1976 Toyota Corolla SR1600 Levin Rally Car

2018 Mikkel Thomsager & Drive-My

The Fast Samurai After being upgraded from new to SR1600 works spec with support from Toyota Denmark, this Corolla took on the Monte Carlo Rally. In 1977 this Danish-entered Toyota Corolla SR1600 contested the Monte Carlo Rally. Today we drive it Words Ivan Ostroff. Photography Mikkel Thomsager.

The Fast Samurai  Flat-out in a Toyota Corolla SR1600 that took on Monte Carlo.

In 1977, one of the legs of the Monte Carlo Rally started from Radhuspladsen (The Town Hall Square) in Copenhagen. It was a big event in Denmark in those days because several Danish teams took part. Bent Egede Olsen and Soren Terp were entered in their Group 2 Toyota Corolla SR1600 Levin, which inished second in class. Standing there watching, wishing he could drive that Corolla, was 18-year-old enthusiast Kenneth Saust. Today, Kenneth is general manager at Yokohama Denmark and owns that very car.

1976 Toyota Corolla SR1600 Levin Rally Car

1976 Toyota Corolla SR1600 Levin Rally Car

Today, the restored Corolla is impeccably turned out in its original colours and sports its 1976 registration. The original period rollover bar is still in place but strengthened to comply with current regulations. I lower myself into the Cobra seat and secure the OMP full harness. Inside it looks much like any other stripped-out competition saloon of the time. The original brown vinyl Toyota seats are long gone – they’d be deemed quite unacceptable by rally scrutineers today.

I twist the master switch next to the fuse bank, lick on the fuel pump and press the round rubber starter button. The Corolla’s double overhead camshaft four-cylinder fires instantly and I become immediately aware of the rorty intake noise from the twin Dell’Orto DHLA40 carburettors. The basic instrumentation is standard Toyota Corolla SR largely as it was from the factory. There’s an oil pressure gauge where the clock would be in a standard car, while the radio has been replaced by an aluminium panel with exposed fuses for easy access. The doors have period-correct aluminium pockets for road maps. There is a brake cut-of lever to the right of the gearstick – intended to make service work easier – while a knurled knob to the left of the handbrake adjusts the strength of the rear brakes, effectively providing a legal brake balance system. A later addition is the digital speedometer, accurate whatever the gearing.

Additional fittings include a fuel pump switch, extra light switches for the four powerful Hella units fitted for night rallies, and a flexible interior map-reading light that clips onto the roll cage. Hammers and knives are attached to the door panels for smashing the windows and cutting through seat belts in emergencies – classic rallying is still a dangerous game.

In front of the passenger seat is a rather unusual prototype trip computer. It was created in Denmark by John Haderstal who persuaded Olsen and Terp to let him use this car as a test platform and was installed for the 1977 Monte Carlo Rally. The Danish police subsequently used this car to create the prototype for a mobile speed-checking device – at the time it was the first such electronic system and was subsequently developed into the first commercially available electronic rallymeter.

I depress the surpringly light clutch, engage first and pull away. Without any sound insulation there is a lot of noise from the gearbox and drivetrain; first gear is especially long. The gearbox is not a straight-cut device but a synchromeshed H-pattern unit that is nice and easy to use. However the clutch, while surprisingly light, is switch-like in its operation and I have to remember to keep the revs up in second gear to stop the engine fluffing. Kenneth tells me he uses 7000-7500rpm when driving the car in anger. ‘I’m still my own main sponsor so I change up 500rpm before the limiter in deference to my pocket!’ he says. I decide to change up at 6500rpm just to be safe and that’s plenty to keep it up on cam, where it pulls brilliantly in any gear.

1976 Toyota Corolla SR1600 Levin Rally Car

1976 Toyota Corolla SR1600 Levin Rally Car

Grip through fast corners is astonishing. The Corolla is easy to control on the throttle and is very predictable, but it can become rather tail-happy if you’re not concentrating because it’s extremely light at the rear. I need focus with commitment when setting it up for a corner, because the border between understeer and oversteer is rather narrow. Kenneth has prepared the car with neutral to understeer tendencies at the limit; he’s more familiar with front-wheel drive cars, so that feels more natural to him. On a normal road you might think that the quickest way through a bend would be to set the Corolla up sideways before entry, but no. The neatest way through a corner is to brake in a straight line, then slam the car round and drift through the corner on opposite lock. This is not a point-and-squirt car, but a serious competition machine that handles exceptionally well on all surfaces, although Kenneth prefers tarmac because it’s not so punishing on the car.

