Seattle to LA in a 1986 Toyota Cressida Wagon
August 20, 2007 -
by Benjamin Hsu
ike many nations with feudal roots, Japan still has a royal family. They perform mostly ceremonial functions and wield no powers of state, but these monarchs can still influence Japanese culture. Case in point: though Japan officially adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873, nostalgic car aficionados will often denote a vehicle's year by its nengou
, or Japanese era name based on the reign of a particular ruler.
The Showa Era lasted from December 25, 1926 to January 7, 1989, making our 1986 Toyota Cressida wagon a Showa 61. But take a closer look at the industrial growth during this era and you'll find yourself eye to eye with the story of the Japanese auto industry. From the explosion in car use after the Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed Tokyo's rail system, to the post-war government mandate for tiny People's Cars, to the birth of world
Seattle Public Library
class luxury vessels under the banners of Lexus and Infiniti, the Showa age witnessed it all.
While most cars of the 1980s have yet to ripen past the magic 25-year mark that gives them classic status by insurers and tailpipe sniffers, many are already becoming increasingly difficult to find in decent shape. We value these specimens as we would any endangered species, and we weep like forlorn kittens when they're unloved or discarded. After all, they'll soon become nostalgics, and when they do we'd like to see some of them still around. And, like fins in the fifties, they exude a style all their own, one that can only be described as 80s Japanese angular. That's why we'd like to honor them with a new section called Showa Specials
. Fear not, intrepid reader, for our main focus still lies with nostalgics, with only a tiny fraction of JNC
consigned to these bubble economy barges.
Having said that, we couldn't think of a better way to break the champagne bottle over the bow of our new subsection than initiating a real life Showa Special in that time-honored rite of automotive passage, the road trip.
We came into possession of this S61 Cressida purely by dumb luck. A few years ago, I lived in Seattle and an old high school buddy of mine was shopping for a used station wagon for his artist girlfriend. Like an owl on a caffeine bender, my car-spotting eyes are always widely peeled, which is how I missile-locked onto the
VW-eating Fremont Troll
freakishly mint, 80,000-mile Cressy sitting in a damp Grunge City parking lot one day. Ever the helpful friend - and because I was living on his couch - I left his number under the wiper.
Knowing is half the battle, and what you need to know is always, always
leave a note. Most owners will ignore you like bad date, but once in a blue moon, they'll call. Even if it's two years later.
Alas, this car would have been the perfect "little old lady" find, had the little old lady not lent it to her grandson to use as a school bus during the past two years, wherein it accrued enough dings to sound a three-alarm fire and almost 20,000 additional clicks. Still, it had no rust, was straighter than Clint Eastwood, and my amigo's woman had already grown attached to the '98 Ford Escort wagon they'd since bought, so I was next in line. Righteous!
Coincidentally, at around the same, Koji and Terry Yamaguchi, the King and Queen of the vintage Japanese car scene and founders of the JCCS
], invited us to the Toyota-sponsored corral at the Monterey Historics, as long as we showed up in a 'Yota. If this wasn't a sign from the ghost of Kiichiro Toyoda himself commanding me to go on a pilgrimage, I don't know what is.
Days before flying out, some hoodlum smashes the Cressida's side window outside my friend's downtown apartment. He's unable to find any replacements in the greater Seattle area, so I'm forced to slog through an east coast U-Pull-It.
Somehow, a giant piece of glass seems like something that should be on the TSA prohibited items list if they're banning toothpaste and wrenches, but I'm not about to check it with the baggage flingers. I already have one broken window. Surprisingly, even my getting randomly selected for a secondary screening doesn't halt its progress. After an agonizing layover at Memphis International Sauna, I'm breathing fresh Pacific air.
Having sat through a traffic-packed ride downtown, I eat my first non-peanut meal in nine hours, scour the city for a set of extended sockets and screwdriver, and unintentionally rip the moisture shield in about 20 places before swapping out the window.
Coach class glass
By the time I vacuum out enough fingertip- slicing glass shards from the interior to recreate the Seattle Public Library, I barely make it to my de rigeur Seattle sushi dinner at 100-year-old Maneki restaurant.
