The drifters dream car

By David Linklater

In the 80s a new motor sport caught on and Mum's Toyota burned a lot of rubber

The mid 80s Toyota AE86is an emblem of all that was wonderful about that decade of motoring memories. Photo / David Linklater
The mid 80s Toyota AE86is an emblem of all that was wonderful about that decade of motoring memories. Photo / David Linklater

The mid-1980s Toyota AE86 is an emblem of all that was wonderful about that decade of motoring memories.

I argued long and hard with my 6-year-old son, Alex, about why the Toyota AE86 was cool.

I was on a bit of a high, granted, because the chance to drive this one - owned and partially restored by Toyota New Zealand in its (latest) 86 coupe launch programme - was a bit of a bucket list thing.

He was not impressed. Clearly ruined by too much Top Gear television exotica, he thought it smelled funny (admittedly, there was a whiff of petrol fumes inside) and couldn't understand why the driver-side door handle kept coming to bits.

I was persistent, though. Showed him a succession of YouTube clips featuring the AE86 and Keiichi Tsuchiya, also known as the Drift King. Because if you're 6 and something's on YouTube, it's important.

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but the AE86 was one of the last great rear-drive small cars - light, beautifully balanced - and Japanese racing driver Tsuchiya became famous in the 1980s for drifting the little Toyota all over the track.

He has said in numerous interviews (again, let YouTube be your guide) that it was usually because he was so far ahead and he didn't want the fans to get bored. Well, it's a good story.

What is undeniably true is that Tsuchiya and the AE86 played a big part in popularising the sport of drifting as we know it today.

It's a perfectly circular career path for Tsuchiya, who started as a street racer but later became a polished professional (he came second overall in the 1999 Le Mans 24-hour race, in the Toyota GT-One). He returned later in his career to drifting - ultimately as a judge.

Some of those clips are magnificent, but Alex remained unconvinced: "If it's so great, why don't you do a big drift?"

There's the problem. I'm more the Drift King's half-time mikan-boy than a skilled sideways driver. Besides, I don't own a tiny harness (for him) and a racetrack (for me).

None of that stopped me enjoying the AE86. Make no mistake, a 27-year-old car is a 27-year-old car, especially one with 330,000km on the clock: it never quite felt like it would start (but always did), it rattled all the time and it was really hard work around town. Small cars are so much easier to drive these days and we've all gone soft.

But the car was simply delightful on the open road. The 1.6-litre engine was crisp, the gearchange quick, the chassis beautifully balanced.

Even if you're looking out the windscreen rather than the side windows in corners, you can feel the weight shift underneath and the car telegraphs every change in attitude perfectly.

The fact that it's now a relatively rare machine of significance doesn't hurt in the tugging-at-your-emotions stakes, of course. If you're old enough to remember the AE86 in its prime (1983-87, since you asked), of course.

Not if you're a cold-hearted 6-year-old.

Good things from 1983Nineteen eighty-three wasn't just a good year for lightweight rear-drive sports cars. There was a lot of other stuff released that would prove to have lasting impact. The Space Shuttle Challenger undertook its maiden flight, Swatch launched a range of funny plastic timepieces, and Return of the Jedi was in the cinemas. The first version of Microsoft Word was also released, and when they finally get it right that'll be fantastic too.

- NZ Herald

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