Toyota supra

An insight into a legend

Supra! What is in a name? According to the online Collins dictionary, when used as a prefix, supra denotes over, above, beyond, or greater than.

Toyota coined the Supra moniker back in 1978 for their augmented version of the popular four-cylinder Celica coupe. The more luxuriously appointed A40 was a wider, longer, and more powerful in-line six-cylinder version generating around 90kW called the Celica XX. It was Toyota’s plunge into the competitive and desirable grand touring market segment and a first punch at the highly successful Z sports car.

Whilst not immediately on every passionate driver’s must have sports car list, its notoriety and appeal rapidly gained momentum with selection as the official pace car at the prestigious 1979 US Grand Prix; and so begins the history of Supra.

Staying true to its name, the Supra proved itself to be far more than the sum of its parts, gaining a loyal following, and achieving several prestigious titles throughout successive models. It became more than a desirable vehicle to own. It was transforming into a generation spanning legend which matured and improved over time, like the finest of wines.

By the early 80s, Toyota’s engineering team had successfully crafted a new taut and more aggressive angular body shape and began redefining the Supra’s personality and on road dynamics. The prominent wheel arch flares hinted at Toyota’s focus on sporting performance for the Supra name plate. Every time I saw a ¾ front profile image of a late model A60 in gloss black or brilliant red, its front nose cone and bumper design reminded me of an 86 Ferrari GTB Turbo or Lotus Esprit S2.

Despite sharing many design cues and the rear body work directly from its smaller four-cylinder sibling. The Supra’s characteristic longer wheelbase meant it retained the larger inline six-cylinder configuration, assuring its edgy performance and GT status. Toyota upped the ante by installing their impressive 132kW 2.8L twin cam power-plant, offering improved acceleration and throttle response. A fully independent front and rear suspension system tickled by the then masters of handling, Lotus, provided the A60 with improved ride quality and better on road stability that matched or out-performed European offerings.

Sadly, in Australia, we only got the single cam version of the 5M-E leveraged from the Crown and Cressida, which could only muster 104kW. Four-wheel disc brakes provided the Supra with reliable stopping power to match the urgency of this 2.8L, and you could have your choice of either a 4-speed automatic or a 5-speed manual, with a range of interior trim options to suit your individual tastes, plus climate control, power door locks and cruise control.

 The luxury version featured electronic instrumentation, whilst the sports option had analogue gauges and sports seats.

An upgraded audio included a graphic equalizer, perfect for extracting the best out of Bon Jovi, INXS, Tina Turner, Phil Collins or maybe a little Bruce Springsteen.

Whilst the four speed auto acquitted its duties without complaint, it was the manual that allowed the driver to really explore the willingness of the long six’s capability. And let’s not forget the cool factor of retractable headlights, the must-have look-at-me signature show piece for any genuine sports car of the time.

The A60 didn’t have a stellar run with track trophies, its bulky size making it less nimble on the track and with wait penalties applied to the vehicle under certain race regulations based on engine displacement.

Yet, in 1984, touring car legend Win Percy raced an A60 Supra 2800 GT in the British Sports Car Championship (BSCC) – now called the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC).

Wagering an ongoing battle against the formidable V8 Rover Vitesse, Percy eventually captured the title, making it his third and final BSCC title.

In 1985, Australian GP500 champion, Barry Sheene, took on the mantle for the Supra A60, achieving double podium wins in Silverstone and Thruxton.

Sadly, the Supra ended the season with only a respectable 16th placing on the championship ladder.

The symbiotic relationship of the four-cylinder Celica and inline six XX Supra editions gracefully ended.

By 1986, the third instalment in the Supra bloodline, the upgraded A70, saw the vehicles separate to unique development paths and platforms.

The Celica remained a four-cylinder sports car but transitioned to front wheel drive, whilst the Supra followed its own direction as a performance orientated and dedicated rear wheel drive GT car.

The A70 was a step forward in modern softer edged design, with a lift off sport roof option, for a makeshift convertible. Interestingly, this feature can be traced back to Toyota’s tiny 800 Sports model in 1965, before Porsche’s 911 Targa made the design trendy. The A70 also introduced what was innovative technology for the mid-80s with ABS braking and Toyota’s Electronically Modulated Suspension (TEMS). The system adjusted the gas-filled shock absorbers between soft, medium, and firmer settings based on the driving surface, vehicle speed, steering input by driver or under hard braking. There was also the ability to choose between normal or sports modes to fine tune response to complement the driver’s preferred driving style.

