Toyota built its reputation in North America on the backs of ultra-reliable commuter cars and unkillable compact trucks, both of which the company churned out in droves throughout the 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, however, it continued to make a play not just for the dollars of its ever-growing customer base, but also their souls in the form of competent, innovative, and competitive sports cars both here and abroad.
It’s an aspect of the automaker’s history that is often overlooked from a modern perspective. While the Supra’s contributions to Toyota’s sporting past are currently in the spotlight thanks to the introduction of a new model after an extended hiatus, there’s far more to the brand’s personality than just its most famous two-door model.
Toyota’s first foray away from the sensible trucks and sedans built under its original Toyopet nameplate occurred in the 1960s, on opposite ends of the price spectrum. Internationally, all eyes were on the 2000GT coupe and the starring role it played — as a one-off convertible — in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. In addition to its elegant looks, the 2000GT offered 150 horsepower from a six-cylinder engine, and straddled the line between sports and GT segments. Built in 1967, the car was a strong departure from what American audiences had previously been exposed to from Japanese designers, and although very few were produced it was a highly influential model both inside and outside the company.
Prior to the 2000GT’s silver screen debut, however, Toyota would move forward with the Sports 800, a two-seater that was within the reach of the average consumer. After three years on the show circuit, the 800 would hit showrooms in 1965, where it provided a modest 44 horsepower from a sub-one-litre four-cylinder engine. Weighting in a just over 1,000 kilograms, the Sports 800 — or ‘Toyota 8’ — was engaging to drive in way none of the previous Toyopet models could claim.
Bridging the gap
After a successful showing in motorsports from both the 2000GT and the Sports 800, Toyota decided it was time to export more than just econoboxes to America. Still, there were some concessions that had to be made in order to keep the books balanced, which meant that the Toyota Celica would initially err more on the side of daily driver than canyon carver, when it what first shipped across the Pacific in 1970.
Mimicking aspects of the popular Ford Mustang in terms of styling and engineering, but lacking the domestic model’s muscle car powerplant — early Celicas would never offer more than a 2.2-litre four-cylinder — the car represented Toyota dipping its toes, rather than fully diving into the high performance pool. Following a redesign and a brief, uncomfortable co-existence as platform donor to the original Supra, the Celica’s sporty aspirations would be placed on the shelf as Toyota again adopted a dual-prong approach to pleasing sports car fans in the 1980s.
This time, the focus was almost fully on North America. The A60 Supra — a smart shrinking of the previous generation’s ungainly proportions, matched with a potent straight-six motor — would for the first time tempt import-curious drivers with a mix of power and comfort in the Toyota showroom for the 1982 model year. In many ways, the company was playing catch-up to Nissan/Datsun, which had seen enormous success with its Z coupe and was now pushing into a more upmarket implementation of the vehicle.
A couple of years later, Toyota would flex its engineering muscle and deliver something none of its Japanese rivals could match: A relatively cheap and attractive mid-engine sports car. Called the MR2, it adopted the same lightweight principles that had guided the Sports 800, but enhanced with near-perfect weight balance and a suspension setup that had been breathed on by the masters at Lotus. Initially offered with a naturally-aspirated four-cylinder, the MR2 would eventually gain a supercharged model that would further enhance its street cred.
Right around the same period, Toyota elected to bring the Celica back into the mix as a bridge between the impractical yet fun MR2, and the upmarket Supra. By 1987, the coupe was being offered with a turbocharged engine and an all-wheel drive system reminiscent of the automaker’s rally efforts (dubbed the GT-Four or All-trac, depending on the market), which complemented front-wheel drive models that came before it. A redesign just before the end of the decade would give the Celica more striking styling and continue the turbocharged fun into the 1990s, with power ultimately reaching 200 horses.
Even the Corolla got its share of the fun, as Toyota experimented with giving its entry-level model a twin-cam hatchback (and coupe) that would go on to be immortalized in the drift scene as the ‘hachi roku’ or ’86.’ This would close out the Corolla’s rear-wheel drive roots before the vehicle was moved to a more cost-effective, and efficient, front-wheel drive platform of its own.
Spend all the money
he 1990s were a heady time for the Japanese auto industry, and the soaring yen and seemingly unlimited economic expansion encouraged engineers and designers to work on projects that reached well past expectations, both at home and around the world.
This is the era that the Supra — which had been motoring along for several years as a less-focused, turbocharged grand touring car — would morph into the fire-breathing, twin-turbocharged, 2JZ-equipped sports coupe that would become a legend among aftermarket tuners due to its incredible capacity for eating boost and not blowing up. It’s also the same environment that produced the final generation of the MR2, which adopted mini-exotic body work and a similarly mod-friendly turbocharged four-cylinder.
We want you back
After the turn of the Millennium, Toyota began to divert funds away from its sports car programs, and funnel them instead into Lexus — which itself produced the limited-production LFA supercar. The Supra would disappear, and the MR2 would be replaced by the milquetoast MR-S roadster, creating a decade-long lull before the Toyota 86-nee-Scion FR-S once again shake the brand awake from its slumber.
Given the company’s long history of building potent performance cars, it’s disappointing (and somewhat baffling) that its latest Supra is a Toyota in name only, having farmed out its engineering to BMW. Sports cars may no longer move anything like the volume they once commanded, what with their status as symbols of conspicuous consumption having been usurped by SUVs, but here’s hoping that the next Toyota-badged sizzler is home-grown.