COAL: 1985 Toyota MR2 AW11 and 1987 Toyota MR2 AW10 – Some Things Work Better in Pairs, Right?

The first generation Toyota MR2 doesn’t really need an introduction on these pages – it’s pretty well known for being a great combination of mid-engined driving dynamics, 80’s-tastic styling, and Toyota reliability and durability. It’s been covered several times on CC, and even today is still a usable classic. I was a fan of the MR2 since childhood, after it was brought to my notice by a local chocolate brand that used to issue stickers of the cool cars of the time along with each candy bar purchased.

Sadly I haven’t got a picture of the MR2 sticker, but here’s one of the Honda CR-X

I had quite a lot of these stickers back then, and was always drawn to the MR2 because, to my eyes, it looked as cool as a Ferrari but was a Toyota. This didn’t compute to an 8-year-old me because Toyotas were normal cars that everybody drove, so where did this fit in? With age, I learned more about the MR2 and gained even more appreciation for it. Sri Lanka had quite a number of first generation cars imported in period, so while they weren’t a common sight in traffic, one would occasionally pop up. All in all, it was a car that I thought would be cool to own if the opportunity presented itself.

This opportunity came knocking one Sunday morning in 2013. As I said in my previous COAL, I saw an ad in a weekend paper for a 1985 Toyota MR2 that was described as being in good overall shape, but with “Minor restoration work needed”. The owner, R, a wheeler dealer type who always had interesting cars lying around, liked the idea of taking on my Spitfire and was willing to discuss a part exchange. His asking price for the MR2 was 1.2 million Rupees, if I remember right (around $8,000 at that time). So I went around to his place, had a poke around the car and found it to have been newly painted, with newly retrimmed seats, and to start and run well. The interior plastics looked a bit tired, but I was too excited by the opportunity to own an MR2 to really go over it properly, and took R at his word that it was a sound car that just needed detailing. He also happened to have an absolutely mint white 1987 MR2, for which he was asking twice as much money and, in his words, “you can bring the other car to this standard with a bit of work”. So, blinded by the potential in the thing, I said I’d take it and we settled on a deal where I’d take the MR2 and get 800,000 Rupees to my hand, which put the theoretical price of my Spitfire at 2 million Rupees ($13,333). Since I’d spent about 1.4 million ($8,000) on it in total, this seemed like a nice profit, so we shook hands and I collected the MR2 a couple of days later.

Just after picking it up

Once the initial high of the purchase had passed, I took some time to have a really good look around my new car, and make a list of things that needed doing. First up, it was sitting on a set of wheels that looked way past their prime, and to make matters worse, was wearing tires in different sizes. This was job number 1. The distributor cap and plug wires all looked like they’d seen better days too, so they went on the list as well, along with some other bits. Then I thought I’d take a look under the car (cue ominous music). What I saw almost immediately was that the main cross member at the rear, which was carrying the loads of the suspension AND had a mounting point for the engine, looked worryingly rusty.

Now I had been assured that the car had no rust issues and that everything underneath was fixed, so I spoke to R right away and of course he acted surprised. He volunteered to send his mechanic to take a look. This guy soon came along, went under the car and spent some time with a wire brush and a tin of anti-corrosive primer, and emerged to say it was all surface rust and had been taken care of. Being the idiot that I was, I took him at his word and checked that off the to-do list. Maybe it was because I really didn’t want to know, but I somehow didn’t think to put the car on a lift and get a good look at the underside (you live and learn!).

Anyway, I set about sorting out the various niggles the car had, and gave it some cosmetic sprucing up as well. A graphics shop did a pinstripe on it, and reproduced period looking “MR2”, “Twin Cam 16 Valve” and “Toyota” decals for the trunk, doors and hood, respectively. I went hunting for a better set of wheels and managed to luck out with a set of genuine Enkei (a very good Japanese wheel brand) five spokes that had apparently been made for TRD (Toyota Racing Development). Putting these and a properly matched set of dunlop tires on really improved how the car looked and felt.

Much Better.

I also splurged a lot of money on getting a custom exhaust system made by the best exhaust shop in the country, one which did a lot of work with performance cars. It was overkill for sure, but I loved how it looked and sounded. The car still sat a bit too high; but as far as I could tell, it had stock springs, which was puzzling. Since I wanted to use it properly, new shocks (dampers) and bushes went in as well. With all that done, it started being used as much as possible, even as the daily driver on some days, with me trying to get a feel for it and see what else needed doing. I have to say here that, after the initial sorting, it drove really well – the 4AGE motor liked to rev and it moved the relatively lightweight MR2 with authority. The steering was pin sharp, the car felt like a big go-kart in most circumstances and, despite the ride height, it didn’t display much body roll and was great fun to drive.

When I buy a car, I inevitably end up reading up as much as possible on it, and also have a habit of trying to make contact with owners of other examples of the model in the country. Besides this, I wanted to know more about the history of my MR2, so I started asking older folk in local car circles about MR2s in general and whether they knew about my example in particular. I found out that there had been quite a few of them imported back in the 80s and that some had even been raced. There were also plenty of stories; I was told of one car that used to be seen racing around a town in the hills, another one that was in a coastal town on the west coast which had rust issues, and another that used to street race in Colombo, which is where I lived, and was totaled before it was even registered in 1986 by the son of a politician. The best story of all though was of the car that was raced frequently in our country’s regular racing circuit, which had once had a spectacular accident that involved flying in the air and rolling end-over-end several times!

