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Driving a 1989 Toyota Cressida wagon with fewer than 28,000km on the clock

Brenwin Naidu Motoring editor, reporter and presenter
The Cressida, even in wagon guise, is instantly recognisable.
The Cressida, even in wagon guise, is instantly recognisable.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

You’re probably not going to see a Toyota Cressida among the displays at a swanky concourse d’elegance event any time soon. Unless, of course, the one that shuttled Madiba from Victor Verster prison that fateful day is found and verified as genuine.   

Even then, the appeal of the vehicle in that case would be rooted in its role during a major historical moment, not because the Cressida boasted amazing technical credentials or was built in limited numbers. It was a mass-produced square sedan without an inkling of exotic pedigree, designed to transport archetypal suburban families and travelling salespeople.

Ordinary as it was in its heyday, there are many devoted fans who would value a tidy Cressida of any year as superior to the average modern sports saloon. You might recall not long ago one was listed for sale at a used car dealership for more than R1m. Grossly unrealistic. But the interest it generated certainly did wonders for the brand-building efforts of the seller, in addition to fuelling the Cressida mystique. You would be forgiven for wondering: Is the humble Toyota going to see trajectories akin to the BMW E30 or air-cooled Porsche breeds?  

A rear commodious enough for various loads.
A rear commodious enough for various loads.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

If that is the case, I am in the company of rolling gold on a mild Friday morning behind the wheel of a real time-capsule example. The odometer shows 27,272km and the condition certainly attests to this. It is a 2.4 GL station wagon from 1989 in pristine white, with grey-blue upholstery that looks as fresh as it did the day it left the Prospecton, KwaZulu-Natal factory. Being in its presence is a huge novelty, prompting bouts of nostalgia as motoring artefacts from yesteryear tend to do.    

Before we get onto the drive, we should talk origins. A Wikipedia search tells us the Cressida (a title borrowed from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida) traces its lineage back to the Corona Mark II. The Mark II was introduced to the Japanese market in 1968, positioned below the high-end Toyota Crown and above the regular Corona, which first launched in 1957.  

When the third-generation Mark II came around 1976, it was decided the model would be exported to other countries under the Cressida title. In 1977 it was launched in SA and would remain over three iterations, until the model was succeeded by the Camry in 1992. As we know, the Camry is yet another subject of idolisation among a large group of motorists.  

The odometer of our tester from the Toyota SA heritage fleet.
The odometer of our tester from the Toyota SA heritage fleet.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

By the time Cressida production ended in 1993, a total of 200,000 units had been recorded. Meanwhile, 67,000 units of the Camry would find homes by the time the nameplate was retired locally in 2006. According to Roger Houghton, public relations manager for Toyota SA from 1988 to 2007, the reason for the lower sales figures achieved by Camry was due to competition from the likes of the BMW 3-Series (E36) and Mercedes-Benz C-Class (W202). Because they were built locally, the manufacturers were able to price them competitively. Houghton was also responsible for the book 50 Years by Your Side which commemorated five decades of Toyota in the country.

Examples of the Cressida spotted in the wild today are more often than not battle-hardened, with body scars, missing trim and other hints to a life well lived. And they are still going. On the other hand, our particular car appears to have been pampered (and hardly used) from day one. It is an original specimen, belonging to Toyota SA. From chrome embellishments, to side mouldings, twin rear wipers and amber indicator lenses, it is all there. So too is a folder of documentation, including the original sale invoice.

Unblemished dashboard and clean woven upholstery.
Unblemished dashboard and clean woven upholstery.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

The only modifications are an amusing rear window sticker ("This is a getaway car"), a radio with a tape deck that appears to be of slightly newer vintage and alloys from the 3.0-litre sedan in place of the steel wheels with covers. If it had been used for a getaway, it was probably of a leisurely, recreational nature, not one that involved a hit on an armoured cash truck.   

For a car more than three decades old, our Cressida idles with surprising quietness, relatively free of vibrations. Photographer Waldo Swiegers quips this must have been the "middle-class Mercedes-Benz" of the day. An observation that is not far-fetched. If budget could not stretch to a 230 TE, the understated, well-built Cressida wagon would have done the job just as well. A price guide in Wiel magazine of October 1987 has the Cressida 2.4 GL wagon listed at R27,875. By January 1991, it cost R41,700 new. The 2.4 GLE version went for R46,390, compared to a 230 TE, which cost R118,966 then.  

