During the early part of the 1980s, many compared Toyota to General Motors, the accolades coming thanks to the Japanese brand’s ability to release a dozen different flavors of the same basic model. Toyota’s noble goal was to build a car for everyone.
A fine example of this thought process is the Corolla econobox, which at the time could be had as a sedan, wagon, hardtop coupe, sport coupe or liftback, many in either standard, luxury or sport trim levels. There were even two possible engines; the big T covered as many bases as was practical in their attempt to fill as many garages as possible.
It was a solid effort by an automotive juggernaut, but ultimately Toyota was unable to build the 1980 Corolla that Rick Disbrow wanted. Granted, Rick’s tastes are a bit more extreme than your average consumer’s.
A high-powered monster of the sort Rick craved doesn’t exactly have mass appeal. In fact, it probably would have scared small children right out of the showroom. To make matters more complicated, the impossibility of time travel would have made sourcing a late-1990s Lexus V8 powerplant a real hassle for Toyota a decade and a half earlier. Lexus didn’t even exist yet.
With no hope of getting his car directly from Toyota, Rick decided to undertake the construction of a V8-powered Corolla on his own. Fortunately, waiting a decade or two before ordering parts allowed Rick to save lots of money on his creation. Best of all, there’s now an SCCA Solo class for an unusual hybrid such as this.
The centerpiece of Rick’s Corolla is the gleaming $250 4-liter Lexus V8 crammed between the strut towers.
“I started autocrossing five years ago with a 1988 Supra Turbo,” Rick explains. The car had good power, but it was a little heavy for his tastes. Plus it was getting expensive to maintain, he adds. Rick figured that an early-’80s Corolla would make a better alternative.
“I found two cars for $250, one two-door sedan and one two-door hatchback,” he says. “I originally wanted to do the hatch, but the looks of the sedan grew on me and I thought that the balance might be better on the sedan.”
The promise of low-cost parts was one of the things that drew Rick to the Corolla, but he soon felt that the little 1.8-liter, 3TC-spec engine was in need of more power. The discount aspect went out the window when he installed a race-ready, high-compression engine.
Total bill for that little project: $6000. On the plus side, it did outperform the stock engine by nearly a hundred horsepower. “This provided good results,” he says of his 170-horsepower screamer, “but it required race gas and inevitably detonated.”
It was now time for Rick to try something less highly strung and, at the same time, even more radical. He had set his sights on the SCCA’s Street Modified autocross class, which meant there was lots of leeway with respect to choosing a new engine. Dust off your law degree and ponder the following Street Mod snippet from the SCCA Solo rulebook:
“Engine block must be a production unit manufactured and badged the same as the original standard or optional engine for that model. Badges that exist as marketing aliases for the manufacturer will be recognized as equivalents.”
From a Street Modified perspective, the only thing that mattered regarding engine selection was the name on the valve cover. Absolutely any Toyota engine would be legal for the class, regardless of its era or origin. Better yet, as Lexus is a marketing alias for Toyota in the U.S., even bigger advantages were available.
Some Internet research revealed that the Lexus V8 could be squeezed into the Corolla engine bay. The 1UZ-FE engine was used in the brand’s top-of-the-line models during the 1990s, powering cars whose names ended with 400, like the LS 400 sedan and SC 400 coupe. Visions of a class-legal and very modern 4-liter Lexus V8 nestled in the nose of Rick’s lightweight rear-wheel drive Corolla were just too tempting to ignore.
The headers were fabricated by a former Holman Moody employee.
With the plan in mind, Rick then did his research. “I decided to make some calls and source a motor,” he says. “I was shocked to find out how inexpensive these motors are. An all-aluminum, four-cam, 32-valve Toyota V8 for $250!”
While doing this research, Rick stumbled across a California drag racer named Sam Bennett who was swapping the same Lexus V8 into a 1972 Corolla for a project called The Flea. “Sam gave me a lot of information on where to get parts and aftermarket stuff for the motor,” Rick says. “He pointed me to Tom Rabold and Greg Markham at Bullet Cars in Australia. This motor is very popular there and they had the necessary parts for adapting the engine to a manual transmission, which wasn’t offered in the U.S.”
