1979 Toyota Celica Supra
1979 Toyota Celica Supra. Click image to enlarge

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Toyota Canada

By Jeff Burry

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Toyota Supra, 1979-1997

When one thinks of “Toyota”, words such as “fuel-efficient”, “durable”, “economical” and “exciting” come to mind – well, perhaps the word “exciting” may be a bit of a stretch, at least in more recent years.

However, in the late 1970’s, Toyota designers were busy drawing up sketches of a vehicle that would remain in the minds of automotive enthusiasts everywhere for many years. It was badged “Supra” and it would undergo a number of facelifts during its lifespan.

Toyota Motor Company produced the Supra for the Canadian market from 1979 through to 1997. The first generation Supra (1979 – 1981) was largely based on the Toyota Celica liftback, a vehicle that was first released in late 1970 as an affordable alternative to the Toyota 2000GT. During its early years, the Supra was marketed as the Toyota Celica Supra.

1982 Toyota Supra
1982 Toyota Supra. Click image to enlarge

This first generation Supra shared the same front panels and doors as the Toyota Celica however the rear quarters were stretched by 129.5 mm. The biggest change was in the engine “swap,” replacing the Celica’s four-cylinder powerplant with that of an inline six. The folks at Toyota must have been hoping for a competitive alternative to the Datsun Z cars being produced by Nissan at the time.

The first generation Supras were anything but “high performance” oriented, producing a mere 110 horsepower – extremely underpowered by today’s standards, especially when powering a 1270 kg (2800 lb) vehicle. The engine, a 2563-cc 12-valve SOHC (single overhead cam) inline six-cylinder, was the very first produced by Toyota equipped with electronic fuel injection.

Drivetrain options for the first generation Supra included a five-speed manual transmission with overdrive or an optional four-speed automatic. The vehicle came standard with four-wheel disc brakes, lateral track bar and rear stabilizer bar. The front suspension also contained a stabilizer bar matched to MacPherson struts, providing a stiffer, better-handling driving experience. All this could be yours for a base price of $10,118.

In 1980/81, little was changed other than a few cosmetic appointments such as a redesigned centre console and digital quartz clock. Exterior-wise the side view mirrors were redesigned, 14 x 5.5-inch aluminum rims became standard equipment, and the Supra “sported” body moulded mudflaps.

1982 Toyota Supra
1982 Toyota Supra. Click image to enlarge

In 1982, Toyota completely redesigned the Supra. Out with the old, and in with a more aggressive looking and somewhat “thick” wedge design. The most notable differences from its predecessor were evident in the front end – newly designed front fascia with concealed headlights.

The North American market saw two distinct models – the L-Type (Luxury) and the P-Type (Performance) Supra. Under the hood of both models, a 2.8-litre 12-valve DOHC (double overhead cam) engine could be found producing 145 horsepower and 155 ft. lbs. of torque. 0 to 100 km/h times were pegged at 9.8 seconds with the car covering the quarter-mile in a respectable 17.2 seconds.

Exterior-wise the P-Type had flared fender flares, larger wheel sizes, and came standard with eight-way power adjustable seats. In comparison, the L-Type Supra offered its owners the option of a digital dash with trip computer keeping check on such things as speed, r.p.m.s, fuel and coolant levels. Leather seating was optional on the L-type Supras while the P-types all came standard with striped cloth.

Common to both models was the tuning of Toyota’s four-wheel independent suspension by Lotus which also featured variable assisted power rack and pinion steering and MacPherson struts.

For the following three model years, power output from the 2.8-litre engine gradually increased from 150 hp and 159 ft. lbs. of torque in 1983, to 161 hp and 169 ft. lbs. of torque for the 1985 model year. Most other upgrades focused on minor cosmetic changes to the exterior. Base price was established at $15,998 for the 1985 Celica Supra.

