Thunder and Lightning, Part 2: The AE86 Toyota Corolla Levin/Sprinter Trueno

THE AE86 LEGEND

Ironically, as the final Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno coupes were fading away, their AE86 predecessors were becoming more popular than ever. The AE86’s racing and tōge career did not end when the rear-drive Levin and Trueno went out of production and, starting in 1995, those exploits were further glamorized by Shuichi Shigeno’s manga series Initial D, whose young protagonist drove a white-over-black three-door AE86 Sprinter Trueno. The manga later spawned a popular anime series, which served to introduce the AE86 to a new generation of fans who weren’t old enough to drive (or weren’t born) when the cars were originally on sale. Drifting, meanwhile, eventually inspired an American feature film, 2006’s Fast and the Furious 3: Tokyo Drift, which included a cameo by Keiichi Tsuchiya.

1985-87 Toyota Sprinter Trueno three-door (AE86) front 3q © 2012 ThijsDeschildre (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

Two-tone paint was standard on AE86 GT APEX cars and optional on other models. White-over-black paint jobs have become very popular for these cars thanks to Initial D, whose protagonist’s Sprinter Trueno wore that color combination. (Photo: “Toyota Corolla GT AE86 Trueno hatchback” © 2012 ThijsDeschildre; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Some Toyota engineers and executives hadn’t forgotten about the AE86 either, despite Toyota’s comparative dearth of sporty models in the first decade of the new century. After Toyota signed an agreement with Fuji Heavy Industries (parent company of Subaru) to jointly develop a new sports coupe, the AE86 became one of the points of reference for that project, which was intended as a lightweight, straightforward, eminently driftable rear-drive coupe. Toyota and Subaru even hired Tsuchiya as a consultant on the development of that car, which new Toyota president Akio Toyoda decided in 2009 would be called “Toyota 86” in honor of its AE86 forebears.

As worthy as the modern 86/GT86/FR-S is — and if we were in the market, we would be tempted — we think its connection with the AE86 is rather tenuous. With its 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) engine, bespoke chassis, and independent rear suspension, the 86 seems closer to the original Toyota 2000GT or the last rear-drive RA63 Celica 2000GT than the live-axle Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno. The AE85 and AE86 were never intended as pure, purpose-built rear-drive sports coupes; their existence was first and foremost a matter of production and accounting expedience, much like making dinner out of one or two new ingredients and an assortment of leftovers in order to put off really going grocery shopping.

2012 Toyota 86 front fender badge © 2012 Cllackr (PD CC0 1.0)

The Toyota 86 is sold as the GT86 in Europe and the Scion FR-S in the U.S., but even the Scion version proudly wears “86” emblems on its front fenders. The similar Subaru BRZ version, of course, does not. (Photo: “Toyota 86 GT – Logo 2” © 2012 Cllackr; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

As with the Fox-body Ford Mustang, another cheap, lightweight RWD car with a cult following and vast tuning potential, the appeal of the rear-drive Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno was not so much that they were brilliant cars right out of the box (although they did very well in showroom stock competition), but that they constituted a solid, affordable foundation for any number of automotive impulses. Much of the reason for that was that at the end of the day, the Levin and Trueno were still Corollas at heart: cheap to buy, straightforward to maintain, and inexpensive to run.

Beyond that, they stand today as relics of an earlier automotive age. Today, conventional sedans and coupes without a prestigious European badge are becoming a tough sell in many parts of the world, superseded by an assortment of more specialized models. The Levin and Trueno recall an era before the reign of the specialty car, when achieving mass-market success still meant that each automotive line, however humble, had to offer a little something for everyone.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to thank Frank Dupre, Ingvar Hallström, John Howell, and ‘oversteerer’ for their assistance with background and images for this article.


NOTES ON SOURCES

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August 1984: 40–44; “Why is Toyota successful? (The Toyota Production System),” Toyoland, n.d., www.toyoland. com/ toyota/ production-system.html, accessed 17 January 2014; James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos, The Machine That Changed the World (New York: Free Press, 2007); and Jack Yamaguchi, “Toyota Corolla dons a new kimono,” Road & Track Vol. 46, No. 12 (August 1995): 49–50.

The online dictionary Jisho (jisho.org) was also a big help in deciphering Japanese-language information.

Some historical exchange rate data for the dollar and the yen came from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2011, MeasuringWorth, http://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission). Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate dollar equivalent of prices in non-U.S. currencies, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all equivalencies cited herein are approximate and are provided solely for the reader’s general reference — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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  1. Wow! What a great and detailed history you have written. Thanks.

