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Master of the Mountain

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To many of us mere mortals, Japan appears to be a mythical nation of dreamy mountain passes that echo to the sound of souped up Tōge missiles, wafting gracefully from corner to corner in a haze of tire smoke. One of the most iconic cars to ever affiliate with the treacherous Japanese subculture of midnight hill climb racing would be the 1983 Toyota Sprinter Trueno, a rear-wheel drive, naturally aspirated dynamic masterpiece, hailed by both racers and enthusiasts the world over as one of Toyota’s finest hours. Known famously as the Hachi-Roku (eight-six); to us Westerners, it is the humble AE86 Corolla.

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A Corolla, a car that’s about as interesting as a moderately long post office queue is right up there with likes of the 2000GT. There’s got to be more to Florida’s most popular city runabout than just hard plastics, dented fenders and scuffed hubcaps. To investigate, we got hold of one of the earliest iterations of the nameplate and went for a blast around the docks.

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The Corolla made its debut in 1966 with the E10, a basic, pushrod-powered city car that was ruthlessly simple in both design and execution. It was a good seller in the Japanese market, and crucially on the International stage too. While the USA was still battling with its eleventy-litre powered muscle cars and Europe echoed to a symphony of struggling starter motors, Japan was catering to a changing ideology that valued economy and reliability over brash speed and power. Within four years, the Corolla was honed and refined with a facelift and went on to gain a real foothold in the consumer market. It was cheap to buy, cheap to run, exceedingly reliable and in the unlikely event of it breaking down, it was extremely simple to work on. It was a winning formula that powered it along to become the most popular car on the globe by 1974, a title it has held right through its 11 generations, even surpassing the VW Beetle in 1997 as the most successful nameplate ever conceived. A combination of subtle styling, frugal performance and intelligent engineering was a winning formula that has changed little since its inception.

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The car featured here is a second generation E20 Corolla, introduced in 1970. Specifically, this one is a joyous Japanese-Built, Australian delivered KE20 coupe from 1973, now owned by dedicated enthusiast Gauthier. Essentially, it is the most popular and most elementary car Toyota made available in the early 70s. This is in no way a criticism. If the latest Ford Fiesta three-cylinder Ecoboost has taught us anything, it is that sometimes the most fun can be had with the most easily attainable cars packing puny power plants.

The bulk of Toyota’s passionate followers would argue, the Japanese Domestic Market TE27 Sprinter Trueno is the ultimate iteration of the E20 platform. A hypermodern 1600cc DOHC powerhouse introduced in 1972 offering world-beating performance and dynamic handling good enough to lead to an iconic motorsport status, it was faster, more advanced and more expensive. The KE20 was a humble car, lighter and purer, just that little bit more attainable for Japan’s youth.

For the uninitiated, older Corollas all used a front engine, rear-wheel drive layout. A formula that is straight from Chapter one of the petrolhead handbook. This was common practice across the range until the dreadfully dull E90 hit our shores in 1987 and killed off the last remaining rear-drive models with its front-drive fascism. But the old E20 was a car with a form the size of a postage stamp and a kerb weight sitting at positively anorexic 700kg. Factor in the almost limitless scope for tuning and modifying, for the discerning enthusiast, it provides the perfect canvas to craft a homemade hillclimber, which is exactly what Gauthier has achieved here.

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This gleaming Willow Green KE20 was originally fitted with a single overhead cam, 1.2L 3K Series motor which produced an ample 55hp. It was the engine known for powering most of Toyota’s small cars and commercials since the mid sixties. At the time, the overhead cam was advanced for such a basic, cheap car and the 1166cc capacity was frugal enough to warrant mass production. The motor was not quite of the level of potency required to slide you and your mates around Tsukuba, but it was just enough wheeze up to around 140kph with a bit of a tailwind. Although the Corolla’s acceleration might have been measured with the very tools one would use to observe the effects of continental drift, its peppy charisma just made drivers happy. It wasn’t quick but there’s a certain sense of nobility watching undiluted juvenility battle among a fleet of straight-six kings; seeing one is like watching a five year old pretend to be Superman.

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Gauthier’s car is a little different from your common Corolla. The aggressive aesthetics suggest a little more poke than the stock E20 would offer, and assumptions would be right. After a two-year, ground-up rebuild, this KE20 has been tweaked and tuned in the traditional style just as the pesky kids would have done back in the 70s. The original 3K motor was on its last legs, so was thrown away and replaced with a newer, 4K series engine, a slightly more advanced 1300cc donk which powered the Toyota family along right through until 1983, this one mated to a tight five-speed manual box.

Gauthier’s 4K has had a mild rebuild and a boring out, bringing the total capacity to a smidge under 1400cc. Bigger valves and a shaved head lead into 4-2-1 extractors and a custom  two inch exhaust system. Snarly dual weber carbs complete with trumpets are also known to make an appearance should the invitation for a midnight blast up through the hills surface; for day-to-day driving, the slightly more civilised stock unit keeps fuel economy on the cheaper side of 8L/100km.

The original pizza-cutter hub caps were replaced with a genuine, period correct set of Watanabe A-Type and B-Type wheels for the front and rears respectively. 60 profile tires give the 13” rims a raceir form which fill the arches all round. The suspension has been fiddled with, tightening up the frame and giving the whole car a 30mm drop to offer a more planted feel while giving a sportier aesthetic. Aside from the rims, the exterior is mostly stock, with a Trueno-styled fiberglass front lip echoing the car’s Tōge aspirations. The original venetian blinds over the rear window, which were kept from the original build, are thoughtful nod back towards its all-Australian life.

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Even with the bigger powerplant dropped into its shotglass sized engine bay, the kerb weight still sits around the magic 750kg mark. The handling is joy, you cannot underestimate the importance of basic modifications to such a simple car. Sticky, fat tires combined with sharpened suspension just bring the whole package together. Gripping onto the leather Nardi wheel, the car darts and dives from corner to corner with nimble precision. It doesn’t quite have the power to really get sideways like its AE86 big brother, but the close ratio diff keeps the rears planted meaning it’ll still take off with the ferocity of a mardy macaque, if you give it enough of a poke.

After originally being an old farm hack, located and rescued by Gauthier’s girlfriend, it was always built with the goal of being a reliable, period-correct cruiser. Subtle modifications to the ground-up rebuilt chassis, all lovingly crafted together with the divine guidance from Gauthier’s Step-Father, have made this KE20 a unique little rocket that will make any true car enthusiast gravitate towards it like the draw of a collapsing star.

This KE20 is a car that is so raw and organic, Gauthier says it’s almost as if it is shouting at him as he drives. When you slide yourself into the short-back leather buckets and grip the slender Nardi wheel, the whole car feels as if it comes alive, it's such a pure experience you feel intrinsically connected to the car and road. Whether it's tearing up the mountain or puttering around the docks, the charisma of the little Corolla is undeniable. This is so much more than the 2011 rental car of the year, this is a true, undiluted celebration of everything a car needs to be. It’s delicately beautiful, delightfully dynamic and fiercely simple. It’s a masterful creation; inspired by the mountain, realised by a true petrolhead.