As Toyota celebrates the Corolla’s 50th anniversary this year, we pay homage to a model that inspired a generation of drifters
A long while back, my brother—going through that Fast & Furious phase that every budding car enthusiast goes through—bought a Nissan Silvia. A rare S12, with the legenda-rily bulletproof SR20 under the hood, there because the original 1.8-liter turbo had died in a spectacular shower of boiling coolant. It was quick, lovely to drive, and possessed of that cool cubic ’80s vibe.
Yet, despite the Nissan-spec Bayside Metallic Blue paint, people would still exclaim: “Nice Trueno!” Never mind that the S12 was faster, more agile and more sophisticated than that dinky little Toyota. Never mind that it was better in nearly every objective metric. It was a boxy ’80s liftback with pop-up headlights—therefore, it was a Trueno. But since it wasn’t a Trueno, it was simply not as good.
Blame this all on Initial D. Such was the popularity of the street-racing anime that upon its debut, secondhand Japanese sports car prices went straight through the roof. This “Drift Tax” meant that old rust buckets like the S12 were selling for twice what they had been worth before Drift Fever gripped the world.
The holy grail of all drift cars, however, was Toyota’s AE86 Trueno. A successful touring car in real life, it was also the favored weapon of fictional tofu delivery boy Takumi Fujiwara, the cartoon counterpart of real-life Drift King Keiichi Tsuchiya. Over five seasons, this plucky panda-colored delivery van wormed its way into our hearts. In the fictional world of Initial D, it demolished Silvias, dominated Evos and destroyed Skylines.
In the real world, the AE86’s weedy 128hp 4AGE barely elevated it above the similarly under-endowed Mazda Miata. Against beefier sports cars, it was horrifically outgunned. And this engine was bolted into what was basically a ’79 KE70 Corolla. Minus the unbuttoned shirts and gold chains, but still retaining the unsexy ’70s-era live axle.
But unlike the regular Corolla, the Trueno’s rear axle featured a limited-slip differential, a magical mishmash of gears and clutches that kept the power going to the ground as the car slid through corners. Along with better brakes, beefier suspension and a stiffer chassis, this made the lightweight AE86 a delight to drive. Delicate steering allowed for precise placement, and enchantingly neutral handling meant that oversteer was easy to catch and counter. This was a car that made even the worst driver feel like a hero. And while it lacked grunt, the 4AGE engine was adept at tingling spines as it revved to a stratospheric 7,600rpm.
Small wonder, then, that the Trueno is so loved. While you can get a Corolla DX for under P100,000, and equip it with the exact same go-faster goodies, expect to spend 10 times as much for an authentic AE86 with the oh-so-sexy carbon-fiber hood and Watanabe wheels.
Or you can buy a secondhand Toyota 86 for not much more—a thoroughly modern car with more performance and less rust than an AE86. A car dozens of Toyota engineers spent years obsessively tweaking to drive exactly like an old Trueno. Or if you really want an iconic featherweight sports car with pop-up lights and sublime handling—forget the S12, which is even rarer than the Trueno—there’s always a Miata, which is also cheaper. For some people, the answer is always Miata. Unfortunately, you can’t use it to deliver tofu.