By on December 18, 2009

stained but still desired

Toyota’s failure to crack the US pony car market over the long term is one of its few major stumbles. When I found the pristine Celica Supra Mk I, and then ran across this sad looking and likely abandoned/stolen Mark III, I knew it was fated for me to do a three-parter on the first three generations of Toyota’s ill-fated pony car challenger. It took me a while to find the Mark II, but now we’re at the point of pulling the whole thread together. I’m far from an expert on the Mark III, so please add to the limited body of knowledge that I can muster or fake. One thing is clear: Toyota’s trajectory with the Supra led to a dead end, and that path started early on, perhaps right from the get-go. And the Mark III clearly marked the beginning of the end.CC 10 033

The regular Celica’s mission in life was relatively easier, at least for longer than the Supra’s. The Celica was to the Mustang and Camaro what the Corona/Corolla was to the Impala/Malibu and the like: smaller, lighter, cheaper alternatives when that was in demand. But despite a strong start and a fairly good run, even the Celica’s mission didn’t work out in the end, due to the Mustang’s incomparable dollar/horsepower value, and the return of interest in V8 powered pony cars.

But the Supra had an even harder road to hoe. On the pricey side from the beginning, it get ever more so. Its positioning in the market was problematic. The Mark II had enough high-tech features that were not so common at the time (DOHC six, IRS, etc.) and superb build quality that it could just pull off its super-Mustang price, even if much of its performance envelope was eclipsed by the crude but effective ‘Stang.

The Mark III was a substantial notch up in terms of chassis sophistication (double-wishbone suspension), performance (turbo version), and a general move upscale. Based on Toyota’s Soarer, the Mark III also got the cream of Toyota’s engine stable at the time, the 3.0 Liter 7M-GE four-vale inline six. The normally aspirated version made 200 hp; the (mild) turbo: 230 hp. Quite a healthy jump from the 160 hp of the Mark II, but the Mustang GT was making 225 at the time, for thousands less.

CC 10 032 800The niche for high-tech JDM-style sports tourers was small and too crowded, and eventually collapsed. That didn’t come to full fruition until the time of the Mark IV, but the sales numbers for the III were shrinking. It shows in the dearth of Supras of this vintage on the streets here. For quite a while, this one was the only one I came across. I’ve seen one or two since, but they’re pretty elusive. And though you may be turned off by the condition of this yellow buzz-bomb, I find it strangely appealing. The contrast of the yellow paint and the dirt or whatever has stained it is photographically compelling. I strongly suspect that this car was stolen and abandoned here, since there were no houses nearby. And it’s also attracted the attention of a prospective next owner, from the tattered note on the windshield that asks: “Is this car for sale?” You wouldn’t likely see that on an old tattered Mustang. The Supra may be gone, but it’s anything but forgotten.

CC 10 036

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24 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1987 Toyota Supra Mark III...”

  • avatar

    Looks like this one spent the last five years under a tree. It actually looks like a fairly straight and solid car under the gunge. Do Oregon cars rust like they do in coastal BC?
    It isn’t uncommon to find what appears to be a really well-preserved car, only to find the floorboards and trunk floor are missing.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      No, unless water gets inside and trapped under rubber floor mats like my Ford truck, but then it is 43 years old.

      • 0 avatar

        That’s a likely case with this car. The belt line trim, spoiler, tail lights, glass trim, all attach through the metal and the bolts seal with foam washers and foam rubber seals that don’t last much beyond 15 years before they leak. I have one of these cars.

  • avatar


    I can give you some comparative analysis as I owned a ’90 Supra and a ’92 Mustang LX 5.0 litre.

    Undoubtedly the build quality and materials on the Supra were superior to the Mustang as was top end performance and braking.  Acceleration performance was no contest, the Mustang’s 5.0 litre V8 is a torque monster compared to the wimply, normally aspirated 3.0 Supra engine. Handling wasn’t much different as the Mustang moved to 55 series rubber and 7″ rims in ’91 which greatly helped with stickiness in the corners.  The four shock set up on the Mustang’s rear axle helped to keep it planted on hard acceleration too.  As far as ride however, the Supra definitely gets the nod. The dreaded rear axle hop on the Mustang was present and typical.

    Everything about the Supra was expensive, not so on the Mustang. The Mustang had its issues but most were solvable, not so with the Supra. The sophisticated electronics, ECM, etc. on the Supra left me high and dry when they malfunctioned and defied analysis.

    The fuel consumption was similar, the Mustang being slightly better but the 5.0 ran great on regular, the Supra needed 91 octane.

    They are hard to compare as Pony cars because they are so different. The Supra was more refined but no where near as much fun, and, I think, a marginal performer by comparison. 

    • 0 avatar

      The Supra Turbo would have been a better comparison for the 5.0L Mustang, or the 3.8L Mustang would have been a better match for the non-turbo Supra.