I've never driven this route, or this car, so I wake early to gas up, stock some water and oil, and inflate the four tires plus spare. When the pre-sunrise sky glows that same pale-reddish color one's face exudes after receiving a good punch, it reminds me of excruciating cram sessions during college when I would have traded four years of progress for a 30 minute doze.
At least I have four gigs of mp3s to keep me awake. It's funny how old technology becomes useful again. With a $10 tape adapter, The Cressida's resonant speakers are channeling two solid days of tunes via an iPod nano. Cassette deck: 1, CD player: 0.
The Cressida still retains its stock stereo, a huge, equalizer-equipped affair with more buttons and switches than a nuclear sub. Being the vestige of bubble economy excess that it is, a mutant growth protrudes from the dash, just right of the steering wheel, to offer the driver a completely redundant set of controls for volume, seek, and climate. Thank you, Toyota, for saving my right hand an eight-inch journey to the console.
Winlock, Washington was only America's second largest egg producing
World's largest egg, apparently
town, but that didn't stop them from making the world's first largest egg. Actually, it's just a fiberglass ellipsoid, about the size of a Pinto, pegged on a ten-foot steel pole.
Suddenly, I'm an extra in the "Everybody Hurts" video. A stalled vehicle on the I-5 bridge spanning the Washington- Oregon border has slowed Portland's rush hour traffic to a dead stop. As we're dusted by an earthworm, I exit to find another route, a stupid mistake that wastes 90 minutes. However, the fact that I'm driving an aging, boxy station wagon saves me from getting pulled over by the unmarked third-gen Taurus that sends me a quick strobe-flash warning.
According to local legend, at the end of WWII Art Lacey flew a surplus B-17 Flying Fortress home to Milwaukie, Oregon for use as a gas station prop. Actually, he flew two. He crashed the first one landing because he had no co-pilot to lower the landing gear. Normally, the airfield doesn't allow takeoff without one, but Lacey had brought a mannequin.
The second time, Lacey got lost in a snowstorm and found his way home by flying
B-17 Flying Fortress
only 1,000 feet above ground and following railroad tracks. His co-pilot (live, this time) sat in the bomber's Plexiglas nose and yelled for Lacey to pull up whenever a mountain approached. Upon arrival, he tried repeatedly to obtain a permit to transport the plane to its present location. With no success, Lacey simply hauled it himself, receiving a $10 ticket en route for having too wide a load.
I hope to make it with only one Cressida.
East coast states are so small you can span two or three of them simply by lying down. I thought the massive distances covered by our western provinces would bore me to sleep, but I-5 in southern Oregon weaves through the Cascade Mountains and it's fun to stuff the Cressida through the bends, even if the slow four-speed automatic downshifts like it's contemplating a chess move.
Grant's Pass, but not Grant's
With the vast expanses of glass extending to the rearmost corners of the car, I have no problem changing lanes to pass lumbering RVs and semis. Cressida sedans received an independent rear suspension midway through the previous generation but the wagons soldiered on with a live-axle set up. On sharper curves, the body rolls so far towards the outside front that the Cressy must resemble, from an exterior perspec- tive, a peeing dog.
I find Weed. In the shadow of Mt. Shasta, where a Datsun roadster meet takes place each year, Weed is a small town (motto: Weed Like to Welcome You) that appears right as you start getting nervous about finding gas. I'm used to driving the Jersey Turnpike, so when there's nothing but sand for miles, the fuel needle points low, and a sign warns, "Rest Area This Exit. 52 Miles to Next Rest Area," I take the ramp.
View of Mt. Shasta from Weed, CA
Turns out, in Cali, a picnic table and an outhouse qualifies as a rest area. No Burger King, no hall of urinals, no gas station. But then, only a few nail-biting miles later, Weed. Why California felt the need to caution me there'd be 52 miles to the next wooden bench, I will never know.
The Cressida's 21-year-old air conditioning unit is limited to only one setting these days: hot air spew. I keep my mind off the slow bake I'm undergoing by "keeping up with traffic" through the Sacramento Valley's Mad Max landscape. But whether at idle or frantically clawing up the powerband towards its 156hp max, the 2.8 liter inline-six and its dual overhead cams just hum along, as smooth and quiet as beach pebbles.
I find weed. After barely speaking to another soul during my 13 hour drive, the first person I meet in San Francisco asks me if I want to buy some bud. To be fair, I was on Haight Street. I briefly consider re-enacting one of Bullitt
's famous jumps over the city's steep hills, but
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
the Cressida's ride is so cushy I probably wouldn't feel a thing.