1987 Toyota Supra
1987 Toyota Supra
1987 Toyota Supra; photos by Jeff Burry. Click image to enlarge

1987 saw Toyota drop any reference to the Celica brand. The Toyota Supra now stood on its own as a separate model, maintaining its rear-wheel drive platform while Celica changed to a front-wheel drive system. Gone was the wedge-shaped design of the second generation model which continued with Toyota’s MR line of two-seater sports cars.

Packed between the bulging fenders of the newly designed Supra would be an upgraded 3.0-litre engine producing 200 horsepower and 196 ft. lbs. of torque. One could also opt for a turbocharged version producing 230 horsepower – a very good thing given the powerplant had to haul an extra 200 kg more than its predecessor. Both vehicles were available with a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions.

For potential owners and buyers of this third generation Supra, there was the potential for blown head gaskets (bhg). Cars approaching 250,000 km or more on the odometer, may acquire the bhg syndrome if not tended to. Unofficial advice would suggest retorquing the factory head bolts to ensure a longer life.

Toyota incorporated a great deal of new technology into the third generation Supra. Options available included TEMS (Toyota Electronically Modulated Suspension) which provided the driver with two settings for damper rates, new four-channel ABS (Anti-Lock Braking System), and ACIS (Acoustic Controlled Induction System) to control air compression pulses inside the intake piping to increase power – moving ever closer to the reality that modern-day vehicles are literally “computers on wheels.”

Toyota had already begun working on the fourth, final and perhaps most recognizable Supra thanks to its appearance in the Fast and the Furious movie of 2001 starring Paul Walker. The new 1993 Supra would be completely redesigned sporting a well-rounded, smooth and sleek look.

This Supra would feature two new engines: the 2JZ-GE producing 220 hp and 210 ft. lbs of torque and a twin turbocharged 2JZ-GTE producing 320 hp with 315 ft. lbs of torque. The turbocharged version (stock) could achieve a top speed of 291 km/h. The twin turbos operated in sequential mode versus parallel mode resulting in increase boost and torque throughout the full “power band.”

Transmissions available for this fourth generation Supra included a four-speed automatic, five-speed manual and a new six-speed Getrag/Toyota manual (available on the turbocharged models).

1996 Toyota Supra Turbo
1993 Toyota Supra
1996 Toyota Supra Turbo (top); 1993 Toyota Supra. Click image to enlarge

The turbo model also received larger four-piston brake calipers on the front and two-piston brake calipers on the rear as opposed to two-piston calipers on the rear and one-piston calibers on the front for non-turbo models. All Supras came equipped with five spoke aluminum alloy wheels. Base Supras were outfitted with 16-inch wheels while their turbo counterparts received 17-inch alloy wheels.

This fourth generation Supra was lighter than its predecessor, and therefore much faster. Weight reduction was accomplished by using aluminum for the hood, front crossmember, oil and transmission pans, and suspension upper A-arms.

A “donut” spare tire was also used versus a full-size spare. Other measures taken to reduce the weight included using a plastic gas tank, gas-injected rear spoiler and a magnesium steering wheel. Toyota was finally serious about producing a high-performance Supra. Unfortunately it may have been too little, too late. Production ceased in 2002.

One of the things that may have led to the fourth generation Supra’s demise is cost. As an example, the 1994 Supra Turbo retailed for $59,800 new, while the 1997 model Supra Turbo came in at a stout $80,758. Not within reach for the average automotive enthusiast.

There are any number of web sites and forums dedicated to the Supra and there certainly is a strong following of car owners and enthusiasts. Check out SONIC (Supra Owners Network in Canada) and Supra forums to whet your appetite.

On a more personal note, there are so many wonderful modern classics to write about. How does one choose? This particular article was inspired by my son who recently purchased a beautifully maintained one-owner 1987 Toyota Supra. It is his first vehicle. Good choice son!

Seeing him grin from ear to ear as he slid behind the wheel, gazing out over the bulging fenders and slightly-raised hood is good for the father’s soul. Ah, the Toyota brand still has what it takes to generate that excitement even if one has to retreat to a 21 year old Supra – indeed a modern classic in its own right.

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