Back in 1989, the staff at Autocar magazine had an idea for a bit of a wheeze. Feeling they had all earned a day out, they thought it would be fun to rent a race track for the day and spend it driving round in circles in a load of fast cars.
Clearly some kind of editorial justification for this jolly was required, so it was dressed up as an attempt to find ‘Britain’s Best Handling Car’. So along they came, among their number a Porsche 944 S2, a Ferrari 328 GTB, a Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16, Lancia Delta Integrale and so on. It was a pretty impressive field, at least until someone wrote off the Ferrari, but that’s another story.
As it happened, the Porsche ran out a deserving winner, but snapping at its heels all the way to the flag was a little Toyota, powered by nothing more than a 122bhp, 1.6-litre four cylinder motor. If ever there were a moral victory that day, it belonged to the original Toyota MR2 not least because, by then, it was already a five-year old car.
Now, it would not usually be the place of this column to champion the case for future classic status of a car so old, because it should have got there long ago. But it hasn’t. Scruffy but usable Mk1 MR2s can be had for just a few thousand pounds. Give yourself a ten grand budget and you should be able to secure an absolutely cracker, free from the rust that blights unloved examples. Now compare that to the thousands more you might pay for a conventional far more common car like a Peugeot 205 GTI of the same age and condition. Something doesn’t add up.
Because fine car though the Peugeot is, it’s just a warmed over version of a very humble hatch, with a single cam, eight-valve engine driving its front wheels. By contrast, the MR2 was a bespoke design, with a mid-mounted, twin-cam, 16-valve motor driving the rear wheels. It’s far rarer than the 205 and yet it’s cheaper. Not long ago an ‘AE86’ Corolla hot hatch of the same era powered by the same engine as the MR2 sold for over £46,000, and, yes, it was a single-owner car and they’re unbelievably rare, but even so…
However you look at it, it’s hard not to conclude that the original MR2 remains underappreciated, a classic in all but name whose time has yet to come.
Of course it could be flattering to deceive. That low slung appearance, that hi-tech engine and its exotic location could be dressing up a car that was rubbish to drive. But it’s not. Anything but. When it was new in 1984, praise and awards flooded in from all over the world, all of it entirely justified. I’d been too junior to attend that first Autocar ‘handling day’, (though I’ve been to every other since), so my first exposure came the following year when Toyota launched the second generation MR2 to the British press in North Yorkshire and someone thought I ought to take an original up there for comparison purposes. And in every way that mattered to me, the lighter, sweeter, better balanced Mk1 was the preferable car.
What was so well conceived about it was that it was essentially two cars in one. Probably the biggest surprise for those who don’t know them is how comfortable and practical they are. For a car weighing less than a tonne designed 40 years ago, they’re surprisingly quiet on a long run, and with soft front springs because there’s no engine to support, they ride beautifully too.
The seats are comfortable and the boot is big enough for two to go on holiday; I know this because I did exactly that with someone who owned one. I’m not saying I went out with her for her wheels, but young and foolish as I was at the time, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t remotely drawn to her choice of transport.
And then you’d arrive somewhere you could experience the other side of its character. For this you would have to work because the steering was low geared and unassisted and the engine somewhat peaky in its power delivery, but my goodness it was worth it. The motors are super strong, especially in post-1986 ‘Mk1b’ models and never happier than when being strung out all the way to their 7600rpm redline. These were phenomenal engine speeds in the 1980s, matched by some Ferraris and almost nothing else. The gearbox was quite quick (beware jumping out of fifth, a problem ameliorated but not entirely solved by Mk1b upgrades) and full of delightfully short and close ratios.
But really it was about that handling. Back then we were still quite wary of mid-engined cars and, as the bloke who wrote off the 328 GTB at Castle Combe will attest, not without reason. But the little Toyota showed how it should be done, using its centralised masses to create gnat-like agility, allowing slides to be recovered from angles that in the finest Ferrari of the day would have had you in the barriers before you could say ‘opposite lock.’ It was no great surprise when we learned that development of that particular aspect of the MR2’s dynamics had been worked upon at length by a legendary Lotus chassis engineer, Roger Becker.
The task today is finding the right car. Because they’ve never been valuable, plenty have been neglected, so history is everything. Later cars are stronger and I prefer the coupé to the ‘T-bar’ targa-topped model. There were a few grey import Japanese market supercharged versions brought in that were genuinely quick, but I’ve not driven one. And avoid the automatic, which is mercifully rare.
But if you can find a rot-free late, manual coupé with a known history with no horror stories, the original MR2 still looks like a true classic in the making.
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