As America’s favorite pastime grapples with a cheating scandal involving its biggest stars, I can’t help but imagine motorsports devotees are looking on with jaded amusement. Cheating, along with exorbitant costs and tobacco sponsorships, is part and parcel of the fabric of motorsports, no matter the geographic location or formula. But few have cheated like Toyota. Who else has been accused of, or caught red-handed, at cheating in NASCAR, CART, Formula 1, and WRC? In each instance, Toyota’s machinations were always subtle and ingenious, nothing like Smokey Yunick’s 7/8th scale Chevelle or any of the famous “bending the rules” yarns. Take for example, the car you see above.
Group A cars were required to be fitted with a specific turbo restrictor that served to limit engine output. Toyota was able to engineer a special bypass valve that could not only defeat the restrictor without creating any evidence of tampering, but was designed to conceal itself when FIA technicians dismantled the turbocharger for inspection. Max Mosley himself called it “…the most sophisticated and ingenious device either I or the FIA’s technical experts have seen for a long-time.” By bypassing the restrictor, Toyota could get as much as 25 percent more airflow into the turbocharger, allowing the GT-Four to put down as much as 350 horsepower in a field where cars were limited to 300 horsepower. According to Toyota’s own specs, my friend Rob’s GT-Four puts down about 255 horsepower, but it sure feels like there might be a bypass valve in there somewhere.
Other assorted WRC bits are there as well. Those black GT-FOUR logos you see above are actually riser blocks for the rear wing. There are provisions for an anti-lag system, as well as an intercooler water sprayer. While the latter is easy enough to find and install, the anti-lag is a true competition-only piece. Running it on the street would necessitate regular rebuilds, something that Rob isn’t keen on. But remove the interior, add a rollcage, some bucket seats and some radio equipment and you have a ready-to-roll rallycar.
Unlike other GT-Four models, this is a WRC special, a true homologation vehicle of which only 2500 copies were produced. Previous iterations of the GT-Four were sold here as the Celica All-Trac, but the only way most people will experience the ST205 version (as its known to Toyota otaku) is through copies of Gran Turismo. The “grass is greener” mentality, along with exposure via console games has led a number of enthusiasts to lionize Japan’s “bubble cars”. Some, like the Mazda RX-7, are truly special. Others, like the R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R, are just quick versions of plebian salaryman sedans, and were never imported for good reason. They spent all their money on the powertrain and threw their most dismal 240SX parts bin components at the interior. The car would have cost 300ZX money and without any of the Gee Tee Arr mythology, it would have undoubtedly languished in the showrooms compared to its more stately, luxurious and well-known brother, the 300ZX Twin Turbo.
The GT-Four was likely the victim of similar circumstances. Previous All-Tracs sold in minimal quantities, and most Celicas were sold to the secretary crowd. Rally racing’s popularity in America at the time rivaled that of Eugene Debs during WWI. Packed full of advanced technology that nobody would have understood, yet saddled with the exterior styling and interior materials of the regular Celica, it likely would have been a flop in a marketplace that wasn’t quite ready for Japanese sports cars. But what a spectacular flop it would have been.
Once you get over the whole right-hand drive thing, you are reminded of what good cars used to feel like. The clutch is beautifully linear, smooth engagement at just the right point through the range of pedal travel. The steering is full of heft and feedback in a way that is simply missing from today’s sports cars, save for perhaps a Lotus Exige. It’s not razor sharp like a Miata (or an FR-S, if you will), but this car isn’t for clipping apexes; no, this car is at home barreling down a snow-covered logging road, gently stepping the tail out sideways in response to careful left-foot braking. The slightly slow but communicative nature of the car is just what you want for that task.
The Yamaha-tuned 3SGTE mill builds power in a way that reminds you of the days of journal-bearing turbochargers, but it’s not nearly as laggy as, say, an early “bugeye” WRX. Rather than the Subaru’s “dead-below-3000-rpm” on-off style of power delivery, the GT-Four lets you feel the power build slowly below 2500 rpm, before it kicks in like a jumpmaster pushing his troops out the door and towards the dropzone. Once you hit 3000 rpm, the power seems to build in a logarithmic fashion, until your left hand is forced to change cogs. Each shift is punctuated by a crisp, satisfying “kssshhhtt”. It sounds like it should be aftermarket, but it’s not. The GT-Four stops as well as it goes, too. Like the clutch, brake pedal feel is firm, with the big, monobloc calipers (borrowed from a MKIV Supra Turbo) bringing the nearly 3200 lb Celica to a halt quickly. Sourcing rotors highlights one of the unpleasant realities of owning a rare import: rotors must be ordered from Europe or Japan, and the front set alone costs $400 by the time they get to your door.
Driving a rally-ready homologation special on a warm summer night when the tarmac is dry is almost a waste, but the biggest impediment to going fast in this car has more to do with your author than anything else. Getting used to right-hand drive in such a short timeframe was challenging. Shifting with the left hand proved to be somewhat less than impossible, but keeping the car oriented properly was tough. Throughout my drive, Rob would constantly be waving his hand to the right, a sign that I was coming close to drifting out of my lane on the left hand side and not staying far enough over on the right. I was reluctant to push the car too hard when I had trouble just staying in my lane. But I also plan to practice. According to him, it takes a few days of getting used to sitting on the “wrong” side of the car before you become proficient. This is something I plan on doing. After all, winter is coming…
Thanks to Rob for his photographs and turning over the keys to this very special bit of motorsports history.