The exhaust growls angrily through the two-inch bore of its straight-through exhaust, but it’s the intake noise that is most impressive; a stripped-out Group 2 rally car is like a sounding board. Charging along at around 6000rpm in top, about 90mph, the roar of the air being sucked through the trumpets of the Dell’Orto 40s is soul-stirring. The racket; the vibrations; the smell of petrol all the while – you don’t get that in a GT86.

Whatever the nature of the road surface I can feel every element of it through the recirculating ball steering, which is light and pleasingly accurate. The front brakes on the Toyota Corolla 1600SR rally cars were the same as the rear brakes that Ford’s competition department fitted to the Ford Escort BDA. The competition-spec Ferodo pads need time to get hot so at first I exercise reasonable caution, but now they are up to temperature they are particularly effective. The handbrake is actuated by hydraulics, so there are no cables below the car and it is very effective when you want to pivot the car for a hairpin, even on asphalt.

Acceleration out of a corner with the current axle ratio is impressive with 60mph coming up in 7.4 seconds; the car tops out at just 104mph but mid-range torque is terrific. Going up through the gears it’s not a case of waiting for the limiter to cut in, not in a classic Seventies rally car. I have to keep an eye on the rev counter, sense where the torque is and know where it is best to change up. It really comes alive after 4500rpm and then from 5000 onwards it’s like a rocket, with upgraded valves and springs that facilitate extra power and lift the rev limit to 8000rpm. I feel the engine reaching its peak output before then and don’t press it any further, just grab the next gear. As a result, the driving experience of the Corolla SR1600 is just compulsive.

Interestingly this car actually left the factory in 1976 as a 1.2-litre SR1200. Bent Egede Olsen was the son of the Danish Toyota dealer at Jaegerspris and wanted a car to campaign in the 1600cc Danish Rally Championship. The 1600cc Corolla SR model wasn’t available in left-hand drive, so Toyota Denmark imported a left-hand-drive Corolla SR1200 that was immediately stripped and rebuilt for rallying on arrival, with parts cannibalised from a brand-new Corolla 1600. A genuine TE37 homologation model built with factory support, the left-hand-drive Corolla SR1600 was very successful in Scandinavia and achieved fourth place in the 1600cc Gp2 category of the Danish championship.

Apart from the Monte, Olsen ran the Corolla in the Danish Rally Championship in 1976 and 1977 which, in those days, included long cross-border events such as the Baltic Rally and the Nordland Rally with stages in Sweden and Germany. Around 1978 Olsen sold the Corolla and it then changed hands several times until the engine blew up in 1988 when in joint ownership. After an attempt to rebuild the car stalled, its owners left it standing dismantled outside for 12 years. ‘In 2000 a family friend told me that the ex-Olsen Corolla was rotting away in a garden in Amager, south Copenhagen,’ recalls Kenneth. ‘As soon as I saw it I knew it was the original Danish Monte Carlo Rally car. There was loads of rust to deal with but it was love at first sight.’

When Kenneth got the car home, his first job was to deal with all the obvious corrosion so he started by getting the bodyshell sandblasted. However, when the body came back from blasting it was clear that a lot more work would be required, because most panels were either extremely thin or riddled with holes. Finding original replacement body parts for a Corolla SR was difficult. Many of the replacements had to be hand-made by Kenneth’s friends and retired father, but the wheelwells posed a particular problem; a resourceful Kenneth found a donor in the form of an old Toyota post van left in a scrapyard.

He also sourced original parts from as far afield as California and Australia, with many coming from Toyota Racing Developments (TRD) in Japan. His co-driver Lars Mollerup looked after the work on the engine, gearbox and rear axle. Says Kenneth, ‘He’s a light mechanic and I figured that if he can make an Airbus fly then he could probably make the Toyota do the same!’