The tactility of the five-speed lever feels quite familiar to that of an early 1980s Corolla E70 1.3 GL we drove last year. Instrumentation is basic by 2022 standards, but the fitment of warning lights panel must have been a trump card in its day. Vinyl-clad door sills, manual windows and integrated ashtrays are charming fixtures of a bygone era.  

Our car sported alloys instead of the basic steel wheels with covers.
Our car sported alloys instead of the basic steel wheels with covers.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Very gingerly, I nose the time warp wagon out of a busy corner at Toyota HQ. The biting point of the clutch is quite low, but defined. I take the slope of the exit sideways as I would have done in something ground-hugging, just to be extra cautious.   

The Toyota R-engine family was ubiquitous in various applications, including the Hilux. The engine tag of the Cressida is stamped 22R-2366: a carburettor-fed petrol unit with a 2,366cc displacement and four cylinders. The acoustics are best described as industrial as the 72kW/174Nm unit hustles along a mass of 1,730kg (excluding myself, lensman Swiegers and his gear).   

Straight, unfussed lines: a hallmark of designs from the era.
Straight, unfussed lines: a hallmark of designs from the era.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Of course, I am driving with extreme mechanical sympathy, not hurrying the Cressida along by any means. An uncle in a Honda Jazz is following closer than I am comfortable with, clearly intrigued by the old generation yellow registration plate on the tailgate. He pulls up alongside and gives a reverential thumbs-up. A Cressida – especially one in such condition – commands a certain level of esteem. Like a community elder with an irreproachable reputation.

With power-steering, air-conditioning, a clutch that is easy to modulate and a gearbox that does not require much wrist strength, this Cressida wagon would be easy to live with in 2022. Parallel parking might be a struggle, given the length. Spare a thought for owners back then who would have done it despite the obstruction of aftermarket window louvres (or a coffin in the rear, as the account below explains).   

AS IT WAS THEN  

Legendary SA motoring journalist Stuart Johnston recalls first-hand his experience with the Cressida wagon when it was new.

It should have been just another road test, but in the spring of 1989 Car magazine published a road test I had written on a Toyota Cressida 2,4 GLE station wagon. The report was quite critical as far as the handling of the wagon was concerned, and it was noted “overtaking can be a particularly attention-grabbing manoeuvre until you are used to the sharp turn-in”. To add salt to Toyota’s wounds, it was mentioned that “in an emergency situation the Cressida could be a real handful”.

The 22R engine displaces 2,366cc.
The 22R engine displaces 2,366cc.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

In those days Car used to forward a copy of its road tests to manufacturers for fact-checking before publication, but on this occasion Toyota demanded certain critical comments should be “withdrawn or softened”. Car refused to do this, so Toyota requested t their own comments be published along with the published test, stating “we reject that it (the Cressida station wagon) may be ‘questionable’ or ‘unsafe in an emergency situation’.”

Interestingly, the comment that seemed to really irk was a throw-away line that the Cressida was painted in a “sombre, perhaps even funereal, deep blue that failed to do the wagon justice, smart though the finish was”. The public relations manager at the time (today a very good friend of mine), indicated to me he didn’t appreciate thinly-disguised allusions to the fact that the Cressida looked somewhat like a hearse-in-waiting.

It’s funny how the passage of 33 years can give you a different perspective. Reading the report today, I realise I was undoubtedly guilty of judging every test car that came my way from a full-on boy racer perspective. I used to drive the Ou Kaapse Weg mountain pass every day on my trip to the office and I drove it like I was in training for the Mille Miglia. A few times each week I also drove over Chapmans Peak, taking my wife to work, and in those days there were no speed bumps or toll gates to impede your progress.

Two wipers – essential for such a large surface area.
Two wipers – essential for such a large surface area.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Nowadays when I spy a well-preserved late-1980s Toyota Cressida cruising the suburbs of a backwater town on the East or West Rand, I marvel at the solid build-quality in terms of trim and simple mechanicals. If it’s a useable classic you are after, you could do a lot worse than picking up a Toyota Cressida with its bullet-proof big-bore four-cylinder engine, rear-wheel-drive, and fitments pieced together better than almost any other car of its era.

As for the wagon version, well, I have to take credit for some foresight here. In the past decade or so, just about every Toyota Cressida station wagon I have seen has been doing duty as a hearse. They have exactly the right mix of sombre, sober lines that would show respect to the dearly departed, and their loved ones following along behind at processional speeds. At funereal pace, I am sure things like the fact that due to the “overly-assisted power steering, it is easy to get into a rock and roll situation” would matter not a jot.


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