Performance was further enhanced with the installation of a fuel injected 7M-GE 3.0L twin cam, 24 valve normally aspirated power plant.

This was the first four-valve-per-cylinder configuration for a Supra. Producing a crisp 149kWs, there was also a turbo option to force feed a little more urgency @ 173kWs when needing to get things rolling quickly, enabling a brisk punch to 100kph in 6.0s.

The turbo edition also gained a limited slip rear differential as standard.

Neoteric by design, the A70 enhanced accepted practices and methodologies for vehicle driveline operation. Whilst others were finally catching up and getting a handle on electronic fuel injection, the A70 Turbo was already using cutting edge technology such as distributor-less ignition with dual output coil packs mounted on the rocker cover. Even the suspension components came under scrutiny, reducing weight through the clever use of forged aluminium, and double wishbones at both front and rear connected back to independent sub frames. This reduced noise, vibration and harshness being transferred into the cabin from changing road surfaces, enabling the A70 to provide a quieter and more refined level of ride comfort.

Whilst the normally aspirated variant and Turbo used the same auto trans, the Turbo offered the option of an up-rated 5-speed manual to deal with the extra grunt and available torque.

The interior also received a rework, adding more eye pleasing curves and softer edges with a more focused look and feel dedicated to the driver, with power seats as an optional luxury. Yeah, it was the 80s, remember?

In combination with Toyota, the Tom’s and Sard team prepared several MA70s for competition. Running the powerful top spec twin cam, 24 valve Turbo 3.0L in line six, coupled to a low ratio gearbox, sporting Lockheed brakes, magnesium wheels and utilising titanium and carbon to cut weight. They achieved a prodigious result on the 20th of September, 1987 at Sportsland SUGU in the beautiful town of Murata, in the Shibata District. Legendary F1 Champion Allan Jones produced a debut win in division three at the Japan Touring Car Championship JTCC in the impressive Toyota Team TOMS Group A, MA70 Supra Turbo.

Sadly, the Supra began to battle, always caught just behind the eight-ball struggling to gain any competitive advantage against ever hungrier predators seeking domination in a fiercely competitive and costly sport.

There’s no denying it was an enjoyable, well-mannered road car with solid performance.

But being put head-to-head with lighter more powerful race opponents such as the blisteringly quick Ford Sierra RS 500, BMW’s bullet proof M3 and the Nissan’s aptly named “Godzilla” the merciless R32 Nissan Skyline GTR, the A70 had its work cut out to stay competitive at that level.

In a valiant effort, an ex-TOMS A70 was run at Bathurst in the capable hands of John Smith and Drew Price for Toyota Team Australia. Sadly, despite a solid effort, the Supra struggled to keep any dreams of race supremacy alive in Group A competition. Without solid factory backing like Ford, Holden, BMW, Jaguar or Nissan, it never got to show its real potential. Toyota pulled the plug only a year later to focus their gaze on rally domination via the four-cylinder Celica GT4. However, the Supra provided the foundation for many other smaller teams like R&R racing, the memorable Mr. Race Cam Peter Williamson and privateer Garry Willmington, to name a few. The A70 also established itself as the dominant force in the Australian Production Car Championship. The Turbo A70 was so prevalent in this off the showroom floor class that I sometimes looked like a dedicated race just for the big coupe.

Toyota Australia assisted the top teams offering direct supply of the vehicles.  Needless to say, the Supra took honours in the eight round series, commonly placing with first, second and third finishes.

By the late 80s and early 90s, the big Japanese manufacturers had flexed their muscle and manufacturing prowess to show the world the benefit of advanced engineering and design to produce some truly desirable performance cars to rival the European offerings.

I’m talking Honda NSX, Nissan Skyline GTR, Mazda RX-7 FD edition, Nissan’s gorgeous Twin Turbo Z32 300ZX or Toyota’s muscular Celica GT4 and let’s not forget the boy next door, the world rally dominating Subaru WRX STi.

Built under the watchful eye of Isao Tsuzuki, the MKIV A80 Supra, the last in the line, was without doubt the pinnacle of the Supra’s development. The A80 had what it took to truly capture the hearts and minds of aftermarket tuners and motoring enthusiasts long after its end of production in 2002.

The A80 Turbo edition should have been the vehicle to lay to rest the argument of Japanese top dog supremacy and put the GTR Skyline in its place. 

It had improved engine performance and additional weight savings, both of which professional tuners could take full advantage of because of the vehicle’s incredibly robust and well-engineered driveline. 

