Toyota Supra – A cult vehicle with many faces

Toyota Supra MA70

Anyone who thinks about legendary sports cars immediately thinks of the usual suspects – the brands that dominated Le Mans or had their bodies drawn by Pininfarina, Bertone or Zagato. One dreams of American V8 engines, Italian twelve-cylinder engines, British wooden chassis and German perfectionism. Only a few people think of the Land of the Rising Sun – but there were and still are a considerable number of interesting sports cars in Japan, for example the Toyota Supra. 

After the delightful little Sports 800 (of which exactly 3,131 were built between 1965 and 1969), Toyota entered the top class in 1967 with the 2000 GT. The 2000 GT celebrated its world premiere at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1965 and was then produced in very small numbers from 1967 to 1970: A total of 351 coupés were to be produced, plus two convertibles for the James Bond film “You only live twice”. The 150 hp straight six-cylinder engine was powered, developed and built by Yamaha  – while the beguiling figure was drawn at Toyota. Today, each 2000 GT is worth a fortune.

From the Celica Supra to the independent model

With the Celica presented in 1970, the Japanese entered the big stage – no less than 700,000 units were built between 1970 and 1975 of the first generation Celica, which took its name from the Spanish word “Celestial”. With a 1.4-litre in-line four-cylinder engine and 86 hp, this first Celica generation was the archetype of an everyday coupé for the whole family. And Toyota, which was never opposed to motorsport, quickly ensured that the Celica had to prove itself on the racetrack – and it did so with great success.

And until 2005, no less than seven Celica generations were built, which, among other things, won the drivers’ championship in the World Rally Championship in 1990, 1992, 1993 and 1994. The Celica came to Germany in the autumn of 1971, with the 1.6-litre version being the most successful. Things got sportier in the autumn of 1972, when the Celica GT, a 1.6-litre version with twin carburettors, dual overhead camshafts and 107 hp, arrived at the dealerships.

From then on, the Celica GTs were also increasingly seen on the racetracks of Europe, where they were able to achieve considerable success. As is so often the case, however, there were always customers who demanded more power – and Toyota was to listen to these wishes. The first Supra was launched from spring 1978 to summer 1981, first in Japan and then in the USA as the Celica XX Supra.

With a slightly longer wheelbase and a 2.6-litre in-line six-cylinder engine producing 110 hp, the car quickly won friends – in a few examples a 2-litre six-cylinder engine with turbocharger and 145 hp was also available. The second generation, which premiered in autumn 1981, was still offered as the Celica Supra – it now also came to Europe, first to Switzerland, then to the other markets as well, and here the six-cylinder engine, which in the meantime had been enlarged to 2.8 litres, produced 170 hp.

With a top speed of 210 km/h and an acceleration to 100 km/h in 8.7 seconds, this version could already be considered a real sports car – and Toyota’s management realised that even greater market shares could be gained here, especially in the USA.

The third generation – “The strict Supra”.

Consequently, the third generation was developed, which for the first time dispensed with the Celica designation. After the production of the Celica Supra was stopped in summer 1985, the new Supra celebrated its world premiere in February 1986 – now as a completely independent model, because the new Celica appeared in 1986 with front-wheel drive, while the Supra was still offered with rear-wheel drive. The Japanese celebrated the most powerful Toyota to date simply as the 3000 GT, for the Americans it was “The strict Supra” and for all European fans simply the ultimate Supra of its era.

In Europe, the A70 – as it was known internally – celebrated its premiere at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1986, where it was commented on by the media as “the fist in the neck” or “Japan’s fastest striker”. In the two years that followed, it was further upgraded with facelifts featuring turbocharging and a three-piece rear spoiler.

While the 2.0- and 2.5-litre engines were reserved for Japan, the Supra was exported with a newly designed 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine with two overhead camshafts, four-valve technology and a new chassis with double control arms and MacPherson struts all round. The engine produced 204 hp and enabled a top speed of 220 km/h.

1968 Toyota Supra

The Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote on 19 September 1986: “When the price of a vehicle has exceeded the 40,000-mark mark, the purchase decision is decisively influenced by the image of the product. This is especially true if the model is supposed to exude a sporty touch. Companies like Porsche or Maserati have nothing to fear. Japanese brands have a more difficult time of it, but Toyota now wants to have a say in the German market with its Supra.

