“Oh man. There are so many different cars in this one car.”
You always hope a car with a bit of its engine sticking out of the hood will produce Motörhead live show-levels of fury when it fires up. This Toyota Tercel does not disappoint. It snaps and barks, hunkered bow-legged on its wide wheels and bolt-on flares. It’s the unlikeliest mongrel: a 1980 Toyota Tercel converted to rear-wheel drive with triple-flicks, a roll-cage, and an engine that goes to 9000 rpm.
A couple of scabby-shinned mountain bikers give us the thumbs up as we pass, clearly favoring the zip tie-ethos of the car.
“I get a lot of people yelling stuff and smiling,” owner Jason Vawter shouts over the echo of the engine in the bare metal cabin, “I can’t actually hear them, so I just assume they’re cheering?”
They absolutely are. I first spotted Vawter’s Tercel parked on the edges of an end-of-year local meet, one that included many a modern or air-cooled 911, a Countach, a Delta Integrale, and all manner of other auto enthusiast catnip. You heard the hum through the crowd constantly. “Have you seen that green thing over there? Wild!”
Obviously, there are many questions to be answered here, such as “What is even happening?” and “Did someone hit their head?” That’s a firm maybe on the last one, as Vawter comes by his automotive enthusiasm via a career in mountain-biking and BMX. A former videographer in those sports, he’s now a family man and a heavy-duty mechanic.
“It kind of started as a joke,” he says. “I do kind of tend to let things get out of hand.”
As a father myself, it’s possible to immediately pick up when someone is a good dad, simply by their willingness to commit to a bit. Overcommit. Full-send on goofball mode, like Bandit from Bluey. Jason Vawter is clearly such a parent, as evidenced by his just-finished creation.
This hilarious and terrifying vehicle took Vawter seven years to build. He inherited the Tercel with a blown gasket from a friend who was moving and couldn’t take it with them. At a casual first glance of the longitudinally-mounted 3A engine, he thought it was rear-wheel drive, like a Corolla from the same era, and figured it would make a fun and easy project. The Tercel soon disappointed on further inspection.
Built between 1978 and 1982, the first generation Tercel is basically the equivalent of the Japanese auto industry going through an awkward phase. Many of the styling cues are straight from the 1970s, but the platform is Toyota’s first front-wheel-drive effort. The layout would come to define the compact Japanese economy car of the 1980s. But also, the Tercel’s 60-hp, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine was mounted longitudinally, rather than the transverse setup used by everything from the original Mini to the Honda Civic.
Vawter’s 1980 model is the facelifted first-generation version that was the earliest sold in the U.S. Paired with a five-speed manual transmission – which also unlocked an extra 2 hp from the engine – performance wasn’t entirely terrible. The car weighed about 1,800 pounds from the factory; heavier than a Civic but not by much. It was a reliable little fuel miser, and the rack-and-pinion steering was decent for the time.
Named after an old term for the smaller male birds of prey favored in falconry – tiercels – the little Toyota quickly gained the nickname “Turtle” from its owners, though not with unkindness. What meager reputation the Tercel has comes from the wedgy and faithful second- or third-generation hatchbacks, which look like slippers for Gundams, or the faintly depressing sedans of the 1990s. Here’s another fun fact for you: The 1996 Toyota Tercel was the last car in the U.S. with a 4-speed manual transmission as standard equipment.
It’s not that the Tercel is entirely unloved – there is a small following for the car in South America – but not enough love for anyone to radically modify one to rear-wheel drive. Vintage Japanese iron isn’t rare in British Columbia, where Vawter and I live; there are about a dozen modified first-generation Civics roaming around, plenty of Datsun 510s, even one of the competition-spec Toyota Corolla TE27s from the old Westwood racing circuit. But you hardly ever see an early Tercel, let alone one with a roll cage, fender flares, and a literal golf-ball shifter and handbrake.
“Well, I had them in the shop,” Vawter says of the Top Flite interior accessories. “The transmission didn’t come with a shift knob, and I needed some way not to cut my hand on the handbrake, so...”
The car as a whole is a blend of trial and error and creative solutions to the problems that come up when doing something no one else has. Some of the parts make sense: The Hilux-sourced rear axle is not uncommon in custom rear-drive builds of Mk. I and Mk. II Escorts. I’ve seen S2000 motors, this one rebuilt from a warranty core, used to power everything from a 1980s Corolla GT-S to a second-gen Ford Cortina. Here, a few clever tricks were used to tame idle on the Honda quad-throttle-body setup, and a tablet provides instrument feedback. Vawter slots his phone above the wheel to serve as an instrument cluster.
The rest of Vawter’s Tercel is a melange of bits of a Ford Mustang and an Infiniti G37, and even the steering rack out of an MR2. For the latter, he initially attempted to repurpose the Tercel rack, but the steering was reversed when it was hooked up. Trial and error, trial and error.
The spirit of the build was originally a rally car, but the intention changed to tarmac and hillclimb. Vawter wants to race his Tercel at the likes of the Knox Mountain hillclimb, but he needs a racing license for that, and first he wants to learn. Ignore the current rubber mounted on those 15-inch wheels — the tires are just a placeholder to get the thing rolling. Some shakedown tweaking is coming. Perhaps an intercom system. Certainly some ear protection is in order.
At a half-ton less than an S2000 but with the same power output, this little green Toyota is only a turtle in the green-mutagen-ooze-exposure sense. It shreds, vibrating with the revs, the kind of internal combustion you feel in your spleen.
Ears ringing, I ask Vawter how he managed to keep pushing forward on this build, despite family commitments and uncharted territory setbacks. He produces a notebook, page after page of small jobs, considered, attempted, sorted. Even with having to scrap larger projects, like a four-link rear end that didn’t work, there was always this chipping away at the goal. A goal that, admittedly, looks slightly unreasonable in the morning light.
Especially for a father of two kids, three and eight. Other responsibilities constantly beckoned. But you can see how Vawter is thrilled to finally have this Toyota-Honda mongrel on the road at last, how he’s just itching to take it racing now that it’s rolling.
It’s a very funny, fierce, and well-executed little car. A joke taken so far that it comes out the other side to raise eyebrows and drop jaws. All driven by the same sort of qualities that make for good parenting. Engagement. Follow-through. Committing to the silliness. It’s how you find joy.