Under the hood waited probably one of the best inline 6 engines Toyota has ever built, the 3-litre, twin-turbo 2JZ-GTE. The 2JZ had a cast-iron block for superior strength to handle a significant increase in power output. Toyota conservatively indicated outputs of around 224kWs. Specialist aftermarket tuners obtained figures above 600kW with minimal modifications and still maintained reliability, testament to this engine’s superlative design and internal strength.

Available in a 4-speed auto with manual shift mode, the A80 Turbo could also be had with the very desirable heavy duty 6 speed Gertrag manual gearbox, making this vehicle the most collectable amongst enthusiasts.

The A80 also shared its foundation with the more expensive and luxurious Lexus SC of the time. However, the Supra was significantly shorter, making it far more agile. The Turbo edition dual turbos worked sequentially as opposed to parallel. As a result, the 2JZ 3.0L provided improved lower rpm response by reduced lag, whilst cleverly priming the second turbo into standby during mid-range operation to unleash the full ferocity of its secondary boost output for strong torque deliver in the upper rpm limits resulting in the speedo needle outpacing the tacho! With the additional weight savings thanks to an aluminium bonnet, roof, and bumper supports, Toyota even installed hollow fibre carpets to ensure the best possible power to weight efficiency.

The overall result was impressive, as the A80 would torture tyres in a rapid sprint, hauling in the 100kph marker in only 4.6s, and wrapping up the ¼ mile in only 13.5s! Let’s be honest, that’s still quick by today’s standards… but back in 2000 it was staggering for a standard factory production Japanese road going GT.

The A80’s interior was also something a little special. Totally focused on driver engagement with the entire dashboard pivoted toward the driver in a true cockpit style layout. Whilst the passenger was comfortable in a leather clad power adjustable bucket, there’s no denying these vehicles were focused on driver occupancy and thrilling experience.

So how did the magnificent Supra A80 fade into nonexistence? Well several factors influenced the bottom line for its justification.  Emissions compliance, the new demand for family functionality, and passenger room as opposed to the vehicles best attributes, its raw edgy fun factor.

Unfortunately burdened by hefty purchase prices, and up against well-established and highly regarded European competitors, it proved difficult to achieve the level of customer demand to generate the necessary sales figures and profitability to justify their ongoing existence. Despite winning performance and style, the A80 had a limited and finite production run.

As general sales figures across the board will attest, the market interest in performance sports cars had waned in favour of the practicalities of multipurpose transportation for work and family requirements. As early as 1998, the Supra disappeared from the US markets as the Yen strength continued to drive up the vehicle’s cost. The A80 only remained relevant in the local Japanese market until it was finally axed in August 2002.

But by then the Supra had won a special place of honour in the hearts of passionate car enthusiasts and the larger car community, promoting its status to automotive legend with exploits like those from Smokey Nagata, a prominent tuner and founder of the high-performance engineering service Top Secret, who chose the A80 as the basis for his most daring stunt of 197mph on the British A1. The Jun auto works Supra achieved a 401km/h pass on the Bonneville salt flats in Utah. Or there’s the Castrol TOM’s Supra GT, that finally hunted down its fearsome GTR Skyline rival on June 25th, 1995, at the tight and technical Sendai Hi-Land Raceway. The Supra would go on to win the Japan GT Championship four times, agitating the still enduring rivalry between Toyota and Nissan.

And who could forget the MKIV A80’s star role as a hero car in the block buster franchise The Fast and Furious with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker)?

In a classic David and Goliath scene, O’Conner and Toretto roll up to a set of traffic lights, stopping next to a gorgeous Ferrari F355 Spider powerhouse. While O’Conner pays an admiring compliment to the owner, the driver’s sanctimonious and rude response incites Toretto to tell O’Conner to smoke him in a drag race. Both vehicles peel away from the intersection unleashing huge horsepower in an intoxicating mechanical symphony shrouded in tyre smoke, the stunning orange 10s quarter mile MKIV Supra initially plays with the Ferrari’s hopes, and then grows tired of the game, powering forward to lay waste to the Ferrari’s delusional expectation of pre-ordained pinnacle performance, and simultaneously crushing the Ferrari owner’s smug attitude.

The mighty A80 was finally shelved and the last fourth generation Supra rolled off the production line at the Motomachi plant in Toyota City back in 2002. But those vehicles already in circulation drew strong attention from premium JDM tuners as the go-to vehicle capable of achieving super car performance with minimal mods and remain reliable.