  2. This was truly well worth the wait! Very comprehensive article – the AE101 Levin and Trueno shared a dashboard with a 4 door hardtop called either the Sprinter Marino or the Corolla Ceres, some of which also carried the 20V engine. A friend of mine ran a few of these cars, and the early manual ones definitely needed a 6-speed gearbox – you also had to be a skilled driver to rein in some of the torque steer. The boy racers graduated from the Suzuki Swift GTi to these in the late 1990s when they became available as foreign used cars in the Barbados market. There are still a lot of them around in varying stages of tune – it’s become increasingly difficult to find one that’s completely standard.

    1. Thanks, Dave. It hadn’t occurred to me that the Levin and Trueno dash was the same as the Ceres/Marino, but I looked it up and you’re quite right.

      I don’t think a lot of my U.S. or European readers will probably have heard of the Ceres and Marino, so I added a photo. Four-door “hardtops” like these were very popular in Japan for a number of years, going back to the late seventies. Most were not actually pillarless hardtops in the traditional sense, but they approximated that look by concealing the B-pillars (designing them to be thin in profile, painting them black, and putting them behind the door windows rather than between them), using frameless door glass, and sometimes adopting a more coupe-like roofline. A couple of examples with which readers may be more familiar include the ’90s Integra four-doors, the Lexus ES250 (which I believe was based on the JDM Camry Prominent hardtop), and the last U.S.-market Mazda 929.

      The Corolla Ceres and Sprinter Marino were offered in three grades (F Type, X Type, and G Type) that approximated the AE100/AE101 Levin/Trueno S, SJ, and GT grades in engines and equipment. There wasn’t an equivalent to the GT APEX or GT-Z, so as far as I know you couldn’t get a Ceres or Marino with Super Strut or the 4A-GZE engine, but as you mention, the G Type did have four-wheel discs and the 4A-GE TWINCAM20 engine. You could also order a sports package that included the coupes’ spoilers and other cosmetic bits, so a properly equipped Ceres G looked and performed a lot like an AE101 Levin GT.

  3. It looks to me that the Super Strut suspension worked by simply divorcing the strut from the steering, as with Ford’s RevoKnuckle on the Focus ST and GM’s HiPer strut on the Regal GS/Insignia and that the extra lower arms allow better steering geometry and reduced offset, a la BMW’s double pivot and the lower-half of Audi’s four link design. It probably also induces camber gain, as you speculate.

    1. You’re right — I hadn’t previously looked closely at the layouts of the RevoKnuckle or HiPerStrut (or whatever Renault calls theirs), but the basic principles look to be very similar, just executed a little differently in each case.

      1. I’ve been studying these systems more closely and Super Strut was actually somewhat more complex than the current HiPer Strut, RevoKnuckle, and PerfoHub. The newer setups have the relocated steering axis and reduced spindle height, but Toyota also did something very complex with the way the strut extension is pivoted to the rear lower arm to allow more camber gain. The GM, Ford, and Renault setups give a little more camber gain, but looking at the way they’re set up, I’m reasonably confident that it’s not as much as Super Strut provided. The tradeoff is that they’re also not as complex or as expensive and will hopefully be more reliable.

  4. Love this site! I love the Levins from start to finish. I own an AE111 Levin with the 20 valve blacktop and man isn’t it fun to drive!

  5. A great article.

    Several of the AE86 Levins that competed in the Australian Touring Car Championship in the mid to late 80’s are now racing in historic touring car racing – they are great little cars!

  6. My mostly stock 4A-C powered USDM AE86 with the manual transmission (slightly modified intake/vaccum setup and rear muffler delete ,keeping catalytic converter) has hit GPS Verified 101mph on flat ground, I’m sure if it was a little fresher (mine has 230k miles) it might hit 105. That’s getting close to 5,000rpm in 5th which is right when peak power starts to fall off, so anything beyond that would be stretching it.

  7. Thanks, I enjoyed the article… I’ve had my AE86 Trueno for 23 years now… Handling in stock form was pretty scary. Not sure how they got the factory JDM model to 2090lbs. Mine fully stripped for racing with no interior and sweating every gram is still 2030lbs.

    1. I’m a little puzzled by the JDM curb weights myself; I’m not sure what Japanese vehicle regulations require in terms of fuel and fluids in those calculations, but the quoted figures seem consistently lower than what I’d expect from a fully equipped and fueled car. (That’s a frequent issue with manufacturer curb weights regardless of country of origin.) Unfortunately, there’s not much to be done about it short of putting the car on a scale or finding some reasonably neutral third party who has. For that reason, I tend to find factory weight figures of most use for comparison purposes — for instance, the weight difference between trim levels.

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