The first-generation MR2 is not a common sight anymore, even in its native land. Yet, why do I feel numb and hesitant when contemplating it? Probably because I have zero personal experience about these. That’s not a novel feeling – most of the JDM stuff I find is completely new to me. But this one is an icon! The first mid-engined Toyota, from the wedge era, with a legendary engine and all that.
I’ve tried to get excited about this one, but it’s not really speaking to me. MR2, meh art thou? When I found it initially, though, I was pretty elated: with the exception of the interior, which was impossible to photograph (hence the factory photo above), the car was in mint condition, quite accessible and even the weather was perfect. A very good specimen of its kind, by any measure.
These MR2s were not imported to some European countries for some reason; I never saw these growing up. The second generation is far more familiar to me: those arrived in France in 1990, as we did after our stint in the US, and it so happened that our neighbour had one. Perhaps as a result, I’m keener on the looks of the second-gen MR2 – this first generation’s late ‘70s-tinged edgy-wedgy doorstop shape is not really my bag. Besides, there were already two full-length CC posts written about these, so what, if anything, could be added?
Incidentally, in most Francophone countries, these were known as the “Toyota MR,” as MR2, when pronounced in French, sounds exactly like the word for “shitty.” Toyota is usually good at avoiding these little linguistic mishaps compared to most Japanese carmakers, but in this instance, they did kind of screw it up. There are a few Francophone areas within certain countries that might prove problematic: I’m not sure what happened in Québec, for instance. In Switzerland, where French is spoken by less than a quarter of the population, Toyota just made do with the MR2 name, causing much sniggering in the western side of the Confederation.
Unfortunate alphanumeric aside, the MR2 was a landmark for Toyota – their first true sports car, in a way. Putting that 4-cyl. engine amidships was a radical idea when first attempted back in the ‘60s, but by the ‘80s it was a well-proven solution for fast two-seaters. Therein lies a conundrum: did Toyota get there entirely on their own? There are some interesting discrepancies in the sources about the involvement of Lotus in planning the MR2 – it all depends on what language is searched.
The English-language Interweb is adamant that Lotus and Toyota were thick as thieves in the early ‘80s. Lotus were one of the mid-engine pioneers of the ‘60s, so they definitely had the technological know-how that Toyota lacked. Toyota, on the other hand, has some very interesting engine and component technology available for Lotus to plunder. But the death of Colin Chapman, in December 1982, and the ripple effect of the DeLorean debacle on Lotus scared the Japanese away – though they pretty much had inked the MR2’s blueprints by that point. Toyota, who had an important financial stake in Lotus, quietly sold their shares to GM as soon as they could.
Japanese-language sources, for their part, are keen to play down the Lotus side of the story as much as possible. They talk of “rumours” of Lotus’s involvement and of a Lotus test driver being hired to finalize the suspension settings, or that the Lotus-engineered MR2 had to be entirely re-engineered by Toyota to keep costs low. It is certainly true is that the MR2’s 1000kg weight is not very Lotus-like, but build quality is also in quite a different league. But those suspensions sure look a lot like Chapman struts, and certainly bear no resemblance to anything used in other Toyotas of that era.
The Japanese-language sites also like to mention the Pontiac Fiero and the Fiat X1/9 in the MR2’s origin story, just to water down the British connection even more. The Fiat could have served as inspiration, I suppose, but the Fiero is completely contemporary to the MR2, so I really don’t see what role it could have played. Google translation does not allow me to really ascertain some of the nuances, but the overall effect is clear: this was a Toyota product through and through, end of discussion.
Given that Lotus were getting ready to manufacture a car using Toyota’s 1.6 litre engine (the very one that is in this MR2, if I’m not mistaken), the stillborn Lotus M90 Elan, Lotus’s involvement in the MR2 seems to be a bit more intensive than some folks in Japan would like to think. That’s just my feeling, of course, but given how poisonous Lotus became by the mid-‘80s, Toyota probably wanted to erase that collaboration from the memories of their countrymen, despite Lotus being held in very high regard by Japanese gearheads.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the MR2 went on sale in June 1984 with choice of either an 83hp 1.5 litre engine for the S trim (only available for the JDM) or the 1.6 for the G and G-Limited trim levels. That 4A-GELU engine provided 130hp initially, but it was soon superseded by the supercharged 4A-GZE version – good for 145hp. Transmission was either by a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed auto.
Our feature car’s rear spoiler-mounted LED third brake light means this is a late model. It might even be a Super Edition II, which was sold from January 1989 to the end of production nine months later. Over 160,000 units were sold around the world – the majority (over 95,000) went to North America. Japan only kept around 40,000 for domestic consumption.
This supercharged MR2 may not be my cup of tea, but I do recognize its importance in Toyota’s history, even if that history is somewhat unclear. That just adds a little mystery and controversy to the whole deal – never a bad thing. And I’m sure there are many CCurbivores whose salivary glands will have swiched to overdrive when seeing this machine, as this is probably the best version of this generation MR2, looking like it just came off the showroom floor, and in a very cool colour to boot. Nothing “shitty” about it, if you’ll pardon my French.
Curbside Classic: 1989 Toyota MR2 SC – That’s Mister Two To You, by Ed Stembridge
Curbside Classic: 1986 Toyota MR2 – They Call Me MISTER Two!, by Tom Klockau
Cohort Pic(k) Of The Day: 1988 Toyota MR2 Supercharged, by Jim Klein