In Japan, the honouring of long-dead ancestors is an ancient and well-established tradition. Lanterns are lit, gravestones are cleansed ritually, and music and dancing welcome the spirits. Those who have gone before are still a part of daily life.
Which brings us to badges.
On the steering wheel, on the front fenders, and etched into the headlights of this bright orange Toyota (which is actually a Subaru, more on that in a bit) is the same mysterious number: 86. In Japanese, the word for this number is hachi-roku, and it's nearly a code word. If you arrived at a midnight gathering of Japanese car enthusiasts at one of the parking lots that dots the highway circling Tokyo, you could instantly join the club by saying nothing else. Hachi-roku. Smiles. Nods of understanding.
Even when Scion was around and this little coupe was called the FR-S, it still had 86 written on its fenders, as a bit of a secret handshake to those in the know. To explain the connection, we have summoned an ancestral spirit by way of a 1985 Corolla. I know "Corolla" doesn't sound very exciting, but hang on to your hat.
This is Marvin Ng's 1985 Corolla GT-S, which he purchased for $1,800 in 2000, as a commuter for his first job in L.A. It has 305,000 miles on the odometer, and has been sitting in storage for the past two years. Because it's a Toyota, it starts instantly.
Pop the hood latches open and take a look at the firewall, and you'll immediately see the reason for all this 86 business. There, stamped into steel, is the model code: AE86. In the same way that BMW fans throw around chassis codes like E30 and E39 as shorthand, Toyota enthusiasts know this squared-off hatchback by its numerical designation.
Actually, it's more than just the Toyota nuts who will be able to give you chapter and verse on the hachi-roku. The AE86 is carried high on the shoulders of Japanese car culture thanks to its appearance as one of the central characters in Initial D, a comic that broke out of Japan in 1995. At a time when monsters like the third-generation Mazda RX-7 twin-turbo and the Mk IV Toyota Supra Turbo were flexing the might of pan-Pacific muscle, a little hatchback was sliding sideways into the imaginations of millions.
The story is pretty simple. Takumi Fujiwara is a disaffected teen who delivers tofu every day in his black-and-white Sprinter Trueno (the Japanese version of the Corolla GT-S). Tricked into developing an almost supernatural driving talent on the winding passes of the fictional Mount Akina, he eventually falls in with a crowd of street racers and beats the pants off all sorts of much more powerful machinery.
As an underdog story, it's got an appeal that doesn't require you to know anything about ball-bearing turbos or titanium valve-springs. Initial D was first a manga (comic), then an anime series, and eventually spawned driving games.
Ng's carefully preserved and modified AE86 manages to capture the spirit of the iconic Initial-D car, and is a pretty wonderful machine in its own right. The chassis has been reinforced with cross-bracing and has been stitch-welded in places for added stiffness. A newer, 20-valve version of the original 4AGE 1.6L four-cylinder engine has been swapped in; it makes around 165 hp and revs to 8200 rpm.
With four throttle bodies and a 5.5 kg flywheel, the 86's engine responds instantly to throttle inputs, and gets insanely loud as the revs climb above 5,000 rpm or so. It's a little hooligan of a machine, with weighty unassisted steering and a close-ratio gearbox that feels brand-new. Everything is a mechanical symphony of clicks and snicks and revs and g-forces. You can just imagine it hurtling down some narrow Japanese canyon road in the dead of night.
There's nothing cartoonish about the way this car feels. That's fitting, because the legend of the Corolla GT-S stretches back further than Japanese manga, and into the memories of old racing and rally drivers.
In 1986, Bob Trinder and his co-driver John Moody tackled the completely ridiculous Can-A-Mex rally in a lightly prepared Corolla GT-S. The rally began in Vancouver, then ran to Acapulco, Mexico, then up to Anchorage, Alaska, then back to Vancouver, ending at the Expo '86 fairgrounds. It comprised nearly four weeks of racing over 25,000 km of paved and gravel roads, pitting the little Toyota against factory-backed teams including a former ex-Safari Rally champion.
"It was a lot like the Datsun 510," says Trinder, speaking from his home in Vancouver. "Some cars come out of the box and they're just right. About two-thirds of the way along we managed to pull the exhaust off, but the engine never missed a beat."
With both genuine racing pedigree and a pop culture following, it's easy to see why the 86 is something Toyota chooses to celebrate. But times have changed, and turning a simple shoebox into a winner isn't as easy as it once was. The current Toyota 86 is a collaboration with Subaru, who builds the cars; the Subaru version is only subtly different, badged as the BRZ.
The Toyobaru twins, as some wag dubbed them, arrived in 2011 surrounded by a great deal of hype. A shame, as both cars served up only modest performance figures. When run head-to-head against something like a contemporary Civic Si, the front-wheel-drive car was actually quicker. Things were even worse in Subaru showrooms, with the 270 hp WRX parked nearby, for not much more money.
Yet as I pull away and rev the 86's flat-four engine up to extract the relatively meagre torque on tap, I can't help feeling that the modern car honours the old one in the all the right ways. It's affordable. It's a bit tail-happy. The presence of rear seats and a decent trunk make it a more practical choice than an MX-5. You can run it year-round – I've driven one of these on snow tires and it was more fun than a one-horse open sleigh. There's a huge aftermarket to bump up grip levels, and it's a great car for entry into the track day scene.
There are very few true hachi-roku around these days, with most having rusted away or been abused into pieces. However, the 86's spirit still comes to visit from time to time. Light the lanterns. Time to go dancing.
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