The Camry we consider to the be the first-generation of Toyota’s hugely successful family sedan debuted in Japan 41 years ago today, on March 24, 1982. It almost seems like poetically tragic, seeing as how it came out yesterday that Toyota was killing off the nameplate in Japan. Toyota had big hopes for the model, built on a new front-wheel-drive chassis called the V10 internally, but the Camry never quite caught on in Japan as it did in America.
But wait, didn’t we say yesterday that the Camry had a 43-year run in Japan? That’s because the first Camry was actually an offshoot of the Celica line. The Celica Camry was based on the Carina, with which the Celica shared a platform. In essence, it was a lightly redesigned Carina sedan. It’s confusing, but it all stems from Toyota’s byzantine dealer networks.
The V10 Camry would also have a twin, called the Vista. As it happens, Toyota was also launching a new dealer network at the time called Vista, where the Vista was to be sold. The Camry would be sold at Corolla dealers, and by that we mean actual dealer chain called Corolla, where the Corolla car and the Celica were sold. Phew.
Anyway, the Celica Camry was more of a placeholder, sold for an unusually short span of just two years, from 1980 to 1982. The actual V10 Camry, sans Celica prefix, and Vista followed on this day in 1982. It was the one we in America would recognize as the first generation when it came to our shores in 1983. The V10 was notable for being Toyota’s first transversely mounted front-wheel-drive car (the front-drive Tercel had debuted a few years earlier, but the engine was longitudinal). Its television commercials even made a big deal showing the engine descending into the hood sideways. Thus, the Camry became the template for all successive Camrys and much of Toyota’s modern lineup itself.
Because of its front-drive layout, the Camry boasted more interior volume than Toyota’s popular luxury sedan, the Crown (incidentally, Camry is translated from kanmuri, which means “crown” in Japanese). However, the initial Camry wasn’t a success in the Japanese market. Its styling, both interior and exterior, didn’t resonate with buyers and its cabin seemed rather cheap for Japanese tastes. Overall, customers thought it lacked cachet, something Toyota really focused on addressing on the second-gen Camry.
By contrast, the car became a benchmark for quality and user-friendliness in America. It replaced the rear-drive Corona and hit the market in a sweet spot that lacked any serious competition. Domestic compacts like the Ford Tempo/Mercury Topaz and Chevy Citation and Cavalier couldn’t hold a candle to the Camry, quality-wise. And with buyers still reeling from memories of the 1970s oil crises, its economical 2.0-liter single-cam four-cylinder returned by some estimates over 40 highway mpg. It would be a few years before the Camry became a best-seller in the States, but the V10 helped establish the foothold.
While the Camry continued to be sold in Japan until this year, its Japanese sales were a fraction of its US sales (1.3 million versus 13 million). It’s funny how a car so closely associated with the Toyota brand in America can be an afterthought in Japan. If anything, it proved to Toyota that different markets can have vastly different tastes, and that’s why the Camry will live on in America while it vanishes quietly into oblivion in Japan.