Around 1,000 vehicles are to be sold in 1987 at a price of 49,200 marks. The 204 hp (150 kW) and 220 km/h fast Supra (zero to 100 km/h in 8.2 sec.) provides sufficient power, but the Toyota model is not an uncompromising sports runabout, but rather a glider with a sporty look. A little more pulling power from mid-range revs and a not quite so hard gear of the engine when accelerating would be an advantage.

The 16-inch tyres – together with the suspension tuning – ensure a direct transmission of short road shocks into the interior due to their low height. The equipment is – as usual from the Far East – lush and sufficient. In the price range around 50,000 Marks, customers are not queuing up. To what extent it is enough to just offer the better price-performance ratio, the market will answer.”

The 204 hp version was on offer until August 1988, when the 3-litre engine, boosted by a turbocharger to 235 hp (173 kW), provided considerably more temperament. Now equipped with a torque of 324 Nm (at 4,000 rpm), a top speed of 245 km/h was possible – and with the optional five-speed gearbox, 100 km/h was reached in 6.3 seconds. A four-speed automatic was also available as an option, which curbed the temperament somewhat, but made cruising along with the targa roof, which was standard in the Turbo version, more enjoyable.

The thirsty Gran Turismo-supra

With its 245 km/h top speed, which tempted the driver to live life in the fast lane, the Supra had matured into a real sports car, which Toyota even advertised in the USA as “Life in the fast Lane”. However, this was by no means to be understood as an invitation to speed. The Supra won a series of victories mainly on race tracks. On the road, however, the Toyota Supra kept its competitors at bay with its talents as a thoroughbred Gran Turismo for long journeys.

The coupé’s cockpit, for example, surprised with plenty of space for the crew and a complete range of comfort features that could hardly be found elsewhere. Including a removable roof centre section that provided an unobstructed view of the sky and horizon. This T-top transformed the Toyota Supra into a fast, all-season convertible without the disadvantages of a roadster top. The third Supra generation was on the market for a full seven years – from February 1986 to May 1993 to be precise.

And you have to admit that this coupé offered quite a lot of fun on the roads. However, it tended to be very thirsty when moved in a manner appropriate to its species. I remember a brisk drive from Munich to Frankfurt and back, during which I paid for the third tank of petrol in Munich in the evening – when I handed in the three petrol receipts at the publishing house, payment was initially refused until the managing director who was travelling with me signed off on the transaction with the remark “it really does drink that much”. It should perhaps also be said that the turbo engine sometimes had to contend with technical problems due to defective cylinder head gaskets and therefore had problems with stability.

The successors of the supra

In July 1993, the fourth Supra generation was launched, which was visually distinguished by a huge rear wing, which most critics at the time considered to be unattractive. The cars were now only produced in Japan – and because of the ever stricter emission laws, the sports car, which now had 330 hp (243 kW), was only available in Europe until spring 1996, sales in the USA ended in 1999 and production was then discontinued in 2002.

In Germany, there was only one variant – the Supra only came to dealers as a Targa, while Switzerland also offered the Coupé. In addition to the 330 hp, 441 Nm of torque ensured temperament in all situations: 100 km/h was reached after 5.1 seconds, while the top speed was limited to 250 km/h. The Supra could be ordered in only six colours: White, Black, Red, Silver Metallic, Turquoise Metallic and Graphite Metallic. And of course the features were again complete and rich.

Today, the Supra variants are sought-after classics – and time will tell that the latest Supra, the Supra GR presented in 2019, developed together with BMW and powered by BMW four-cylinder (2 litres / 258 hp) and six-cylinder (3 litres / 340 hp) engines, will also mature into a classic.

Wolfgang Peters wrote in 2012 in the book Die Sportwagen von Toyota: “In the history of Toyota there have always been sports cars. They marked the state of the art and at the same time pointed the way to the future. Their content has always been a passion for high performance, for pushing the limits of what is technically possible, and from this came the search for the source of joy that only a sports car can give.” The Supra has made a decisive contribution to this realisation.

Text Jürgen Lewandowski Photos Toyota Deutschland GmbH

Author: Jürgen Lewandowski

Jürgen Lewandowski schreibt seit mehr als 40 Jahren über Menschen und Autos - und hat mehr als 100 Bücher veröffentlicht. Traumklassiker: Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Touring Spider und Lancia Rally 037. Eigener Klassiker: Alfa Romeo R.Z. von 1993.

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