Exploring the more humble roots of the Toyota Supra

By Johan Dillen
May 19, 2024 | Toyota, Supra, Celica, A60 | Posted in Features | From the May 2022 issue | Never miss an article

Photography by Dirk de Jager

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Toyota realized it had a problem. Datsun was enjoying some serious success with its six-cylinder Z-cars, and Toyota had no answer. It had a coupe and it had a six-cylinder engine, but not in the same car. 

By 1978, Toyota came up with a modest reply. Toyota lengthened its Celica coupe by some 8 inches to accommodate the inline-six found in its Crown sedan. 

The engine was fitted with electronic fuel injection, a first for Toyota, and a new name was adopted for this ultimate Celica: the Celica Supra. Toyota has, historically, used some Latin for its model names; Celica means “heaven” and Supra means “above.” 

At first, choices were limited to either a 2-liter inline-six with 123 horsepower or a 2.6-liter six with just 111 horses. Japan’s punitive tax laws on large-capacity engines removed all incentive to develop the 2.6 any further, yet this is the engine that Toyota brought stateside in 1979.

With this A40-generation Celica Supra, Toyota put the emphasis firmly on luxury. In 1981, an evolution brought 116 horses and a new model designation: A50. But in real life, little had changed. 

Enter Yamaha

Toyota released a new Celica for 1982, with another Supra variant arriving as well. Outwardly, the Celica Supra was again longer than the Celica liftback, but the most obvious distinction between the two models involved the headlights: The Celica Supra received traditional pop-ups.

Toyota also went looking for help to up the credentials of the new Celica Supra. For the engine, Toyota turned to Yamaha. For the chassis, it called upon Lotus. 

The bond between Toyota and Yamaha was formed in the ’60s. In 1964, when Toyota wanted to launch the 2000GT, it was Yamaha that transformed the sedate 2-liter inline-six from the Toyota Crown into a powerful tool for one of the brand’s first sports cars by converting the engine to a twin-cam setup. 

The Japanese motorcycle constructor would continue to lend a hand to Toyota engine development on numerous occasions, most notably for later Celica four-cylinder engines as well as the inline-six found in this new A60-chassis Celica Supra.

It was clear the inline-six for this upcoming Celica Supra could do with a bit more power, so in came Yamaha’s crew from Iwata, Japan. They followed pretty much the same recipe as before, swapping a single-cam head for a twin-cam setup. The Twin Cam nameplate was back.

The new 2.8-liter engine, carrying Toyota’s 5M-GE designation, also received hydraulically operated valve gear and saw the compression ratio increased to 9.2:1. Depending on markets and on model years, some tweaking to the electronics was done as well, resulting in a nice 145 horsepower for the model’s debut. When the line bowed out in 1986, horsepower had evolved to 161–quite the change from 111 found in the A40 model.

Bring in Lotus, Too

“Power is nothing without control,” as a famous tire manufacturer likes to put it. To tweak the chassis, Toyota asked another specialist constructor to help: Lotus, a company in which Toyota held a minority stake in the early ’80s. 

[Over 20 years in the making | The story of the Lotus Esprit V8]

In a conversation with Motor Trend, Roger Becker, project engineering director for Lotus from 1966 until 2010, explained how that came about. The late Lotus chassis guru said, “I had just been asked to stand in for Colin Chapman in a promotional video Toyota wanted to shoot on Lotus’ grounds with the Supra. After I had stopped fooling around a bit with the car, Toyota people came over to ask about my impressions of their car. A little later, the call came: ‘What would it take to make the Celica Supra handle like a Lotus?’ To my astonishment, there were no restrictions. ‘Just do what it takes’ was the brief.’”

Don’t let the 2.8i badge confuse you, this is a U.S.-market Celica Supra since converted to European specs. Stock wheels measure 14x7 inches–quite chonky for the day.

Lotus’ work on the Celica Supra proved to be the beginning of a long relationship between the two car brands, continuing even long after Toyota had sold its stake in the company. 

At the time of the Celica Supra, the deal worked both ways, with Toyota supplying parts for the Lotus Excel. And you only have to open the hoods of the recently retired Elise and Exige to find Toyota powertrains. 

Thanks to Becker, the independent suspension all around helped change the perception of the Celica Supra. He was later asked to help sort the first generation of the MR2 as well.

The change in character was noted by the motoring press, with Motor Trend nominating the Celica Supra as Import Car of the Year in 1982. 

Dan Gurney acted as brand ambassador for the new sports coupe, ripping up the streets of New York with a big smile and calling it “the right stuff.” But for his own return to IMSA, Gurney’s AAR team opted for the Celica instead of the Celica Supra in the GTU class, where engine capacity was limited to 2.5 liters. The model’s lone American pro racing start might be the 1984 Coca-Cola 500 at Lime Rock, where Stevens Toyota finished 10th out of 16 entrants.

Better Sales

The Celica Supra got some competition credibility from the celebrity races Toyota organized. And in Europe, the A60 Celica Supra was used for touring car racing under Group A rules, earning a title in the British Saloon Car Championship for Win Percy. 

A Jermaine Jackson-sponsored Celica Supra was the talk of the town before the 1985 Spa 24 Hours in Belgium, but the car’s performance was anonymous and ended in retirement.

