Conceived amid the oil crisis of the 1970s, Toyota’s brave vision for a sports car that could sip fuel but still give the driver something to think about was a stroke of genius. Text by Colin Goodwin. Photography by Gus Gregory. Icon: Toyota MR2 Mk1. The original MR2 came about because of the oil crisis of the 1970s. It also happened to be a truly captivating drivers’ car.
When my Mate Marcus bought a new car, we’d drop everything and go round to his place at the double. It would always be something dramatic, eight-cylindered and American. His high-point was a 1973 Pontiac Trans-Am in Brewster Green. Not just any Trans- Am, but one of only 252 that left the factory fitted with the mighty Super Duty 455 engine. In the early 1980s, it felt unbelievably fast. So when, in the summer of 1985, the jungle drums rang out that Marcus had got a new car, there was the usual excitement. The car? A bloody Toyota. We couldn’t believe it. Turned out he’d bought a new MR2, which I hadn’t even heard of. Just under sixteen-hundred cubic centimetres, four cylinders and horsepower barely worth counting.
Then, one rainy day, I had a go in this new Toyota. I couldn’t believe the car’s handling and the way the engine revved past 7000rpm. I felt like a committed atheist who had just seen someone walking on the Thames. In the wet, the Trans Am would have kept up for a few yards and then disappeared through a hedge.
While Pontiac and other American companies were fiddling around with smog-pumps and wondering what on earth to do about the mid-’70s oil crisis, Toyota was thinking about the sort of car it could make that would be fun to drive yet economical. Many layouts were considered and prototypes mulled over until the boss of the testing department, Akio Yoshida, and his colleagues decided that a mid-engine with transverse mounting was the way to go. A prototype codenamed SA-X was built in 1976 but the aforementioned crisis put the mockers on the project until it was revived in 1980. The SA-X was then substantially reworked and a concept called SV-3 built. We’ll be dropping a name or two later, but for now all you need to know is that the prototype was tested at length at Willow Springs raceway by Dan Gurney.
The SV-3 broke ground at the Tokyo motor show in 1983. Little would change on the journey from concept to production car, with the only obvious differences being new front and rear spoilers that were designed to improve the car’s stability in crosswinds. And a name change, of course, to MR2, for ‘Midship Runabout Two-seater’. In June 1984 the MR2 went on sale in Japan, and sixth months later in the UK. European MR2s were exclusively fitted with Toyota’s 4A-GE engine, which had already been used in the AE86 Corolla – the car that inspired today’s GT86 coupe. The engine displaced 1587cc and was fitted with Denso electronic port fuel injection. Fairly exotic to have fuel injection and a sixteen-valve head (both of which warranted special badging) in the mid-’80s, let alone multipoint injection. Toyota’s T-VIS variable intake system was also fitted and that really was advanced stuff on a small and affordable sports car. Power outputs varied market to market, but UK-spec cars (which didn’t feature a catalytic converter) produced 122bhp. Even a five-speed gearbox was a bit sexy with sports cars such as the Triumph Spitfire and MGB still warm in their graves.
The mid-engined layout brought with it five steel bulkheads, and this in the days before high-strength steel was put into strategic positions via the wizardry of computer simulation – a combination that today sees body-in-whites shed kilograms with each new generation. All the same, the MR2 weighed 977kg (split 44:56, front to rear), making it a bit of a fatty compared to contemporary hatchbacks but still commendably light bearing in mind its semi-exotic spec.
MacPherson struts were used at each corner with disc brakes all-round. No power-steering was required in a small and light mid-engined car, of course, so there’s just a simple rack and pinion to do the turning. All this slipped under a very distinctive body – lots of flat surfaces and a wedge profile. I challenge you to look from bumper to bumper at the Mk1 MR2 and find a detail half-inched from a rival manufacturer. It’s not something that can be said of the Mk2, which as we know can be converted into a comedy Ferrari replica.
The reason Marcus defected from Stars & Stripes to the Rising Sun was that a new job brought with it a car allowance. There was no list of ‘allowed’ machines, but the car had to be new, which, annoyingly, ruled out a 440 Six-Pack Plymouth Superbird (this would have been my young friend’s first choice). So he went for the then-new Toyota MR2 instead. Several years later, in 1987, Jim Harrison was going through the opposite experience. He’d just been made redundant and did the only sensible thing with his redundancy cheque: ‘I bought a sports car,’ he says, standing next to his blue MR2 outside his Essex home. Harrison is a very loyal Toyota customer but not a particularly profitable one from the accountants’ point of view. Not only has he owned his MR2 from new, but five years later he bought a Carina E GTI, which he also still owns.
And it’s not as if Harrison has spent a fortune at the parts counter buying spares for the MR2, either. ‘It’s had an alternator, a water pump and a cambelt,’ he says. You don’t get away from the tin-worm in a car built in 1987, even if over its 30 years and 120,000 miles it has been lovingly cared for by one owner. Frilly rear arches were replaced some years ago and now look perfect. Harrison warned us that his car isn’t concours but did say that it was totally original. It wouldn’t take much to bring the car up to snuff. Our friend Richard Tipper, the master detailer, could have it looking stunning with a day’s work. What would be far harder would be to find a car that hasn’t been messed about with.
