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Video | Here's Why the 1990s Toyota Camry Lives Forever

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author photo by Tyler Hoover May 2018

The all-new Toyota Camry is quite a wonder. The best-selling car in America is now producing up to 301 horsepower, and it's styled look like a futuristic Storm Trooper -- but I don't think this is the Camry we should be talking about. Why have we accepted, without any fanfare, that a Camry from the 1990s will run forever? Why are so many of these cars still on the road, after two decades?

To find the answer, I borrowed a 1994 Toyota Camry Coupe from a friend's dealership, Euroasian Auto Inc. in Wichita, Kansas. I embarked on this journey not only because it's the nicest car anybody is willing to loan me anymore, but also because I was genuinely curious why these are so special. The coupe body is actually pretty rare, as only 2 to 3 percent of all Camry production was coupes, and the coupes were made for just a few years. Personally, I love the 1990s-period gold emblems on this car, which were a $599 factory option (many were dealer installed, as well) reportedly plated in real 24-karat gold. These emblems came with their own 3-year warranty, as well as an instructional guide on how to care for the finish. Don't feel tempted to steal these emblems, though, as the badge was made from plastic, then dipped in pewter before getting a very thin (and almost worthless) amount of gold plating.

Gold emblems obviously didn't make this car last forever -- and I imagine many people think an old Camry is a common sight today simply because so many of them were built. While it's true that a huge amount of Camrys were sold in the 1990s, it wasn't the best-selling car in America yet. In 1994, Toyota sold an impressive 319,000 Camry units, but that figure was soundly beaten by the Ford Taurus, which sold 368,000 units. In 2018, spotting an old Robocop-style Taurus is pretty rare -- while playing slug bug with an old Camry would put you in the hospital. Clearly, there's more to the Camry's longevity than sheer numbers.

The high quality of Japanese products in general is another obvious answer -- but this trait isn't necessarily born from the methodical influences of Buddhism or Zen, but rather out of geographic necessity. Being on an island with limited resources, and limited space to hold large amounts inventory, Toyota was an early adopter of the just-in-time manufacturing process on a large scale, the practice of supplying parts and materials as needed, rather than ordering components in bulk to assemble at a later date. Not only does this cut down on inventory and waste, but it also greatly improves quality, as changes can be made quickly if any defects are discovered -- and thus, any defects would affect fewer vehicles. While this generation of Camry was the first to be assembled in the United States, these same practices were carried over.

This manufacturing technique continues to this day, and modern Toyota models still regularly top quality surveys -- but these new offerings are way more complicated than the 1990s Camry. The simplicity of this car, with fewer parts that can fail, is another big factor that keeps an old Camry going. Toyota was never known to be a company that takes many engineering risks, tending to keep with simple, proven technology -- and Toyota greatly benefited from the trial and error of European cars to figure out new gadgets. The most famous example of this behavior involves the birth of Lexus, Toyota's luxury car brand. The original flagship Lexus LS400 was born from reverse engineering an old Mercedes S-Class, among other European rivals -- and it was a massive success.

This simplicity also means parts are ridiculously cheap, and repairs are very easy. The only thing broken on the Camry I drove was an interior door handle, which is available for purchase online for only $4.00. People complain about having to do a timing belt every 100,000 miles, but a reasonable shop would only charge $500 for this easy job. Skipping a timing belt isn't the end of the world, anyway, as these are noninterference motors -- so there's no catastrophic failure if a belt were to snap. If someone managed to actually kill one of these engines, a used replacement from a junkyard is approximately $300, and a used transmission is about $200. So even though these cars are really cheap to buy, there's nothing expensive enough to mechanically total the car. Since it's so cheap to fix, it makes sense financially to keep fixing them.

Even with cheap repairs, for a Camry to live forever also requires an owner that wants to keep it forever. The key difference between this Camry and previous models is how modern it feels. The body of the third-generation Camry was widened, the ride quality was greatly improved and the entire thing was generally much better insulated than previous generations. The conservative styling has aged well enough that you're not embarrassed to be seen in an old Camry, and I found the thick foam seats to be way more comfortable than the firmer seats in the modern Camry. The ride quality also feels more luxurious and comfortable than a modern Camry, which is trying to go sportier, resulting in a much harsher suspension. So it's easy to see why someone doesn't feel the need to upgrade from their old beater.

Really, there's nothing magical about the 1990s Camry. It's just a simple, well-built car that's very cheap to maintain and doesn't feel dated. Given how complicated modern cars have gotten, this formula for invincibility isn't possible anymore. So the next time you see a beige 1990s Camry, give it a little nod of appreciation -- and another nod when you see an identical one 30 seconds later.

Tyler Hoover went broke after 10 years in the car business and now sells hamburgers to support his fleet of needy cars. He lives in Wichita, Kansas.

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Video | Here's Why the 1990s Toyota Camry Lives Forever - Autotrader