Photos by Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press
Willy recently rescued this battered 1991 Toyota Camry LE 4WD. Camrys of this vintage are known for their longevity, but the four-wheel-drive version is a rarity.
They say good things come to those who wait, and that was certainly the case with the latest addition to my collection of oddball vehicles.
Back in the spring, I spotted this seemingly mint 1991 Toyota Camry 4WD LE sitting in the parking lot of my friend Josh Labossiere’s restaurant, Cedar & Main Eatery, in our hometown of Oakbank.
The car had no licence plates on it, and truth is, if not for the 4WD badge on the trunk, I likely wouldn’t have given it a second look. But, upon further inspection, my eyes quickly spotted the crunched hood and grille. The rest of the car, however, appeared to be in amazing condition, especially for a nearly 30-year-old second-generation V20 series Toyota Camry — cars known for their legendary reliability, and legendary rust.
Curiosity got the best of me and when I asked Josh about it, he gave me a sly grin and told me a funny story. It turns out Josh’s father, Hubert, who is also a friend of mine, was now the reluctant owner of the Camry. Hubert, who is a real estate agent, had been helping Josh out, making fries in the restaurant. Following a long day in front of the fryer, Hubert apparently didn’t notice an employee had parked her Camry behind him, and he dropped his pickup in reverse and backed into it. Hubert, not wanting to go through insurance, made the young lady an offer she couldn’t refuse, and became the not-so-proud owner of the crunched Camry.
My first bid, made via text, was what is known in the car game as a lowball offer, and Hubert, a shrewd negotiator, declined. Now, before we go on, I just want to add that the burgers at Cedar & Main are exceptional, and I may or may not have stopped there about 17 times last summer. On each visit, I’d also spend some quality time with the Camry, dreaming of the day it would be mine.
Last week, nearly 10 months after placing my initial offer, Hubert accepted. Turns out the Camry was in the way of the snow plow.
That’s when things got interesting. After I cracked open the vault of knowledge that is the internet, it quickly became obvious the little Camry with the 4WD badge on the trunk was essentially a long-lost Japanese jewel. Words like unicorn and uber-unattainable kept popping up in the forums and Facebook groups I searched.
Sure, there’s still a few second-generation Camrys on the road, but the 4WD versions are as rare as hen’s teeth.
In the United States, where Camrys of this vintage were built in Georgetown, Ky., the drive system found in these cars was dubbed All-Trac — a proprietary, full-time symmetric four-wheel-drive system used on a variety of Toyota-badged models from 1988 to 2000. It was considered a revolutionary advance for four-wheel-drive automobiles and its electronic and vacuum controlled locking centre differential was rare in a passenger car. The system originated in Japan under the GT-Four moniker in 1986, but was not released in the U.S. until 1988 under the All-Trac name. Here in Canada, the cars were imported from Japan, and the Canuck versions were dubbed 4WD.
Despite being a great idea for winter climates, 4WD Camrys were never big sellers, perhaps because the option added about $2,000 to a car that sold back then for about $15,000. Even in Canada, the 4WD models only accounted for about five per cent of total Camry sales, and most of them were wagons.
Under the hood, my little Camry sedan features a 2.0-litre inline four-cylinder engine. In addition to the 4WD system, this LE model also features an automatic transmission, air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, locks, mirrors and antenna, a tilt steering wheel and a six-speaker AM/FM stereo complete with a cassette player and a built-in graphic equalizer.
It only has 203,304 kilometres on the clock and has clearly been looked after. The interior is near mint, and aside from the crunched hood and some surface rust on the front fenders, it is in miraculous condition. Stories of these cars going a million kilometres and beyond are all over the internet — so it appears this beauty is barely broken in.
Last Friday night, my buddy Jordan Hutlet and I put a battery in the Camry, and despite sitting for nearly a year, it fired right up and runs like a top. Once we trailered it home, I tested out the 4WD in my driveway and it works like a champ.
Initially I was just going to repair the hood and do the required work to get the Camry back on the road, but after spending some time admiring just how mint it is, I’ve decided to restore it. My buddy John Paslawski is a journeyman auto-body technician — he can swap out the hood and fenders on this classic in his sleep. The front fenders are available new online for $63 each, while a new hood is a whopping $49.
Toyota vehicles of this vintage were overbuilt to the max and are among the best cars and trucks ever manufactured — in countries where rust isn’t an issue they are still a common sight. Finding a nearly rust-free two-tone 4WD model around here is akin to finding a snowman in Arizona.
My hope is to have the Camry ready to roll soon — just gotta order up a few parts and get to work. I’ll make sure to share the final results.
Since you’ve read this far, it’s time to come clean about just how much I paid for this beauty — the grand sum of $300 — or about two tanks of fuel in my Silverado HD.
The joy it will bring me, however, is priceless. Thanks Hubert!
I love what you do for me, Toyota!
Even the interior is in great condition, with options including air-conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise control, a six-speaker AM-FM stereo with cassette player and tilt steering wheel.
If not for the 4WD badge on the trunk of this Camry, Willy likely wouldn’t have even taken a second look at the car.