The One That Got Away

The One That Got Away: Ben Collins on the badass Toyota Supra that lived fast and died young

by Charlotte Vowden
14 December 2022 5 min read
The One That Got Away: Ben Collins on the badass Toyota Supra that lived fast and died young
Collins owned a naturally-aspirated version of the A80 Supra, imported from Japan. Photo: Toyota

“The Toyota Supra looked like an absolute badass. It was black and squat with a massive tail on the back and had a really brooding front end; I loved the Mad Max movies so there’s probably a bit of me that thought I was Mad Max when I was in that car but its very sad end taught me a lesson in humility.

I was 23 and racing in Formula 3 at the time, and the problem was in the hands of an idiot who was driving it like it was on the race track rather than the road. It was too much of a good car too soon. It was a 3.0-litre naturally aspirated model, I think a 1997 car, that had been imported from Japan and I’m fairly sure a little bit of fairy dust had been sprinkled on it by a tuner because it was incredibly quick, nothing else could touch it. I got hold of it on the secondhand market, I can’t remember how much for, through a dealership called Hendy Lennox in the South West who sponsored me back in the 90s.

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The Supra’s cabin was awesome, it had really slick seats, and my first impression when I sat in it was that the car was just so vast. Everything that torqued the engine was big and chunky, including the steering wheel, gearbox cowling, the pedals and the gear stick, which had a really brutish motion as it went through the gates. 

I was totally aware that there was this sort of Leviathan under the Supra’s hood and it had, or seemed to have, unparalleled levels of grip compared to what I’d been used to; I started out in a Honda Civic with a tyre footprint that was about a third of the size and suddenly, I had this beast which had no driver aids, no ABS, no traction control and loads of power – but performance wise it didn’t quite stack up to what it promised because of the weight. Racing in a Formula 3 car, I was only a couple of hops shy of a Formula 1 machine, but the Supra compared because it had a stiff setup and communicated with the huge tyres instantly. Driving that car was beguiling, I imagine it’s what being in a low-flying fighter plane feels like. 

Japanese cars are known for being well looked after and because they are right-hand drive they’re perfect for importing into the UK, which has some incredible country roads. I can’t think of a particularly epic drive, I used it to commute mostly, but I grew up in Devon so any journey was exciting because the lanes were incessantly dirty, dusty and twisty and what that car felt good at doing was cornering, although it was very busy over bumps. It was an amazing piece of kit but I definitely got too carried away.

Ben Collins
Collins aboard Emerson Fittipaldi’s 1972 Lotus 72D. Photo: Courtesy Ben Collins

At that point the Beastie Boys were really rocking and rolling, but music is a massive distraction because it creates a detachment from reality. One day, in 1998, I was on way home from Exeter, I was driving too fast, had my music on too loud and spotted a load of clay on the lane too late. As quickly as I realised it was going to be a problem I saw a 12-tonne truck coming towards me full to the gunwales with turf. I attempted to punch the Supra through the hedge but it was too difficult because the steering had gone on the clay and so the car took a massive impact into the front axle of this truck. It was a dead stop in a short space of time.

The engine and gearbox came back about two-and-a-half feet but my little area kept its structural integrity because the chunky wheel had absorbed the impact of the hit – it was bent like a banana so the car did its job and saved my life. The g-force sent everything up onto the dash so there were pens, pencils and a piece of sandwich just sitting there in the gap underneath the windscreen. Knowing the Supra had no airbag I held on to the steering wheel, which some people say not to do, which actually kept me from going through the windscreen.

I had to kick the door open to get out because everything got jammed and I looked at the damage; in a weird way it was quite interesting. It was a big hit that knocked the wind out of my sails and fortunately everybody human was OK, but tragically that was the end of the Supra. I reckon I only had it for about a year so it lived hard and died young. God knows what I would have done to myself with a twin-turbo one.

Being young and stupid I thought I knew everything; it was pure arrogance that I ended up in that situation. You can’t replay your life and we are a product of our experiences that stack up but I would do things differently because it shouldn’t take going through something like that to learn a lesson and that’s why I wrote my book How To Drive. I took stupid examples from my life – that I’m not proud of – and useful experiences I’ve had on track learning performance driving and decanted them into a series of how to stories that show rather than tell.

After that rude incident with the Supra I was a bit more chasten, so I hope this story might convince a few people to skip that step in their learning journey, particularly people like me who can be hot-headed. In racing it’s something I temper every time I go out because sport is all about controlled aggression, finding focus and unleashing your performance effectively in a cool and measured way.

Aston Martin DBS Bond
Collins did stunt driving in several Bond movies, including Quantum of Solace. Photo: Sony Pictures via IMCDB

I felt the effect of the accident for days but was back racing within a week; I had to use public transport to get there for a bit. I got an Audi A3 1.8 Turbo next, which was well engineered, but didn’t feel anything like as quick as the Supra. Years later, when I did a film with Jay Leno, I drove a turbo version that felt quite sloppy and soft which made me realise my Supra definitely had suspension work to make it stiffer, it was a unicorn.

On track as The Stig it was all about going as fast as possible and some of my least favourite cars from that era were TVRs. They had a fair amount in common with the Supra in that they’re quite unruly, but to be fair, the Toyota handled much better than any TVR I’ve ever driven; without exception, they’ve all handled badly. They locked up their tyres under braking and spun half way through corners.

I’ve driven Aston Martins in the last four James Bond movies and I drove them hard for Top Gear so I’ve got a lovely connection to them but movie making has numbed me to any emotional attachment. In the first Bond movie I made, Quantum of Solace, the DBS I drove just went ballistic. It had a V12 at the heart of it which was just awesome, manual transmission, a beautiful interior and every time you started it the LEDs in the dash would say ‘power, beauty, soul’ which summed it up perfectly. It was a wonderful car and I did a lot of bad things in it; we had 11 of them and all of them got destroyed in the making of the film. I admire the cars but the film comes first, it’s like making an omelette, you crack some eggs.

As much as I loved my Supra, if I got it back I’d sell it because it was way too heavy and I like something to be much more nimble. Ironically, I’ve ended up with a Porsche 997.2 Turbo, which is like a Supra that’s evolved over the years into its perfect self – it also happens to be black. I still think the Supra is one of the best cars I’ve ever owned, it’s very much the one that got away, but there wasn’t much emotion involved for me to be honest because at the end of the day, unfortunately, with racing and making movies you end up having a fairly callous relationship with cars; you love them but they become a tool.”

Read more

The Ones That Got Away: A guilt-ridden Jonny Smith on the cars he wishes he’d saved
Retro Rewind: Mk4 Toyota Supra vs Mk5 Toyota Supra
Nissan Z vs Toyota Supra | Jason Cammisa on the Icons

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