(first posted 1/14/2016) Toyota’s batting average has generally been high over the decades, but not everything carrying the big “T” has been a long-term winner. One of Toyota’s biggest challenges was in what is commonly called the “pony car” market. Created and often led by Ford’s Mustang, this class of sporty cars was once huge, and it obviously seemed like ripe fruit for the picking. And for a while, the fruit hung low and the picking was pretty good.
Toyota’s first Celica, which arrived in 1971, looked more Camaro than Mustang, but with a decided Japanese edge to it too. And it got off to a good start in the US. Of course it was smaller and lower-powered, but it was the analogue of the Corona to the Impala, and plenty of folks were quite happy to ride in a 7/8 scale Japanese-built Camaro or Mustang, especially since interior space wasn’t really all that much smaller, except in width. Its 90 hp 2.0 L 18R SOHC four was rugged and economical, but it wasn’t about to worry anything other than a six cylinder Camaro or Mustang.
When the Celica sported a very Mustang-esque fastback a few years later, its intentions were clearer than ever. But it was also obvious that whatever the Celica (and its other Japanese competitors) was, it was not a true pony car competitor. The four-cylinder compact sporty coupe became a market of its own, and the Celica went on to have a long and fairly successful life playing a dominant role in it.
With the appearance of the second generation Celica (top), styled in the US at Toyota’s new Calty design studios, Toyota became more ambitious. It extended the regular Celica’s nose to make room for its M-Series inline six, the same engine that also powered the Crown and would soon be familiar in the Cressida. And it named the augmented coupe the Celica Supra. The name “Long Nose” was apparently already taken.
The Supra, with its very mildly-tuned 110 hp 2.6 liter six and velour interior, was clearly no Trans Am chaser either. “Plush, Lush” were the key words here; in other words, the Celica Brougham. Well, it was in the heart of the Brougham Epoch.
The Supra found some takers, as in Toyota’s key market in California by this time there were plenty of affluent dyed-in-the-kimono Toyota fans ready for some “powerful pleasure”. This really was the first Lexus coupe. And in Japan, that’s certainly the role the Celica XX (as it was called there) played.
The second generation (A60) Celica Supra still shared the back two-thirds of the Celica’s body, but it was decidedly more ambitious and sporty in its intent and capabilities. The M-Series six now sported a DOHC head, which made between 145 and 161 hp during the course of its run in the US (1982 – 1986). And there was a new independent rear suspension. The Supra was a bit pricey compared to a Camaro or Firebird of the times, but build quality and reliability were in totally different…planets. The eighties were a low point for GM’s F-Body cars, and although the Mustang was improving, the Supra was in a league of its own in that regard.
This generation of Supra came the closest to being a genuine pony car competitor. But the horses were getting more powerful by the day, and actually catching them was another story.
For the third generation (A70), the Supra parted company with the Celica, both in name and in its platform as the Celica now went to a new FWD platform. There’s little doubt that sleek new GM’s F-Bodies of 1982 had an influence on its styling. It arrived in the spring of 1986, with a 200 hp version of the DOHC six. Unfortunately, a change in head gasket material led to them blowing, almost inevitably. It was the one blemish in an otherwise highly-regarded engine in terms of longevity.
No, this is not a stock Supra Turbo engine; good luck finding one, as they’ve all been blown to kingdom come. I mean, boosted to the kingdom of the Fast and Furious. When it came to developing a cult following, the Supra was every bit the equal or more than that of the pony cars.
The Supra and the JDM Toyota Soarer shared the same platform, except that the Soarer had a three inch longer wheelbase. The next generation Soarer came to the US as the Lexus SC 300/400.
Unfortunately, I don’t have ready access to the price of the when they were new, but I believe they were $20k plus, for the naturally aspirated version and at least $25k for the Turbo. A Camaro Z28 stickered at about $15k in 1991. That put the Turbo right in Corvette territory, price-wise.
The 1990s coincided with a period when the Japanese yen was strong, and Toyota could no longer compete on price, for the most part. So the strategy was to accentuate the quality and content, during what became known as the “fat content” era of Toyotas. That worked almost surprisingly well for many of their cars, during a time when a Camry XLE went for the equivalent of $40k in today’s dollars.
The other problem was that the whole sporty coupe market was falling apart in the latter 1990s. F-Body sales swooned steadily, and in 2002, the plug was pulled. The Mustang got a reprieve, but only through sever penny-pinching in the S-95 generation, updating the old Fox body platform rather than a new one.
Supra sales in the US fell steadily during this generation. The first model year, 1986, a pretty healthy 33,283 units were still sold. That number fell steadily throughout its run, and in its last year, 1992, all of 1,193 found buyers.
The next generation (A80) took the Supra into very serious performance realms. Damn the price tag; full boost ahead. The twin-turbocharged version now had 320 hp, but is there still one left in the wold that hasn’t had its boost increased? The new 2JZ inline six could take seemingly infinite amounts of it, and still survive. I don’t have sales numbers, but by now, the Supra was largely in a category of its own, and something more along the lines of a Corvette chaser than a pony car wanna-be. This generation Supra was withdrawn form the US market in 1998 due to low sales, although it continued in Japan until 2002.
Meanwhile, just a few years later the American pony car began its revival with the new 2005 Mustang, followed by the Camaro and Challenger. The American neo-pony cars’s success is in no small part due to their heritage, and one the the imports have been effectively shut out from.
That’s not to say that the Supra is dead by any means. The Lexus RC is very much in the same vein, and with a starting price of $40k, it’s effectively cheaper too. Why do folks keep saying Toyota only builds dishwasher-dull cars? And who care which logo is on the hood?