Soon after, my tracking down of the long list of owners of my car revealed something that was shocking and funny in almost equal measure; all those stories were about the same MR2, the very car that now sat in my garage! It actually HAD been imported by a political scion back in 1986, who proceeded to crash it almost immediately while street racing. The car was so badly mangled that a replacement body shell had been imported; so when it was registered, it had already been re-shelled once. The next owner who had it through the 90s had raced the car quite frequently, and on one of these outings, the flying accident described above happened, which required a second replacement body from Japan. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but there was pretty solid evidence backing it all up. After the racing career, the car went to the hill country town and then found its way to the coastal town. I got in touch with the guy who owned it at that point and he solved the mystery of the ride height for me by saying that he had the springs lengthened because the car was too low for roads in that area. To this day, I’m not quite sure how all that happened.

As you can imagine, all this was a bit shocking to me, but in spite of it all, the car drove really well so I resolved to just keep driving the thing, something which I thoroughly enjoyed doing. A couple of months later, I got a call from R again; he apparently needed to start a new project so the really mint white MR2 he had needed to go soon, and he was willing to let it go for a lot less than his initial asking. I don’t quite know what possessed me at this point, but I found myself saying “sure, let’s do it!” I collected it a few days later, and given my experience with the first one, was quite prepared for the worst. The car gods must have taken pity on me though, because this white example truly was almost completely perfect, with low miles, only a couple of owners and not a spec of rust or any sort of blemish anywhere.

It really was in remarkable shape.

The only thing that kept the car from being completely perfect was the fact that it was anAW10, which was a Japanese market-only base model of the first generation MR2. This model is almost unknown anywhere else, but the majority of MR2s in Sri Lanka were AW10s, probably because they were cheaper. The major difference lies in the engine; instead of the lovely 1.6L 4A-GE Twin Cam, the AW10 has a 1.5L 3A-U, which is a rather sorry lump found in Corollas and the like. Wheezing out all of 82Bhp, it didn’t exactly trouble the MR2 chassis much.

Identical, yet so different.

So now I was in the unique situation of owning two MR2s. I became known as “the MR2 guy” and rather enjoyed the notoriety in the car scene. The white car got driven more often because it was to all intents and purposes a mid-engined Corolla, and could be used for pretty much anything, which was exactly what I ended up doing. The only downside was the low ground clearance, which resulted in a few scrapes to the front lip. The lack of power could get annoying though, and a lot of people told me I should look at swapping in a 4AGE, preferably one of the later 20-valve versions, so the car would have the go to back up the looks. I agreed with the sentiment, but somehow the car just felt too nice to be hacked into, and I reasoned that since the AW10 was globally rare anyway, having a nearly mint example was a more interesting choice than turning it into just another AW11. This view was not shared by most of my friends and fellow car people, as you’d expect.

Yes, I took a lot of photographs of the two of them

The grey car didn’t get driven nearly as much and spent more time sitting, but it did get taken out for the occasional Sunday morning thrash with other car folk. It even got entered into an officially sanctioned drag race once, and didn’t blow up, which was about what I was hoping for.

The Civic won. Comprehensively.

I really did intend to hang on to these two cars for a long time, but it had barely been six months since picking up the white car when R called me again saying he would like the white car back and that he had something that might interest me. When he revealed what it was, my jaw actually dropped, since the car in question was an actual dream car that I had never in a million years thought would be possible to own. Well, here it was and at a figure that was almost attainable too! So I took the leap, handed over the white MR2 and drove off in the dream-mobile. The story of how THAT went will be told in the near future.

That left me with just the grey MR2. Most of my “hobby car” time was taken up with the new acquisition, so the MR2 spent even more time sitting around. When I managed to find some time to drive it, a worrying clunking sound was very noticeable from the rear. So I finally faced the inevitable and put the car up on a hoist, only to find that the clunking sound was that rusty crossmember, which had been gradually detaching itself from the engine mount. This was clearly a safety issue, so the car was not going to be driven again until that was sorted. Further inspection revealed a lot more rust in the unibody, which would need a complete restoration to sort properly, for which I had neither the time nor money to do right.

There was nothing else to do but put the car up for sale, with a clear description of everything wrong with it and a very low asking price (a fair bit less than what I had in it). It didn’t take very long before an acquaintance from the car scene expressed interest. I told him very clearly that the car was a project and that it needed body repairs immediately, which didn’t seem to worry him too much. We agreed on a price and since the car was not safe to drive, I paid for a car carrier to haul it off to a workshop of his choosing.

Being hauled off

He had it repainted and allegedly had the rust issues attended to, but I saw it a few years later and the rust was still very evident, as were lots of half done patchwork repair attempts. Eventually, the guy got fed up with it and it was picked up as a joint project by two other guys. Last I heard, it was finally getting done properly and should be back on the road at some time in the near future.


Of all the cars I’ve sold, this tired, abused old MR2 is the one that I miss most because against all odds, it just kept rolling on, refusing to die. I think that makes it rather special, don’t you?