AE86 History: An In-Depth Look at A Legend

Ever wonder what the origins of the AE86 were? or what the hell those model names mean? or even still what the differences were between all those models, body styles or trim specs? Well pull up a chair, slap on your readin’ glasses and get yourself a nice strong coffee, you’re about to be schooled in a little history – AE86 Style.

Toyota launched the AE86 in 1983 as part of the fifth generation Toyota Corolla lineup. It would be the last Corolla (AE) to be released in RWD format. The designers had been given a directive: Produce a car worthy of dedication as the last model in a line of true old-school white-knuckle driving Corollas.

In this spirit, Toyota Japan released two models. One sporting the latest in automotive design; the pop-up headlight. They named it the Trueno Sprinter.

It’s brother in arms, carrying the much recognised and esteemed fixed-headlight design of ages-old was named the Corolla Levin.

They also saw it fit to provide option of the convenience of a hatch-back or the svelte sexy lines of a sporty coupe.

Toyota thought at this point they could produce a cheaper, less sports-oriented class of similarly designed vehicles and called it the AE85: The little brother of the AE86 who unlike his brawnier kin, sported a smaller capacity, single-cam engine and much less luxurious trim options but still enclosed in the same classic body designs.

Why be greedy they then thought? “We can show the world our last great Corolla we have created!” and so they did. AE86’s were sold worldwide to almost every continent. Other countries had their own specific models though, each tailored to suit the specific domestic market it was destined for.

Australia received a variant of the Corolla Levin hatch-back shape with very basic specifictions and named it the Toyota Sprinter. Much like the AE85 that was released in Japan, the Sprinter was missing a lot of what made the AE86 go and handle yet it still retained the AE86 chassis code.

The AE86 went by the name of Corolla GT-S in the United States and along to provide for the cheaper alternative was it’s little brother, the Corolla SR5. They were both sold in the Trueno Sprinter shape with either coupe or hatch-back styles as dealership choices.

Europe, who themselves can boast a cacophony of models, styles and trim levels, received the Corolla Levin in either hatch-back or coupe and, like in Japan, named the Toyota Corolla with the Levin dropped from the name. Trims varied, however they were all badged as GT (also the 3 door) or SR5 (Only Switzerland and Austria).

The bizzare names that Toyota Japan gave their models didn’t get carried over into most of the other parts of the world. The names Trueno and Levin were used for older ‘high-grade’ spec Corollas and Sprinters, such as the TE27 or the TE71, but the two monikers were a mainstay within all trim levels in the Japanese market for the AE86. The name Trueno means ‘thunder’ and Levin translates loosely to ‘lightning’ . These names could not have fitted the AE86 any better.

The names described almost perfectly the exact feeling one would get driving one, not to mention that the motorsport world felt like it was struck by lightning and hammered with thunder when they hit the circuits all over the globe, dominating almost everything in their class. These gutsy little twin-cam 1.6 Liter rear wheel drive Corollas stood up to some of the hardest opponents in the racing world during the time of their release and didn’t falter.

One aspect of the car that is famous in its own rights, and largely the appeal of the car itself is the engine: the 4A-GE. Designed around a 16 valve twin-cam head, it pushes out 97kW in stock form, through a 5 speed gear box. This engine shared its origins with the much celebrated Cosworth BDA engine and merits exactly why these engines are so legendary!

The 4A-GE also has and always will have what we think is the best sounding engine note known to man. Add this to the simple-designed, rev-happy, responsive characteristics we have come to love and no doubt you’ll agree these were the reasons behind its power and success.

Another interesting thing to note is the AE86 did not change much in their 4-5 years of production. What they did change was mostly cosmetic so they did come to be named in distinct ‘series’. The first is commonly referred to in AE86 circles as ‘Zenki’. In Japanese this translated to meaning ‘the first‘ or ‘early-series’. The latter ‘Kouki’ meaning ‘last’ or ‘late-series referred to the face-lift versions of each model. These changes from Zenki to Kouki consisted of body features such as lights, bumpers and colors and interior features such as seat design, plastics colors and fabric trim changes. The mechanics of what made the car so great were left 99% unchanged.

The periods for each of the series is outlined below:

Zenki = From Aug. 1983 to Jul. 1985

Kouki = From Aug. 1985 to Jul. 1987

Still, after 2 years of production Toyota Japan maintained the choice between either the 2-door coupe or the 3-door hatch-back. These could come with trim options ranging from power steering, power windows, sun roof, fog lights, extra aero body bits. These different options would class the model of AE86 you purchased.

The models consisted of,

  • GT / GT-V (the GT was for the 2-door, the GTV was for the 3-door, )
    This was the pure sports model with all the weighty items shaved off. Came with the same grade “Lasre Pegasus” suspension, LSD differential and interior trim design as the GT Apex grade, but without the ‘luxury’ components. Bodykit (mentioned below) is now an optional extra as well as Power steering, sunroof and or Aircon. Disc brakes were fitted as standard equipment, front discs are vented whilst rear discs were solid.
  • GT APEX
    The top of the range or ‘luxury’ model with the most options as standard equipment. It Came with everything the GTV did but with lots of options such as power windows, power steering, cruise control, sunroof, power mirrors, climate control (Aircon is standard), digital gauge cluster, up-spec Pioneer stereo, OEM body-kit (front lip, sideskits + rear spoiler boot lid lip) amongst many others.

Of course all these models were availble in each shape be it trueno Hatch-back or Levin coupe or visa versa. You could also get these in a range of colors including the colors it is most famous for, white and black striped scheme known to AE86 owners as ‘panda’.

So now with all this in mind why is this little budget-sports car so popular? Some would argue it is all just hype thanks to a certain comic strip created in 1995 by Shuichi Shigeno known as Initial-D, which was later turned in to a Anime series in 1999. The airing of which set off a chain reaction of fame for both the series, the car and the type of driving shown in the aniime – Drifting.

In this era of tuning, modifying and owning a performance car, I’m sure most are aware of this unique form of driving which the AE86 pays thanks for a lot of it’s resurgence of fame. It just so happens, the man who helped put drifting on the mainstream motorsport map is also responsible for the fame of the AE86. Keiichi Tsuchiya and his obsession with the AE86s, stemmed from his unique driving style within the Japanese Fuji Freshman race series that involved using drifting as a nontraditional passing method in mid-corner. He has been a driving force behind education about the merits of the hachiroku to the masses, even creating the ‘AE86 Club’ video/dvd series featuring only AE86’s.

It\'s Keiichi!

Others would argue that the popularity is due to the simplicity of being a cheap, rear wheel drive car that is perfect for all kinds of racing, rallying and drifting.

It is obvious that the Toyota AE86 is as popular now as when it was released back in the 1980’s. With such events as the N2 race series, AE86 festivals held in Japan to Ireland all the way to America and even Australia devoted purely to them, many questions arise. Will this growing popularity ever slow or stop? Will there be any left in 10yrs or even for our children?

Most of these questions can never be answered until time comes to pass, but we know that the AE86 means alot to us and just as much, if not more to a lot of others out there. Yes, we know it’s only a hunk of steel formed into a 80s Japanese car shape but there is something really unique about the car that just hits that sweet spot in your heart. It’s that car that in your years of aging you will look back and remember the great times, the money and the feelings that came with owning and driving this awesome little car and that big smile that you used to wear on your face, will again refuse to go away.

Thanks to Banpei for the Euro info.

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