The Old Ones are the Best: Toyota AE86 Corolla Coupe
They say you should never go back, and this can be true of re-visiting cars.
Time isn’t always kind to once much loved machines, which seemed interesting and inspiring when first encountered, but past their sell by dates years later. This was very much in my mind when I slipped behind the wheel of a mid-1980s Toyota AE86 Corolla coupe.
Although Toyota has abandoned the Corolla name here, generations of these undemonstrative cars have come and gone since the 1960s, keeping people mobile with commendable reliability, but generally not sticking in the mind because they were often very boring.
The AE86 was rather more inspired. Its two-door body was clean looking but slightly anonymous, but it was light, and powered by a rev-friendly, fuel injected 1600cc twin-cam engine that drove the rear wheels. The AE86 was a very different proposition from the polite, milksop front-drive Corollas Toyota was turning out at the time.
It had balance and poise in corners, and having rear-wheel-drive made it fun. With 128bhp on tap it wasn’t insanely powerful or madly fast, but it was fast enough, and it was tough as old boots.
Being small and tunable, it did well as a rally car, and a little like Mk1 and Mk2 rear-drive Ford Escorts, survivors are loved today by ‘classic’ rally driving types.
Less fortunate AE86s were equally prized by people who liked ‘drifting’ cars sideways and creating a lot of tyre smoke and screeching noises. Quite a few were drifted in to solid objects or otherwise mechanically tortured to death, so survivors are rare.
Toyota has one, with silver coachwork and an innocuous blue interior, and brought it to the recent Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders’ Test Day, and let a fresh generation of motoring hacks experience it. Although I no longer fit this category, they let me drive it too.
Thirty years ago I was employed as a ‘public relations executive,’ for a small PR firm in Berkshire, which specialised in things related to cars ranging from hi-fis to tyres. I wrote endless press releases for local newspapers about rally drivers who were good, but often not good or experienced enough to actually win.
My immediate boss had an AE86 as a company car. We both lived in the same bit of West London, so he took me to work in it.
A bull necked, bullet-headed South African ex-motorcycle journalist, this man was known, only half jokingly, as ‘Mad Max.’ I soon discovered why. He drove at insane velocities. The roads were less crowded, speed cameras didn’t exist.
Yelling, ‘get out of the way Wazzock!’ at anyone who slowed his progress, he would cane the little Toyota up the M4, hurl it down the A4 then fling it through some country lanes so that the world appeared to speed up. My first experience of this resulted in buttocks so clenched that I rose about two inches in my seat.
Despite this daily thrashing, the little car never broke or put a foot wrong, and for some strange reason its owner never ended up in a ditch or the slammer.
So three decades on Toyota’s preserved AE86 felt both old, with its squared off dash and single column stalk, and entirely familiar. I expected the ‘old’ bit to extend to the way it drove; however, the car quickly proved that age had not withered it.
It sounded fruity and still went like the clappers. The Corolla liked being revved to within an inch of its life and chucked round bends, where it might have lacked a modern car’s grip, but was so easy to control and so faithful that this was part of the fun. It had decent brakes, a lovely gear change and a near perfect driving position. I can’t think of a car I’ve driven this year that I’ve enjoyed more. After giving it back I felt quite covetous, then remembered a dozen or so years ago almost buying one but deciding not to because the clutch slipped. If I could go back in time, that’s one decision I’d certainly change.
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