Harrison’s car is a facelifted Mk1, or an AW11B in MR2- speak. A redesigned air intake, different alloys and the availability of a T-roof are the main differences. I never liked the T-bar version, so it’s nice that this car has only the factory sunroof (which, as I am about to find out, you need on a hot day because there’s no air conditioning).
It’s 32 years since I last sat in one of these; the Mk2 had arrived by the time I started writing about cars. The passage of time is fascinating. If you go back 32 years from the launch of the MR2, you are in 1952, before the Mini, before the E-type, and the year Lotus was born. Today, we’d probably call the MR2 a modern classic, but I’d never have referred to a Ford Prefect as a modern classic in 1985.
I remember how the MR2 drove but I remember nothing of its interior. It takes little time to change the ergonomics from the owner’s settings to something I’m comfortable with. The steering is adjustable for height, not reach, but the seat is fully adjustable. The bliss of a simple instrument and control layout. There’s only one stalk and that’s for the indicators, and in Japanese fashion for the time, it is on the right. An extended finger from each hand can easily reach the simple knobs that sit each side of the instrument binnacle and control wipers and lights. They’re a bit Citroën, which is meant as a compliment.
The engine starts with an immediacy that would have been astonishing to an owner coming in 1985 from a sports car with a pushrod engine, carburettor and choke. Perfectly placed pedals and a footrest in just the right place. There’s a dent in the armrest, just in front of the gearlever.
‘Thirty years of enthusiastic shifting, Jim?’
‘No, a mechanic dented it with his elbow.’
The first thing you notice, and it takes as long as the first pothole or bump, is the Toyota’s ride. I don’t know which tyre companies supplied the OEM fitment in the day, but this car rides on 185/60 Continentals and original 14in alloys. Perfectly sized aesthetically, and for the power-to-weight ratio of the car. And, it seems, perfectly matched to the suspension. If you go to the Wikipedia page for the MR2 you will read that the suspension had the magic wand of Roger Becker, Lotus’s legendary engineer, waved over it. I wasn’t so sure about this, so did a bit of detective work. Sadly, Roger Becker died earlier this year. I spoke to his son Matt, who after a career at Lotus is now responsible for the chassis dynamics of all Astons, much to the benefit of its customers. Matt remembers projects with Toyota but can’t recall his father mentioning the original MR2.
‘I’d give John Miles a call,’ he suggested. Which I did. Miles, who raced in F1 for Lotus in the late-1960s before working on the firm’s road cars, confirmed that they used an MR2 as a benchmark for the front-drive Elan, but had no recollection of Becker having worked on the Toyota’s suspension. And neither is there any mention of Lotus having done so in Toyota’s records. Supra and Corolla, yes, but not the little mid-engined car. Whatever, the MR2 most definitely has a Lotus feel about it.
The dampers, bushes and every part of this car’s suspension are original, including the track rod ends. That’s amazing. There is a little bit of vagueness in the steering in a straight line, but it’s negligible. Could be down to tyre pressures or geometry. We tend to wax on about unassisted steering from cars of this era, but many of them were good on the go yet miserable at parking speeds. I owned a 205 GTI at the time and that is a good example. Try a Griffith with manual steering for further proof. The MR2 combines light steering weight with fantastic feel.
Even mildly sporty family cars today have deeply bolstered seats and I can’t remember the last time I drove a car whose seats didn’t offer enough support in committed corners. The MR2 is easily capable of generating forces that will have you floating out of your chair. The gearshift isn’t as smooth as a modern gearbox’s, either, but it’s precise and, if you guide the lever accurately, fast. The whole car feels in rude health, with a smooth clutch and well-weighted, firm brake pedal.
Harrison has no idea what his cherished MR2 is worth because he has no intention of selling it. I had no idea, either, but looking in the classifieds revealed several good-looking Mk1s available for around £4000, although they might not be in as fine fettle as this one. I don’t think that there is a classic car out there that is as good to drive and as entertaining as a Mk1 MR2 for anything like that money. Series 1 Lotus Elises are at least double, and we know the ridiculous prices being asked for Peugeot 205 GTIs. Perhaps the MR2 has an image of being a bit ‘hairdresser’, or excessive customising has tainted the car. Either way, driving Jim Harrison’s example has been a revelation.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE #Toyota-MR2-Mk1
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1587cc
Power 122bhp @ 6600rpm DIN
Torque 105lb ft @ 5000rpm DIN
Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel-drive
Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, dampers
Rear suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, dampers
Brakes Ventilated front discs, solid rear discs
Wheels 5.5in x 14in front and rear
Tyres 185/60 R14 front and rear
0-60mph 8.2sec (claimed)
Top speed 124mph (claimed)
Price when new £9295.16 (1985)
Price now £3000-6000
‘Even a five-speed gearbox was a bit sexy with sports cars such as the Triumph Spitfire and MGB still warm in their graves’
doesn’t have to compromise cohesion’ ‘I challenge you to look from bumper to bumper at a Mk1 MR2 and find a detail half-inched from a rival manufacturer’
Clockwise from top left: air intakes are emblematic of the MR2’s geometrically rigid design; 1.6-litre twin-cam not pretty but good for 122bhp; interior hits the spot in terms of ergonomics, but the seats can’t match the cornering forces generated; that’s a red line that rewards driver commitment.
Below: Harrison’s car looks superb in blue, and is equally good to drive; Goodwin reckons an original Mk1 MR2 is something of an underrated bargain.