Guest contributor: Jorge Azcoitia on his 1986 Toyota Corolla GT-S (AE86)
Before the Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ/Toyota GT86 arrived (to great fanfare) as the return of the lightweight, affordable, rear wheel drive sports car, there was this some thirty years before it— its namesake, the Toyota Corolla GT-S, aka the AE86. Jorge Azcoitia, Madrileño-turned-Californian and AE86 owner, recently sat down with us to talk about his, and to explain what makes the Hachiroku (Japanese for “eight-six”) special.
MCB: Why the AE86?
JA: Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t learn about the AE86 only after watching “Initial D“. That definitely inspired me as I know what it’s like to be an underdog, having owned a stock 2004 Renaultsport Clio 182 Cup prior to the AE86.
I used to do a lot of mountain driving in the Clio and chased a few friends with faster cars, especially a blue Evo VIII with a big brake kit, semi-slick tires, and other minor mods. I must say when I was chasing him at night, if his brake lights didn’t stay lit for more than 1-2 seconds, I was forced to not even lift my foot from the throttle just to keep up! Thrilling, scary, and fun all at the same time.
I loved that car and how confident it made you thanks to the excellent steering feedback, even though it wasn’t a particularly outright fast car. But in the mountains, trusting in what your car is going to do is what gives you more than half of your speed. So I was looking for a car that was spiritually similar to the Clio.
MCB: Describe your history with the car and how you found it.
JA: When I first came to live in the US a couple of years ago, I was originally hoping to acquire something classic and American – a ’68 Mustang Fastback would have been my dream – but found them pretty much out of reach. So, I started looking at other cars that were more within my budget, such as 1st gen Miatas, Merkurs XR4s, E36 M3s, and Audi Quattros. One day I suddenly realized that southern California, where I now lived, was pretty much the best place to look for AE86s (although finding a clean one was much harder than I thought), so I also included them among my searches and before I knew it I narrowed my search almost solely to the Hachiroku, as they are affectionately known.
But during the whole month I spent looking for this car, my days were spent traveling all across LA and Orange Counties looking at the cars I had been researching the night before. It was exhausting and I was getting pretty desperate. Just before I paid for a beat up but cheap Miata, I learned through a contact about a blue AE86 that was being offered somewhere. Pretty excited but very aware of how badly these cars were usually treated, I went to look at it and it was the first AE86 I had tested that had no grinding gears, a full (not nasty looking) interior, and everything in working order: heater, power steering, air condition, and even the original Toyota radio! This had to be it, but the price was too high… I thought about it for a couple of days and decided to buy it. I thought I overpaid even there and then, but the more I’ve had it, the more I think it was a great deal, and if anything, actually, a bargain for the fun it has provided me.
MCB: What’s it like to own?
JA: Well, at first the car’s suspension was punishingly stiff. I even thought it was just down to me owning a car with racy suspension that had technology that was new about 30 years ago (given that the AE86 is based on the previous generation Corolla from the early ’80s). What it ended up being was a poorly adjusted ride height with no bump stops or suspension bounce stroke whatsoever, and a few suspension details that needed sorting. After a few alignments, corner balancing and many, many fun track days to put it to the test (about one every odd week for almost a whole year!), I ended up fine-tuning the handling to my exact preference. Right now I basically point and turn and then straighten the wheel before I even hit the apex. Yes, the car is that balanced.
As a street car, you can really tell it’s an old car, with its own charms and quirks, but then again, you always feel like a driver and not a commuter when you’re behind the wheel, making every on and off ramp an adventure ;) I get a lot of thumbs ups and praise from guys, and even a few women think it’s quite funky (although they’re in the minority).
Another high point of this particular car is the noise. I’m an intake noise sucker, and I hope that in the future this car will have some ITBs to complete the eargasm experience. But the “High Power” exhaust made by the reputable aftermarket Japanese brand HKS give the car a very ’80s racy sound that I am happy to say is also very livable as long as you are just cruising under 5000 RPM. The fact it makes the car breathe much better at higher revs compared to the stock exhaust (which I use to meet the noise regs and be able to do a track day at Laguna Seca) is only an added bonus.
MCB: What’s it like to drive?
JA: The car is slow. No really, its performance is close to pedestrian levels! Even a Prius can take you off the line. You have to drive the car hard just to keep up with modern traffic. Which is all good in my book, as you are driving hard more of the time and enjoying it while being totally inconspicuous. And don’t even think of chasing cars at the track— most of the time you will be looking at your mirror to let yet another car go by. But you know what? I have such a blast working my way to actually drive the car, I feel so much a part of what the car is doing, that even though all my previous cars were faster, I don’t even care! Yes, the handling and the feedback this car gives you compensates for all that.