Rick got in touch with Bullet Cars and placed his order, getting the bellhousing, ceramic clutch, pressure plate and flywheel that would mate the Lexus V8 to a five-speed transmission sourced from a Toyota Supra. While Rick had Bullet on the line, he also ordered one of their performance intake camshaft kits and an Autronic SM4 engine management computer. “This wasn’t absolutely necessary, but if later I wanted to raise the engine output, the SM4 could grow along with the motor,” Rick says of his ECU decision.
With his parts en route, Rick began the search for a fabrication shop that could handle the swap. “Luckily, a friend of mine who worked at a local race car fab shop put me in touch with Chris Cornett, who operated a little garage behind his home in Mooresville, N.C.,” he says. “Chris did the motor mounts, transmission mount, and he had to remake the sway bar and make it a little bit longer to make room for the larger oil pan of the V8.”
The swap also required Chris to remove the old steering box, which was then replaced with a rack from a second-generation Toyota MR2. “The steering rack was a major change, but none of the firewall or transmission tunnel was cut for the install,” he explains. “The shifter even went in the same hole,” he laughs. The biggest challenge to making everything fit would involve the exhaust system, as there wasn’t much space on either side of the engine. Rick credits his luck once again for the solution.
“The company I work for employs a shop handyman who just happened to build headers for Holman Moody many years ago,” Rick says. “He agreed to do the labor if I bought the materials. The end result is a pretty nice set of equal-length headers.”
Rick has tuned the car for autocross in the Street Mod category.
Once all of the installation issues had been addressed, Rick pulled the engine and performed a comprehensive freshening, replacing the seals, timing belt and waterpump. When Rick hit the ignition to bring his beast to life, the first real hiccup revealed itself: The engine started right away, but a crossed wire in the Autronic harness meant that the timing was completely awry.
“It was a miracle it fired at all,” Rick says. “We discovered that it was retarding to 5 degrees.” Correcting the problem put the timing at 70 degrees of ignition advance, which got the car running and allowed them to tune it.
Rick was joined by Steve Rankins, a friend and the local Solo chairman, and it took the pair four weeks to get the engine running correctly. Eventually, the engine was providing smooth delivery throughout the rpm range. Since it’s mostly stock, Rick estimates the engine is making about 260 horsepower and 270 lb.-ft. of torque—all from a powerplant that weighs only 80 pounds more than the original. And unlike his $6000 race engine, this low-buck V8 should exhibit reliability on par with any other nearly stock Toyota: damn good, in other words.
Next, Rick could concentrate on the suspension. “At the first event, the balance was off,” he reports. “I looped it in the first half of the course. It’s definitely more powerful than anything I’ve driven—it’s power on demand. Even the Supra Turbo wasn’t really that way.”
Since Rick had to add ballast to meet the 2500-pound weight minimum required by the class rules, he’s banking that placing the required lead bricks at the rear of the car will help. The scales now show a perfect 50/50 front-to-rear distribution, while the left- and right-side weights are within half a percent.
Rick’s only unsolved complaint has to do with the car’s brakes. “We had to take off the brake booster to make room for the motor, so [the brakes are] just working off the master cylinder,” he explains. “It takes a lot of input. It would be a lot quicker if we had the power assist back.” He confesses, however, that he’s not yet actively working toward a solution.
Rick Disbrow’s budget on the Corolla project—including the V8 engine swap, but less the previous trick engine—has reached about $12,000. However, a very similar result could be built for far less.
It takes a great driver to squeeze the most out of a high-powered rocket like this old Toyota, and Rick is the first to admit that his own autocross talents are in their fledgling stage.
“I’ve probably autocrossed less than 20 times in five years, maybe eight or nine times in this car, and only twice with this engine,” he confesses. “The car, in my opinion, is beyond me. I’m sure there are some national-level guys who could jump in it and set FTD. I can barely beat cars that I should be beating like a drum.”
Rick has found a more experienced driver, Anthony Gallarini, to co-drive the car in regional and eventually national-level autocross competition. Rick is also planning on taking the car to an HPDE track day, something he enjoyed doing with the old engine installed.
“I did Road Atlanta with the four-cylinder—it was a lot of fun, real quick in the twisties but it was just such a dog on power,” he says. “Now the car stands up on its tail coming out of a corner. It lifts—people were telling me it was on the brink of lifting the front tires.”
Based on that tough-to-ignore trait, it’ll be hard to mistake Rick’s Corolla for any of the standard variants Toyota ever let roll out of the factory.
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