Curbside Classic: 1985 Toyota Corolla GT-S – The Legendary AE86

Is it a stretch to say that finding this beater Corolla AE86 GT-S on the street is the equivalent of finding an original and beat up 1970 Hemi ‘Cuda? Maybe, but they’re both legends, and while the odds of finding the GT-S are definitely better, they’re not exactly easy to come by either. I’ve had my eye out for one for quite a while, and suddenly this showed up in the neighborhood; a wish fulfilled. Now I’d be happy just to catch that non-hemi beater ‘Cuda I’ve seen driving. Anyway, with all the excitement building about the arrival of new 86-inspired coupes (Scion FR-S; Subaru BRZ), it’s time to take a look at their inspiration.

The AE86 Corolla came about almost as a fluke or afterthought, but what a charmed one. In 1983, the Corolla sedan switched over to a completely new FWD chassis. But whether for expediency, or to deliberately prolong the opportunity for fun potential, Toyota chose to keep the coupe and liftback models on the previous generation’s RWD platform, but dressed up in a new suit of sheet metal. From 1983 through 1987, the AE86 designation applied to these orphans, but the gifted child in the bunch was the GT-S version.

While the basic and SR-5 versions had a 1587 cc SOHC 4AC engine with a carburetor and 87 hp, the GT-S came with the DOHC 16 valve 4AGE engine with AFM multiport injection and T-VIS variable induction system. I’ve seen quotes of 124 hp, but the California-compliant version made 112 hp @ 6600 rpm. That may not seem like much in today’s world, but it has to be put in the context of its time.

In 1984, the Corvette mustered all of 205 hp out of 5.7 liters, and the Mustang GT managed 175 hp from its 5 liter V8. 112 eager horses from 1.6 liters was a feat at the time, thanks to the kind of advanced technology that Detroit was still dreaming about back then. And the Corolla was a featherweight, tipping the scales at around 2200 lbs. Anyway, it wasn’t raw acceleration that was the big draw here, but a delightfully balanced RWD coupe with quick steering and an ability to hang on way beyond what one might expect from its 185/60-14 tiny tires.

There really was nothing quite like it it at the time; it was the last of its kind. The GT-S was comparable to what an Alfa or BMW 1600 were in their day in the sixties. Bare bones, balanced, quick-revving, and a competent suspension, if not exactly the most sophisticated one. Front struts and a live rear axle with four links, and anti-sway bars on both ends kept things under control even on tight downhill mountain passes.

That was where the AE86 first made a name for itself, by Japan’s street racers who flew them down “touges”, tightly-curving narrow downhill roads. And it became the seminal drifter, in the hands of the Drift King himself, Keiichi Tsuchiya. He played a large role in popularizing the whole sport of drifting, and the AE86 Corolla was his mount of choice.

It wasn’t just drifting that established the AE86′s competition creds. It was a popular choice for showroom stock, Group A and N racing, rallying and circuit racing. An eminently tunable engine, and the last RWD platform of its kind, the AE86 is still sought after for a variety of competition and street uses. That’s why there aren’t hardly any left in an unmolested state as this one.

The owner of this one picked it up cheap a while back, and says it’s a barrel load of fun to drive. It’s approaching 300k miles on the clock, but these vintage Toyotas are built for the long haul as well as the long drift. What a combination, after the cantankerous European sports coupes everyone put up with for decades.

The AE86 still commands a huge and loyal following, akin to the Fox-body 5.0 Mustang. The two are almost perfect reflections of the same theme expressed on different scales and engine technology: light, simple, RWD, easily tunable to any degree desired. Elemental sports coupes, living legends: a formula for automotive immortality.