tear it down.

None of the things replaced in the past year and a half are out of the ordinary for a car this age and none suggest any internal problems. Popping ou of 5th could be a simple linkage adjustment. The clutch can be checked by getting it up to 5th and flooring it. If the clutch is shot it’ll slip. And quite frankly you can live without the synchro.

Liek any used vehicle it should be looked at thoroughly by a reputable shop, which you’re going to do anyway, but I think you’ve done your homework, assessed the risks in a clear-headed manner, understand that you’re buying an old car and they will occasionally need repair, have a backup plan (aren’t dads wonderful!) and I see no problem with proceeding as long as the price is fair.

I say go for it!

Sincere best.

Hi again, thanks for your replies!

Okay, my pop just said the same about calling junkyards just now, so I’m getting solid advice here. Good to know y’all agree with the guy who’s my personal AAA driver! Hahahah.

So now I’m left trying to decide what a fair price for a vehicle in this condition would be. I normally look up vehicles on kbb.com, but they only go back 20 years. (Can you believe it? Chumps.) So I looked up the oldest Tercel they offered, and even in ‘fair’ condition, which this is below since it requires transmission work - wouldn’t you agree? but it won’t estimate a value for ‘poor’ condition, I assume because of too many variables - it’s only giving me a value of $500. He’s asking more than that, but seems unsure whether it’s transmission or clutch.

Assuming a tranny is $500, and 1/2 day’s work to have someone install it, I think I’m looking at $1000 bill just to get it to good running condition, which is about what I’d spend for this car, total.

Should I insult him with a lowball offer or not? How do I determine the value of the car as-is? I think he’s driven the showroom price of it and then some, but I doubt he’d just give it to me. Maybe I’m answering my own question here.

If you buy it, you will love it. There is a web site dedicated to this car


The transmission is unique to this vehicle. I got one a few years ago that came from a junkyard in Japan. Getting one rebuilt is very difficult. I tried that route before getting the JDM transmission, it didn’t last very long and it cost nearly twice as much. Having said that, the 5th gear is an external gear and someone may be able to repair it without tearing down the transmission.

By external, I mean that the 5th gear cluster is in a separate compartment forward of the main gears. This was common back when manufacturers were converting from 4 speeds to 5 speeds. This car also has an EL gear available only in 4wd. The repair could be as simple as removing a bolt and replacing a spring that holds the detent ball in place.

It is a true 4wd, not an AWD so it is very good in snow and on ice. It gets very good mileage for a 4wd and the engine is very reliable. A minimum of regular maintenance and it can easily make 300k miles. My first engine went 306k, would have lasted longer if I remembered to check the valve clearance once in a while. On the down side, the engine only makes 62 hp.

Go to the web site above and you find plenty of fellow lunatics.

BTW, go to Youtube and search for Tercel 4wd and you will see some amazing videos.

One last thing, when I got ours, which had been in the family since new, it had 188k on it. I immediately drove it 2000 miles from California. If you don’t buy it, where can I find it.

What, are you crazy? 1983? Get real! This vehicle is 26 years old, and you want to spend money fixing its transmission?


The teenage boys got all there was to be had from this vehicle. It’s not worth putting money into. Find something else.

I wouldn’t take this vehicle if it were free. The cost to repair it is WAY more than it’s worth. And who knows what will fail after you fix the transmission?

Two teenage boys! Think about that.

One just sold on e-bay for $3200. They are still in demand.

May not be the same but this tells how to fix toyota rav4 5th gears without pulling trans