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You can’t beat climbing into a cold car in the dead of night and firing the engine to wake the neighbours, then setting your seat just so as your eyes adjust to the murky gloom ahead.
It reminds me of that brilliant Volkswagen Golf advert, overlaid with the earthy tones of Richard Burton reciting Under Milk Wood.
Dylan Thomas wrote of hearing the dew falling and the hushed breathing of the ‘black and folded town’ – although that’s a scene as far from London as it’s possible to get.
Unlike the Welsh fishing village of Thomas’s imagination, the capital never really sleeps. At best it manages a fitful doze as city boys drift home under fluorescent lights with a last-gasp dash to mind the gap, and empty buses are laid up for the night.
With streets bathed in half-shut neon, there’s no better time to drive in the city. The silence begs to be broken, and we’ve brought just the tool for the job.
Dropping down to second and getting back on the accelerator, hard, the streets of Soho come alive to the sound of a screaming twin-cam tearing apart the quiet night.
Our car isn’t the most powerful in the world, nor the fastest – and certainly not the prettiest – but with the windows down and the electric sound of that engine winding up to 7000rpm, you wouldn’t swap it for the world.
Unexpectedly, it is a Toyota – although a model that flies beneath more recognisable and exotic in-house models such as the MR2 or Supra.
In recent years, Toyota has hit something of a vein of form, from the aggressive and shapely rebirth of its legendary Supra – a joint project with BMW that shares the majority of its mechanicals with the Z4 – to the GT86, the universally lauded product of the firm’s alliance with Subaru.
But why did the latter adopt a strange numerical name – and why the sudden urge to reject outright power in favour of light weight, balance and driver involvement?
The answer to both of those questions lies in the most unlikely of nameplates: Corolla.
Or, perhaps more accurately: Sprinter Trueno and Levin, as the model was branded for different dealer networks in its home market.
So named for a derivation of the Spanish for ‘thunder’ and an archaic English word for ‘lightning’, the Trueno had pop-up headlights while the Levin received fixed units.
‘Our’ car, a temporary gift from Toyota’s heritage fleet, is a UK-market AE86, a late example of the 1986-’87 facelift model known as kouki.
To the uninitiated, the AE86 Corolla may seem if not uninspiring then certainly restrained, not helped by it sharing its name with the decidedly bland front-drive four- and five-door variants.
The bodywork is best described as neat, with a wedge-like nose housing those fixed headlights and a sloping fastback that is businesslike rather than flamboyant: it’s the sort of car your grandparents might have come home with after promising themselves a sports car.
There are no turbochargers or superchargers, no gimmicks or tricks, just a conventional front-engined, rear-wheel-drive layout with a five-speed manual gearbox and that rev-happy 1.6-litre engine.
But scratch beneath the surface and a picture begins to emerge of a machine that far exceeds the sum of its parts.
What little weight there is – just 900kg for the lightest JDM GT model – is near perfectly balanced front to rear, with the in-line ‘four’ counterbalanced by a 6.7in rear differential.
Each corner sports disc brakes, while suspension is independent at the front via a MacPherson strut arrangement, with a well-located four-link live axle and coil springs at the rear.
But what really sets the car apart, and serves as the calling card of the top-spec AE86, is the 1587cc double-overhead-cam 4A-GE – a truly special engine that found a perfect home in the Corolla.
The ‘Blue Top’ was an incredibly light and strong unit, introduced in 1983 for the launch of the AE86 and boasting an output of 123bhp.
Featuring a wide valve-angle and large intake ports, the 4A-GE is a high-revving masterpiece with its redline set at 7800rpm.
It’s also clever, benefiting from the Toyota Variable Induction System – or T-VIS. Switching between the dual intake runners fitted to the butterfly valves at 4200rpm, it manages airflow to maximise torque and power as engine speeds rise.
Toyota’s 45,000-mile example is largely standard, but for the addition of a fruitier sports exhaust and tubular manifold that allow this gem of an engine to breathe and bellow as soon as you turn the key.
Trying to sheepishly leave the cul-de-sac before too many bedroom lights flicker on, at first it feels – or rather sounds – a bit much.
That all changes after a few minutes as you settle into the comfortable driver’s seat and survey your kingdom: a very ’80s cabin with blue cloth seats and plenty of black plastic.
It’s par for the course, but there are a few neat touches, such as the dashboard brightness ring that sits around the headlight dial. You turn it up for a better night-time view of the big tachometer and the speedo that reads to a generous 140mph-plus.
Most AE86s have been breathed on to some extent and Toyota’s car is no exception, boasting stiffer, lower suspension and a strut-brace across the front towers, in addition to that exhaust system.
It’s the sort of car that enjoys being pushed and leaned on, and, while the ride is a bit choppy, it doesn’t take long to get your eye in.
The steering is unassisted and beautifully weighted, and everything works in such harmony that the focus quickly falls on gearchanges and that fabulous engine note: it’s the perfect recipe for a spirited drive into the city.
Even at modest speeds the car feels alive underneath you, so it comes as no surprise to discover that the model excelled at circuit racing.