At one time, about 160 horsepower was plenty for a brand’s flagship. Pop-up headlights, likewise, were par for the course. 

Nonetheless, it was clear that this generation of the Celica Supra was far more successful at building a sporting image than its predecessor. This led to better sales results in return. 

Between its mid-1981 launch and the end of production in December 1985, Toyota managed to sell around 180,000 copies of the A60-chassis Celica Supra, compared to 130,000 of the A40 generation in roughly the same amount of time. Most of the production from the Tahara factory ended up stateside, including the car we have with us today.

Make It a Manual

“These cars have become very sought after,” explains Dutch classic car specialist Alphons Ruyl. “We used to have one at home when I was young, so I always had a soft spot for these. 

“The problem is,” he continues, “not only have they become rare to find, most of the time when you find one, it tends to be in poor condition. Especially the body suffers over time. Fortunately, when I found this one in the U.S., it turned out the body was still in good condition. 

“We gave it a repaint but kept the original color. We also turned it into European specification.” 

Outwardly, the differences are small. The European version has a slightly different rear spoiler and a smaller rear bumper, creating a different look around the rear light cluster. The roof spoiler was an option in the U.S. and didn’t appear on the European cars. 

Furthermore, the U.S.-market Celica Supras had two trims, Luxury and Performance, with the Luxury version receiving a high-tech digital dashboard display–well, it was high-tech in the ’80s. This car originally came with an automatic transmission but was changed to the manual five-speed box. 

And this was not the only sign of things to come. In this generation of the Celica Supra, Toyota offered a sort of navigation system for the first time, called Navicom. No sign of that on this car, but it does feature that other display of ’80s extravagance: a nine-band equalizer to make the most out of your Duran Duran tapes.

Stand Out

Perhaps you shouldn’t see it as a sports car. The Celica Supra is more of a GT with an appetite for gym class. On top of that, the A60 has aged well. 

The classic arrow shape and the straight lines are unequivocally ’80s. What would have been dated just 15 years ago now looks timeless. And well, who can compete with pop-up headlights on the cool front?

After the Celica Supra, Toyota went full out on the Supra name, retaining six cylinders and a coupe form up until the present day. Even now, an A60 Celica Supra isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when someone whispers “inline-six, rear-wheel drive” into your ear. But do you really want to be like all the others and opt for a BMW 6 Series? 

Finding a good Celica Supra may be a bit more work these days, but it’s not only the less expensive option, it also lets you stand out in the crowd. These are appreciating quickly now.

Our thanks to Alphons Ruyl Fine Classic Cars for helping out.

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RX Reven'
RX Reven' GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
4/11/22 7:17 p.m.

I drove a 1979 Celica (five speed hatch back) for the second half of high school and all through undergraduate school.

It was only three years newer than my first car (1976 Camaro with a 250 C.I. straight six mated to a three speed automatic) but it felt 10 to 15 years more advanced.

I still think the best all around car for me is a small 2+2 front engine, rear drive hatchback...I know, I know BRZ/GR86 is my answer.

One thing...to totally take in the Supra's visual experience, it really needs to be stationary as the rims absolutely complete the esthetics.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/11/22 7:20 p.m.

My cousin bought one of these new. He's still got it, called Black Beauty.

Agreed that the stock wheels are a perfect match to the styling.

Appleseed MegaDork
4/12/22 1:29 a.m.

In reply to Keith Tanner :

The only wheel more appropriate is the deep dish StarQuest.

Slippery GRM+ Memberand UberDork
4/12/22 9:14 a.m.

I remember back in the 90's when Reg Reimer had the 7M swapped one.

Reg used to be, maybe he still is, the Supra guru.

Tom1200 UltraDork
4/12/22 11:59 a.m.

I was a mechanic at a Toyota dealer when these were new. I still love them.

They have some of the nicest seats; the pump up lumbar was awesome. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
4/12/22 12:25 p.m.

In reply to Keith Tanner :

Yes, a 10/10 stock wheel setup. It would be a sin to swap them out. 

4/12/22 9:24 p.m.

In 1984 my mother bought a new Supra. Really weird and interesting is the car never was able to pass emissions inspection. The dealer said to bring it to them every time the inspection is due and they'll pass it. Apparently, a very small percentage of new cars won't pass for whatever reason. I think one cylinder had bad rings or something like that because it did seem to smoke more than it should have 

hobiercr GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
4/13/22 10:57 a.m.

I started doing gimmick rallies with a local club when I was in high school in my family's 1983 MX-63 Cressida (w/ factory 5 spd). Another rally competitor had an '84 Celica Supra. While both cars had the 5M-GE he swore that the Supra made more hp than my Cressida. On the rare occasion when we ended up lined up next to each other, I would walk him in a drag race every time. And my love for a sporty sedan was born.

With a bit of internet searching the engines look like the same spec (145hp), weight within 100lbs of each other, but the 0-60 and 1/4 mile times lean in favor of the Cressida in both cases (8.7/9.8 and 16.6/17.2).

And a +1 for the stock wheels on the Supra. They were perfect for the styling.

hobiercr GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
4/13/22 12:12 p.m.

They even look good on a Lotus.

Stampie GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/14/22 2:16 p.m.

Very timely article for me. I'm heading out to pick up my A60 based project tomorrow.

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