The car now has smaller sized wheels (13-inch) with taller profile tires to make the stiff suspension soak up the bumpy roads in California better. I recently acquired a set of 14s which will go on only for track duty, as I really like the understated looks of the 13s (besides the taller gearing for more relaxed freeway cruising) for daily use. I try not to use tires that are very wide (185 usually) or grippy, as the car wasn’t designed with today’s modern standards for road tires in mind, and I must say it’s been very educational— both for fun and fine-tuning the car as well as polishing up on my own driving skills.
As for maintenance, I’ve been very lucky with this particularly tidy example, also considering it’s 26 years old. I’ve mostly done regular maintenance, although I have replaced some components (alternator, brake master cylinder, brake and clutch lines, etc…) that gave up along the way. Let’s also not forget that I track the car a lot, so it goes through parts quickly!
MCB: What makes you love this car?
JA: Just the handling and the feeling of being one with it. A friend with a 911 GT3 drove them back to back at Willow Springs (which, as a high-speed track, is totally unsuited to the AE86) and he loved it! He said he is positively going to get one. Actually, I know a few hardcore sports car and even supercar owners that own one. So maybe it’s not just me that sees something in this old, wedgy econobox.
But I must warn you, it sucks you in. I am aware that I’m obsessed – if not possessed – by it. It’s addictive whether you’re just restoring your daily, or tuning your track prepped 86, but one thing in common for all 86 owners is that we’re all drivers.
MCB: How long do you plan on keeping it?
JA: Until death do us apart. I’ve always said the same thing about all of my former cars, but I’ve put so much effort restoring and maintaining this one to my exact specification that it feels so much more special than anything else I’ve ever driven. I wouldn’t even sell it for 20 grand - which nobody would offer me, anyway - so that settles it nicely for me. Although if I showed you the invoices for all that I’ve done to make the car what it is now, it probably wouldn’t seem that crazy to ask for that kind of money…
MCB: What else have you owned, and how does it differ from those cars?
JA: My first car was a road-based racing car, a small hatchback made by Citroën in 1988 called the AX GT. It was totally gutted, caged, with two bucket seats, a 1.4 carbureted four pot, a noisy exhaust, and not much else. It was a very simple and honest car, and a great tool to learn driving fast: a well-balanced chassis with easy lift-off oversteer (you could even left foot brake to prevent understeer quite easily) and it could be pretty fast thanks to its mere weight of about 800 kg or 1,800 lbs.
After a few not very interesting cars in between, I finally got the Clio, which was the car I had before the AE86. Comparing them, it was obviously more modern in every sense, and faster, but ultimately FWD. If it hadn’t been ‘Wrong Wheel Drive’, I’d probably still have it. It was the perfect all round economical car to go really fast when you wanted to, get the groceries, relatively understated, and you could even fill it up with all your stuff and go on a tour around Europe, which is precisely what I ended up doing.
Finally, I recently acquired another Toyota, the first gen MR2 (AW11). This car, although contemporary and sharing many components with the AE86 (the engine is exactly the same 4AGE, which is the main reason I chose this over – again! – an NA Miata), it feels so much more modern and capable through the corners. Then again, this is a proper sports car: lower, wider, shorter and lighter than my econo-hatchback Corolla. It won’t challenge very fast cars, but it can still keep up with a number of sports cars through the corners, especially going downhill.
MCB: Favorite drives in your area?
JA: My drive through PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) from LA to San Francisco in late April, with a mix of sunset and clouds on the Malibu coast and the morning after on the gorgeous roads around Carmel and Monterey has to be right there among the best drives I’ve ever gone on in this country.
MCB: You are from Spain originally and have been fortunate to drive some of the great tracks and roads in Europe. What are your favorite drives there?
JA: There are too many to choose, much more than what I’ve been able to drive in California so far. That being said, I like either very fast 3-4th gear roads with good visibility and long sweepers, or very narrow, twisty, technical kinds of roads.
In terms of tracks, though, as much as I love the technical, dangerous, and fast Jarama Circuit in my hometown of Madrid, it has to be the Nürburgring Nordschleife of course, which I did in the Clio.
Honorable mention goes to the mountain roads in Switzerland. Definitely the most breathtaking views you will ever see while driving a great twisty road, and an unexpectedly very emotional experience.
And speaking of mountains, if you ever visit Monaco, don’t pass up driving the Col de Turini. It’s the most well known stage in the Monte Carlo Rally and after driving it, you understand why…
MCB: Any concluding thoughts?
JA: If you’ve read this far, thanks for your time, and I hope you found this to be entertaining!
Jorge Azcoitia is a regular contributor to the Spanish motoring blog 8000vueltas.com. You can follow him here.
Images © Jorge Azcoitia