As Japanese drifters and underground racers were getting to grips with the Hachi-Roku (Eight-Six), its mark was made at the highest levels of European competition.
A fixture in the European Touring Car Championship since 1984, it took just three seasons for Toyota to top the points table for manufacturers, beating along the way a formidable list of opponents that included Mercedes-Benz 190E Cosworths and BMW E30 M3s.
In the same year, Toyota’s factory-backed assault on the British Saloon Car Championship bore fruit straight away, with Chris Hodgetts, Alan Minshaw and Barry Sheene all drawn to the Corolla GT.
But it was Hodgetts that had the greatest success, taking class wins in eight out of nine races in 1986, only giving ground once at Brands Hatch to the Peugeot 205 GTI of Mikael Sundström. When the points were tallied, Hodgetts had bested both Andy Rouse in his fearsome Ford Sierra RS Cosworth and Richard Longman’s Escort RS Turbo, who dominated groups A and B, respectively.
The 1987 season brought greater changes as the BSCC became the British Touring Car Championship and the classes were overhauled.
Despite the shake-up, and testament to the remarkable competitiveness of the AE86, Hodgetts swept aside all comers in Group D to clinch back-to-back titles ahead of Mark Hales and Jon Dooley, whose boosted RS Turbo and Alfa Romeo 75 Turbo had battled so hard in Group B.
Hodgetts’ winning ways ended when he swapped the Corolla for a Supra in 1988.
Despite its motorsport success in Europe, the Corolla AE86 lacked the mini-supercar looks of the MR2 or the outright performance of the Nissan Skyline – models that more easily escaped the gravity of their home country.
Instead, the cult of the AE86 as we know it today – so intertwined with popular culture – was born out of a uniquely Japanese sport that began to emerge in the 1970s following the sideways exploits of Kunimitsu Takahashi.
‘Drifting’, as it would become known, gathered pace in the 1980s, coming at the perfect time for the AE86, which was quickly prized for its front-engined, rear-wheel-drive layout and light weight.
Appreciation of the model outside Japan only really grew in the mid-1990s, coinciding with the launch of Shuichi Shigeno’s hit manga comic and anime cartoon series Initial D, which starred tofu delivery boy and self-taught drift racer Takumi Fujiwara and his father Bunta’s Sprinter Trueno GT-Apex.
Worldwide, readers were captivated by Shigeno’s vivid illustrations of the white-and-black Trueno cutting through the streets of Gunma prefecture and the passes of Mount Haruna – a sort of Michel Vaillant for the youngtimer generation – and it sparked a wave of interest, particularly from the USA.
Just to cement its appeal in more mainstream media was an appearance in cult video game Gran Turismo just a couple of years later.
Yet the lure of the AE86 extends far beyond niche-interest publications and automotive competition subsets, and nowhere is that made more clear than when we park the car in the capital in the small hours.
What could so easily be dismissed as just another 1990s import serves as a magnet for anyone younger than the car, desperate to know what it is (no, it’s not a De Lorean) and what it’s worth (more than you’d think).
It serves as a timely reminder of the changing tastes of each new generation, a fact underlined by the recent sale at auction of a UK-market AE86 for just shy of £50,000.
Our trip into London is just a bit of fun. For all this car’s ‘Midnight Club’ street-racer associations, the Congestion Zone doesn’t lend itself to an enthusiastic drive, even at night, and we never achieve the otherworldly calm of Dylan Thomas.
Even during a pandemic this is a city in constant motion, a ceaseless cycle of street sweepers, recycling trucks and Uber drivers, one day blurring into the next.
It’s only when I part company with snapper Edleston and point the Corolla’s nose south that the chaos starts to fade.
Through Kennington, Brixton, Streatham and Croydon, the streets get darker and the roller-shuttered shops more spread out until the border of the Surrey Hills, bathed in inky dark and fog that obscures all but our headlights.
For mile after mile the road winds into the trees, and for the first time we can properly stretch the car’s legs: quick squirts of power between traffic lights and roadworks swapped for long sweepers and irresistible straights.
It’s out here that you gel with the AE86 – just as racers, fictional and real, got to know it on the Three Mountains of Jōmō. As the needle rises and you forge into the darkness, you don’t need to read a comic to understand the Corolla – you’re living it.
Images: Max Edleston
Thanks to Toyota GB
Toyota Corolla AE86
- Sold/number built 1983-’87/2717
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc 1587cc ‘four’, with fuel injection and T-VIS variable induction system
- Max power 123bhp @ 6600rpm
- Max torque 107lb ft @ 5200rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD via a limited-slip differential
- Suspension: front independent, by MacPherson struts rear live axle, four links, Panhard rod, coil springs and telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 13ft 10in (4210mm)
- Width 5ft 4in (1630mm)
- Height 4ft 4¾in (1340mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 10½in (2400mm)
- Weight 2138lb (970kg)
- 0-60mph 8.3 secs
- Top speed 122mph
- Mpg 36.7
- Price new £6995
- Price now £50,000*
*Price correct at date of original publication