I finally arrive at my friend's place in San Jose.
Whizzing down US 101 at night, past Silicon Valley's office buildings and their illuminated corporate logos, is like running through Circuit City after hours with a flashlight. If you're reading this article, you're using something made here.
The thousand-mile drive has dislodged a surprising amount of additional broken glass. Damn punks. I re-vacuum every crevice and cavity and set out to amass a small arsenal of car care products. After all, the Cressy's going to be parked within spitting distance of Maseratis and Ferraris at Monterey. Wash, clay, wax on, wax off. Puttin' on the ritz!
Poring over the car, I come face to face with its straight-edged design aesthetic. Of all the 80s Japanese sleds employing this motif, few have more ruler-drawn contours than a Cressida. Between the grille, dashboard, bump guards, chrome strips and body, the car has more horizontal lines than a grade school penmanship class. It's a rolling Tetris piece, a bento box on wheels, designed to prowl a dense metropolis criss-crossed by skyscrapers and elevated highways.
Pulling into Laguna Seca by the Andretti hairpin, the Cressida is among Toyota royalty - the largest gathering of 2000GTs ever assembled outside of Japan. I park humbly by a crew of Scions in the corral.
In its heyday, the Cressida - along with the mechanically identical Mark II, Cresta, and Chaser in Japan - comprised the luxury end of the Toyota lineup, so maybe it doesn't feel too outclassed amongst the Lexuses. By spec, it played in the same league as 5-series BMWs and Audi 5000s but its Toyota badge relegated it to relative obscurity. It's no wonder Lexus debuted three years later.
for our full report on the Monterey Historics. In short, it simply amazed. Unfortunately, the area's classic car weekend morphs hotels into milking machines, with rates designed for Bentley owners. That's why I'm heading back to San Jose to crash for free.
Gases congeal into stars. Supernovas cast their remnants across the cosmos. Galaxies spin. A Cressida's odometer hits 100,000 miles.
Many people head home from the Historics after Saturday, but the wagon and I are back at Laguna Seca for one reason: to see seven million dollars' worth of Toyotas pour over a three-story twist of racetrack affectionately known as the corkscrew. And I did. And it was awesome
And they all roll over
Leaving Monterey in the evening puts the bentowagon on southbound 101 during what photographers call the "golden hour," when the impending sunset bathes the entire landscape in angelic, orange light. Map printouts direct me across CA-46 to get back on I-5, and despite constant blasts at full tilt to pass motorhomes when the lines go from solid to dotted, the wagon still averages 26 miles per gallon.
The pale glow emitted by the instrument panel of a Showa Era sled should be the only color allowed on dashboard lighting. No oranges, no retina-searing reds, just greenish white luminosity and all is right with the world. All, except for the nasal assault emanating from the San Joaquin Valley's acres of livestock.
The Tejon Pass, a steep, 4200-foot ascent, has semis wheezing on the shoulder but poses no problems for the Cressida, as long as I exercise my gas foot. Upon reaching the top, the river of taillights coiling its way down the "Grapevine" stretch of I-5 resembles a lava flow heading towards Santa Clarita, and onto LA.
The Cressida naps soundly in the City of Angels. The only potential hiccup encountered was a heavily dented Grand Cherokee facing the wrong direction in the middle of the freeway, just eight miles from my destination. The utter lack of traffic before the accident and smell of freshly charred rubber meant the wayward Jeep had missed me by about a minute.
I stand in genuine awe of how quickly a 21-year-old steel brick can, just by burning some dead plants, cover colossal distances that would have taken months to traverse less than a hundred years ago. And I didn't even have to eat anyone in the neighboring conestoga wagon. The Cressida hauled, but even modern four cylinder sedans dusted it with ease, especially on the hilly parts, proving just how far engineering has come in two decades.
Showa special, open road
The day after the Showa Emperor died, his son took the throne and the Heisei Era commenced. Already, we can see periods that might yield future classics - the 90s sports car renaissance, the hybrid age, and whatever else that lies beyond hydro- gen cells and self-piloting pods. But when your robot caretaker asks where it all began, you can tell him it started in the Showa Era.