Toyota’s Supra had a rather linear evolution, unlike the Datsun/Nissan Z-car, which lost its way and re-invented itself how many times? Starting out as a soft-sporty semi-luxo coupe with a lazy six borrowed from Toyota’s sedans, it became distinctly sportier and harder-edged with each of its four generations. The final iteration, the turbocharged Supra Mk4, has become the stuff of legends, and tuners. We’re going to take a look at the first three generations in the coming days, so things may start off a little slow, but should be moving pretty quickly by the time we hit the Mk3.
The Supra started life in 1978 as the Celica XX, a JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) only model, by grafting a 5″ XXL-long front end extension to the Celica, and dropping the venerable 2.0 liter SOHC M-EU inline six in that suitably lengthened engine bay (I assume its safe to assume that’s why they put the long nose on it, but with JDM cars, you never know). The M series six goes back to 1965, and had powered a variety of Toyota sedans, like the Crown and Corona Mk II.
Here’s a JDM tv ad to get us in the proper vintage mood (for some crazy reason, this one doesn’t want to be embedded here)
In 1979, the renamed Celica Supra appeared on our shores to take up the battle with Nissan’s softified Z car, and Detroit’s emasculated pony cars. The US version came with the larger 2.6 version of the M engine, shared with the Cressida. Despite Toyota’s first application of EFI (Electronic Fuel Injection), it made no more than the JDM 2.0, all of 110 hp. Plush and lush, but maybe not all that powerful.
But it was 1979, and for time, a smooth fuel injected six and a five speed transmission were hardly common fare from Detroit. This was a car that the early Toyota adopters saw as a well-built alternative to the rough and crude Camaro and such. Opposite ends of that spectrum, for sure.
I tried to find some contemporary reviews of the gen1 Supra on the web, but they’ve all disappeared. I never drove one of these, but my memory tells me that the reviews generally questioned the value of the substantial price increase over the lighter and nimbler four-cylinder Celica. The Supra was a smooth freeway flyer, and most of them came loaded with the automatic, AC, etc. which only added to the front-end mass and dulled its modest sporty ambitions further. That would have to wait for the Mk2.
I do have a major soft spot for the un-Supra Celica of this generation, and we’ll take a close look at both the liftback and the coupe versions of them soon. It was a brilliant and clean design; a true standout of its day. Significantly, it was designed at Toyota’s brand new CALTY studios in California, staffed by more than one former GM designner. Do we see touches of the 1975 Chevy Monza hatchback?
But the Supra’s supra-sized nose and its other distinguishing trim only messes up a balanced and clean design. I resented the gen1 Supra for that, and the fact that it brought nothing truly ambitious along with the name and price. Once again, that would come soon enough.
For its final year in 1981, the six was enlarged to 2.8 liters with 116 hp. A Sports Performance Package also became an available option, including sport suspension, raised white letter tires, and front and rear spoilers. The extra six ponies and the SPP hardly turned the Supra into a racer, but it clearly hinted at the direction it was heading in its next incarnation.