Once the bodyshell was painted, Kenneth did every nut and bolt of the re-assembly himself over a period of two years, with help from several friends. After finishing the restoration in 2003, he entered the car into the Danish Historic Rally Series. ‘It was just amazing – after starting with nothing more than a box of bits, to complete our first rally successfully was a fantastic experience.’ After 12 accident-free years competing in various historic rally events, Kenneth hit a boulder sliding through a left-hand hairpin during the Yokohama Rally Sprint Championship in Easter 2015, severely damaging the right front corner. Immediately after the accident, Kenneth was contacted by a chap who he had met a couple of years earlier and had learned of the accident on Facebook. ‘He called and said, “Remember me? I have an old Corolla standing in the garden, you can cut of whatever you need to repair your car.” It was like he was sent from heaven.’

Repairs completed, Kenneth then took the opportunity to have the car repainted in the correct original Toyota colour of 023 White. He also managed to get the original registration DZ54 867 back on the car. ‘Since the car has re-assumed its original appearance, there’s been a huge response from people who knew the car in the past,’ says Kenneth. ‘Now it can clearly be seen that it’s the genuine car from 1977, people keep coming forward with souvenirs that they’ve been keeping since the Monte Carlo Rally.’

After finishing the Monte in 1977, Olsen and Terp were presented with a plaque by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. Just a few weeks ago Olsen gave that original plaque to Kenneth, who has mounted on the dashboard. ‘Bent said he was delighted that I had restored and was still rallying his ex-Monte Carlo SR1600,’ beams Kenneth. ‘For me that was the icing on the cake.’


Tech and photos

TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1976 Toyota Corolla SR1600 Levin rally car

Engine Toyota 2T-G 1589cc in line four cylinder, dohc, two valves per cylinder, twin Dell’Orto DHLA40 carburettors with 34mm Venturis

Max Power 146bhp @ 7500rpm / DIN nett

Max Torque 118lb ft @ 5100rpm / DIN nett

Transmission TRD close-ratio five-speed H-pattern manual, rear-wheel drive

Steering Recirculating ball

Brakes Front: homologated AP 266mm ventilated discs with twin pot callipers. Rear: drums

Suspension Front: TRD MacPherson struts, lower wishbone, anti-roll bar. Rear: leaf springs located with two trailing arms, adjustable TRD dampers

Weight 950kg

Performance Top Speed: 105mph; 0-60mph: 7.4sec

Price new approx. £8000 including local Danish taxes for standard road car (1976 UK)

Classic Cars Price Guide £30,000 (2018 UK)

‘I need focus and commitment, because the border between understeer and oversteer is narrow‘

‘Straight away I knew it was the Danish Monte Carlo Rally car – it was love at first sight’

1976 Toyota Corolla SR1600 Levin Rally Car
1976 Toyota Corolla SR1600 Levin Rally Car. Straight-four engine boasts plenty of TRD goodies. The Corolla looks just as it did in period, down to the period-correct Japanese Tea sticker on the rear window. Gearbox is a H-pattern, handbrake is hydraulic Olsen and Terp press on in 1977 Saust dances the Corolla on the throttle.


Owning a Corolla SR1600 Levin

‘Even when I’m driving this car on a public road and not in competition, I cannot stop grinning,’ says owner Kenneth Saust. ‘I see the people in their forties and fifties smiling – it’s a car from an era they remember. So many people come up and tell me that their dad had the standard version of the car.’

Kenneth is always on the lookout for spares, ‘You never know when you may need something. I was lucky to get all the repair manuals from the previous owner who fortunately had kept them stored safely for over 25 years. He’d also removed the now-rare chrome Levin badge to keep as a souvenir, but gave it to me when I finished the restoration.

‘You have to be one step ahead all the time. After almost 20 years of ownership, I’ve built up a good network for help and support. The internet is a good source for certain parts because the standard version of the car is still popular in Asia and America. Some mechanical parts are identical to those on later models, but it is getting more and more difficult to find certain items. On the other hand, that makes running it all the more rewarding.

‘I like to finish in the top half of the field but just participating in some of the major events, soaking up the atmosphere, makes me happy. If I had to do it all over again there is absolutely nothing I would change.’


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