The Toyota Corolla turns 50 this year, and for those who didn’t know, the ubiquitous and inoffensive little runabout has managed to quietly rack up quite an impressive history for itself. Over 43 million of them have been sold since ’66 — more than the Ford Model T, Volkswagen Beetle, and Mini combined. It’s been the world’s best-selling car model since 1974. Yet unlike the other cheap and cheerful legends (the aforementioned three, Citroën 2CV, Fiat 500, Honda Civic), Toyota has never quite captured the hearts and minds of gearheads. Except for that one time, that is…
From 1983 to 1987, Toyota built the AE86 Corolla, inadvertently creating one of the world’s greatest cult cars. Thirty-plus years on, the AE86 has — incredibly — joined a club generally populated by cars like the Lamborghini Countach and Porsche 959: It’s crossed over from the real-world and become a phenomenon seen more on posters and in artfully done photo shoots on enthusiast sites than experienced in reality. Books could be written on the AE86, and frankly, we’re surprised there haven’t been any yet. It’s a legendary corner-carver, a drift pioneer, a pop culture icon, a design classic, and above all one hell of a great everyday driver’s car. Like most classics featured here, we can’t claim to be experts on the AE86 — for that, check out Ben Hsu’s great work at Japanese Nostalgic Car — but we can give you a rough sketch of the ultimate Corolla.
It begins in the early ’80s, when major automakers began ditching rear-wheel drive en masse for front-wheel drive. While the front-engine/front-wheel drive layout had been sold as luxury for decades (more predictable handling, increased traction), technology had made the layout increasingly affordable, and the compact drivetrain allowed manufacturers to increase interior space while downsizing the cars outside. Toyota began its big changeover with the Camry in ’82, Corolla in ’83, and Celica in ’85. But the Camry was new to a number of global markets, and the Celica was a dedicated sports car; even then, the Corolla was Toyota’s big seller. It wanted to capitalize and expand the car’s lineup. So it built a Corolla sports car to slot below the Supra and Celica.
Launched in May 1983, the internally-designated E80 model was the first Corolla with a front-wheel drive layout — but there was a catch: While the slab-sided sedans and five-door hatches were built on the new platform, two-door coupes and three-door liftbacks would carry on with the previous rear-wheel E70 architecture. But while the E80s suffered from wheezy pushrod engines, the new cars — internally known as AE86 — benefitted from Toyota’s new fuel-injected, 16-valve, twin-cam, 4A-GE engine. In top trim, it cranked out 128 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque (not bad for ’83), and while it wasn’t a straight-line rocket, its four-wheel disc brakes, independent suspension, and 7,500 RPM redline made it an absolute blast to drive.
In Japan, the AE86s came in two forms: Trueno (Spanish for “thunder”) and Levin (Middle English for “lightning”); each was available as a two-door coupe and wedge-shaped liftback. The Levin was exclusive to Japan’s Toyota Corolla Stores, and had fixed headlights and a front fascia that was more in line with with the sedan. The Trueno was available at the Toyota Vista Stores, and had the more famous (and cutting-edge for the time) pop-up headlights. Keep in mind, no one referred to these cars in the mid-’80s: “A” designated the 4A-GE mill, “E” and “8″ made a part of the E80 series, and “6″ represented the car’s place in the Corolla lineup. The only place you probably would’ve seen AE86 in print back in ’83 was when you were looking the car’s chassis plate.
In the U.S., the E80 Corolla was a massive hit. In 1985, Toyota partnered with General Motors and opened the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) plant (now the Tesla factory). For the last two years, virtually every Corolla (and identical Chevy Nova) sold in the U.S. was built at NUMMI — except for the AE86 cars.
In America, the AE86 was sent over with the 4A-GEC (because it passed the strict California emissions standards), and cranked out a seemingly unimpressive 112 horsepower and 96 pound-feet of torque. Over here, it came in three trim levels: the base car, the intermediate SR5 and the range-topping GTS model. The base car and the SR5 were penalized by a weak 87-horsepower powerplant, but the GTS stayed brilliant, complete with an optional limited-slip differential. But it didn’t exactly set the world on fire. In SR5 trim, prices could climb close to $13,000 ($28K today) — nearly twice as much as a base Corolla, and well into Ford Mustang 5.0 and Chevy Camaro Iroc-Z territory. In 1987, the Corolla entered its sixth-generation, and the rear-wheel performance Corollas were replaced with new front-wheel drive models. But the story doesn’t end there.
Even when Truenos and Levins were still at Toyota’s stores, Japanese drivers knew how special these cars were. They may have been sold as economy cars (relatively speaking), and they may have been underpowered for some gearheads, but the fact remained that they were incredibly light (around 2,300 pounds), stuck to the roads like glue, loved to rev, and were easy to modify. The AE86 seemed to especially love winding Japanese roads and mountain passes, and once a new motorsport called Drifting began to gain popularity in the late ’80s, the AE86 became one of the earliest darlings of the sport.
By the ’90s, Japanese car culture began to be exported in a big way, with video games, enthusiast magazines, and manga making their way to kids around the world. In 1995, Shuichi Shigeno created Initial D, a manga series about Japanese kids in the drift scene. In 1997, it became an Anime series and took off all over the world — of course, the main character drove a Trueno. The AE86 was also featured in Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, ensuring a generation of kids grew up lusting after them in living rooms all over the world. By the 2010s, those kids had grown up, had money, and began snapping up AE86s like there was no tomorrow. Today, they’re a bona fide classic.
So here we are 29 years since the last AE86 rolled off the assembly line, 21 years since Initial D first appeared, and the auto world has finally embraced the car as an all-time great. It was light, quick, and one of the best driving cars of its era. But countless AE86s have been modified, raced, drifted, and rebuilt by an entire generation of gearheads. It’s a car that gets people into cars. It’s a dream car that can still be obtained. It can still give a palate-cleansing analog driving experience at a time when most cars are mind-numbingly electronic. Its legend looms so large that when Toyota introduced its affordable new sports car in 2012, it called it the 86. The story of the AE86 is too big to be told in one place because Toyota is only a small part of it, and it’s still being told. There aren’t many cars, ever, that could claim a legacy as grand as that.