This has resulted in good quality secondhand examples fetching considerable prices at car specialist car auctions around the world.

And thanks to its impressionable role in video games such as the Gran Turismo, that Castrol TOM’s Toyota Supra continues to capture the imagination of the next generation of automotive and motorsport enthusiasts.

Which means it probably wasn’t a surprise that somewhere deep inside Toyota’s own Calty Design Research studio in California, there was a small group of very talented design engineers who carried a special passion for the Supra nameplate, and what it meant to loyal Supra fans around the world.

Quietly leveraging their combined expertise they embarked on a special project, they set their sights on developing a prototype that would capture the imagination of senior management and gain approval to turn concept into model and enable Toyota to gauge consumer reaction to the possibility of a Supra rebirth.

The design team had to do something unique to elevate their masterful cutting-edge design off the drawing board and grant it freedom from 2-dimensional representation. So, they worked closely with Polyphony Digital, creators of the popular Gran Turismo driving simulator, to bring the concept to life in a virtual interactive environment.

What better way to capture the excitement and imagination of senior management than provide them with the opportunity to perform a timed lap in the concept vehicle around a simulated Fuji Racetrack?

Akio Toyoda, then CEO of Toyota, had a personal bond to the earlier A80, which he had used extensively to hone his driving skills on the racetrack. Impressed by the designers’ concept and ability to get the prototype put into the Gran Turismo game, Toyoda was hooked when he completed the virtual circuit in a lap time faster than his best real-world lap time at Fuji in his Lexus LFA.

Recounting the events at the 2019 North American International Auto Show, Akioi Toyoda commented, “I recommend this approach to any designer out there trying to get his boss to sign off on a concept car.”

And so, approval was granted to turn the virtual concept into reality. 2014 saw the presentation of the simply stunning first Future Toyota concept, the FT-1.

The FT-1 represents Toyota’s sporting heritage of nearly 50 years, starting with the cockpit’s wraparound windscreen and side glass openings adopting design elements from the stunning Toyota GT 2000 as driven by Sean Connery in the James Bond film, You Only Live Twice.

The FT-1 pays homage to previous generations of Supra, Celica and MR2, while also drawing inspiration from Calty’s sports-car concept work on the FT-HS, as seen at the Melbourne International Motor Show back in 2008. 

Clearly, the FT-1 is Toyota’s demonstration of intent to develop future vehicles that people will fall in love with and want to own.

Looking side on at the FT-1, the classic sculptured front engine rear wheel drive silhouette sees the cabin recessed deeply rearwards for near perfect weight distribution with the retractable rear wing creating additional down force at speed, alluding to the promise of exhilarating on road handling. 

The FT-1’s austere low slung interior snuggly cocoons the driver, providing the sensation of being one with the vehicle. The compact instrumentation and vehicle data display sit behind an F1 inspired steering wheel and provides all pertinent vehicle information and functional controls easily within the driver’s field of vision, complemented by a detailed colour heads up display. While slanted A-pillars are strategically positioned further back to provide improved visibility during cornering and emphasising the intimacy of the cabin. 

In summary, the FT-1 is a purist’s sports car pulled directly from the racetrack. Its low aggressive stance, huge muscular curves, sleek body lines with jet fighter styled air inlets and aerodynamic contours scream performance.

Toyota have stated the FT-1 concept vehicle is a compelling visual statement that represents a taste of the excitement people can expect to see in future Toyota production models.

And given the all new MKV Supra and its close ties to the FT-1 concept, they’ve remained true to their word.

Drive Editor - Ray Cully
Drive Editor – Ray Cully

About our Motoring Editor: Ray has been passionate about all things automotive since he first started collecting Matchbox and Hot Wheels models when he was five. Since leaving his executive role at General Motors (GM), he’s been sharing his driving experiences with Australian audiences for nearly 20 years, commencing his automotive journalist career with a popular WA-based magazine and was writing his own column in The West Australian for 8 years.

Ray’s strong love of automotive engineering and clever design has seen his articles and photography featured in prominent national magazines in Australia and the UK. He loves sharing his passion with other drivers, including via a long running stint as Senior Instructor for Land Rover Experience, providing training and education for new vehicle owners.

Recently Ray has been presenting on TV shows including Ready for Adventure and the very popular Caravan and Camping WA, to showcase some of the great products, vehicles and companies that make getting out and exploring Western Australia that much more enjoyable.