Drift Toyota AE86: talisman of sideways sliding

Cars Culture

The Toyota AE86 is the original and definitive Drift machine

Hachi-Roku. Corolla. Levin. Trueno. Sprinter. Whatever you call the thing, Toyota’s AE86 designation – that is the two-door, rear wheel drive, vaguely wedge-shaped, mid-range sports coupé produced between 1983 and 1987 – is the most definitive vehicle in the short history of Drift culture.

It’s a relatively elusive, rare beast these days. If you can find an unmolested, non-modified version of the car then you should buy one. Because it won’t be long until concourse examples of this Japanese classic will be fetching six figures at Pebble Beach.

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The cult of Toyota’s AE86 contains some of the most arcane terminology, nomenclature, and jargon. And why should this be so? Well, timing is one reason.

At the time of its launch, the Japanese car scene was ripe for a high-performance everyman hero. The Japanese economic boom was in full swing, and for the first time an entire young generation was being born into the expectation of accessible cars. This young generation was starting to be influenced by a very western idea of youth. They were starting to lose the post-war generation stoic steadfastness and ridiculous work ethic. They wanted to display the fruits of hard-won wealth in the shape of cool, quick cars. The drift scene in the eighties and nineties emerged as a result of this. It was cool to be an outlaw – and modifying cars, loading up the rear and welding the diff together made these things slide sideways beautifully.

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The AE86 was just perfect for what was going on around it. The rear wheel drive configuration was key of course. It also weighed less than 1000KG in full showroom trim, which helped. Another reason for its street success was the 4A-GEU engine. This was an inline four with two valves per cylinder and came with carburettors, and was therefore easily tuneable by the enthusiastic amateur.

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Many of the Hashiriya street racers in Japan who raced the mountain passes were exactly this young, enthusiastic demographic. They were the grandchildren of the post war baby boomers. Put these kids in an AE86 on a series of mountain switchbacks and Bob’s your uncle. Legend born.

But it wasn’t just the rise of Drift culture that made these cars popular. The lightweight build combined with an urgent, free-revving engine and the RWD configuration made them successful across a wide variety of competition series. They had a particularly successful year in the World Touring Car Championships of 1986.

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But what about those hybrid Japanese designations? These are monikers that reflect the different models of the Hachi Roku (which itself is a phonetic expression of the words for ‘8-6’ in Japanese).

Zenki approximates the English word for ‘early’ and reflects to the model year 83-85. Kouki, on the other hand roughly means ‘later’ and refers to 86s built between between 1985 and 1987. Levin, according to some sources is a ‘middle English’ term for ‘lightning’ – though we’re a little sceptical and think the interweb may be taking the mickey here. Toyota called 86s with fixed lights Levin – and meanwhile named those with popup lights Trueno, which apparently means ‘Thunder’ in some language or other.

Confused? So are we.

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Attached to these arcane terms come a wide array of numeric and alphanumeric terms. The SR5 is for example a luxury edition, which in the 86 usually means electric windows, Air Conditioning and Power Steering. GTS is, as you might expect, the designation that denotes the sportier stock versions of the car, which means the inclusion of the more powerful 4AG engine in combination with a Limited Slip Differential.

To add a final twist there were of course hatchback and coupé versions of the car, with both 2 and 3 door variants – and of course different territories came with different terms such as ‘lift back’ and ‘hatchback’ etc. No one seems to agree on these things. And we expect you to correct us promptly.

But whichever way you look at it, the AE 86 represents one of the last moments when the average young person could buy a genuinely high performance, tuneable car with Rear Wheel Drive.

The world turns. Technology develops. Old certainties melt into the air.

You may never see their like again.

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