  • avatar

    I owned one of these for nearly 10 years and 165,000 miles.  Mine was a burgundy on burgundy 1987 Turbo 5-spd.  Terrific at speed, and the turbo rush never seemed to end.  The 24 valve engine just loved to rev.  Speed (and again smoothness) was perhaps the best thing about this particular generation.  I never had trouble keeping up with most of what I came across on the road.  I even got it up to 140 mph briefly on one stretch of deserted Interstate.  Much was made at the time of the unidirectional Goodyear Gatorback tires.  They were very grippy and provided decent ride quality.  Replacements were expensive though.  Steering was comfortable but nowhere as responsive as a BMW I also drove at the time.  Ride quality was OK but the car really seemed to straddle uncomfortably between cruiser and sports car.  Even the adjustable shocks weren’t able to help the car make up its mind as to its true personality.  The excessive 3400 lbs weight further compounded the problem.

    Looking back I’d have to say that the Mark III did not really live up to the Toyota quality reputation like say, the Mark I or the Cressida.  Problems I encountered included niggly trim problems: fog light and taillight condensation, broken glovebox lock, door lock trim would not stay (probably because the “hook” was built into the plastic instead of a separate clip), broken cassette door, broken headlight switch (strange since this seemed to be the same design Toyota had used for years), broken cruise control switch, numerous A/C parts replacements (though this was a Southern car), paint fade on plastic bumpers down to the primer, gearshift leather peeled off after 4 years, steering wheel leather disintegrated (literally!) after about the same amount of time.  Also, Toyota never built a decent power antenna — mine would never go down all the way.  Finally, although I didn’t realize it at the time, it succumbed to the beginnings of head gasket failure.  I kept having strange cooling system issues that parts replacement never seemed to cure.  My religious devotion to turbo cooldown procedure and 3,000 mile oil changes could not help the 7M-GTE last longer than 165,000 miles.  Luckily I got rid of it before it became a real headache.

    I can see why the Mark III’s have a following.  With some suspension and power upgrades (like the 400hp TRD package) this car can easily be turned into a total performer.  However, its image might have been more crisp were it equipped as a cruiser without the sporty handling pretensions (no Gatorbacks, automatic only, no adjustable shocks).  I’m glad I had it, but I don’t miss this type of impractical car now.

    BTW, the car pictured is likely a 1986.5, 1987 or 1988 because of the nose styling.

  • avatar

    My father replaced his Mk I Supra (same exact color as the one you found) with a non-turbo Mk III.  They were indeed a stark contrast in personality for a car of the same name,  same basic port-injected OHC I-6 RWD hatchback coupe architecture.  The Mk I was a nice, tossable Celica with more power and luxury, a touring coupe. The Mk III was much more of a serious performance car, but it felt and drove much like an old Jag E-type, minus the low-end torque.  It was a bit ponderous in town at low speed.  The car felt much heavier and the non-turbo six really had to build revs in order to move it.

  • avatar

    Being with Toyota on a retail level when the first Supras started hitting the market, it was apparent early on, even while they looked like dressed up Celica liftbacks, price was always the issue. Buyers were having a tough time justifying the extra cost. As the car evolved they were then compared to the Corvette ,with lots of buyers, and again no justifying the price for what was in essence a boring car to the retail public.

  • avatar

    Not to be picky, but it’s “row to hoe” instead of “road to hoe”.

    Like getting Saab parts in twenty years may be a difficult row to hoe.  If my Saab endures that long.  :(

  • avatar

    With the seperation of the Celica and Supra/Soarer platforms in ’86 Toyota lost the economies of scale they once had with these cars.
    <conjecture> If they had stayed on the same FR platform they would probably all still be for sale today along with a Lexus on the same platform.  During the nineties when Toyota solidified it’s reputation the Supra would have been a good Mustang/Camaro competitor and picked up a lot of sales despite a slightly higher price tag .</conjecture>
    The Supra ended up far and away too expensive instead and the Celica was just another boring FWD car with the exception of the rare all-trac.

  • avatar

    The 7M-GE/7M-GTE engines suffered from head bolts that didn’t have enough torque from the factory. Unless it was corrected (torque’d down some more – easy) you could end up with an unfortunate experience. From memory Toyota had a bit of bad press about it.
    The 7M engine (like the 2JZ that followed it) were/are very highly sought after tuner engines. The 5-speed R154 gearbox was indestructible (and used in several race application in other cars), while the A340E 4-speed auto was used in more than a dozen Toyota models of the day.
    I had a 1991 Turbo 5-speed which looked quite a bit better than the 1986 introduction. Best car I’ve ever owned – 350,000kms with nothing more than some turbo repair work (pretty cheap). I still see that car around the place with the young ricers that bought her.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t recall any press about this problem, and I certainly was never informed about it by the several Toyota dealer service departments I frequented.  Of course, I owned the Supra before the age of the Internet.  Now, the automakers have a harder time hiding problems as Toyota is now discovering.

    • 0 avatar

      If you take a look on, you’ll see page after page devoted to the topic for the MkIII. A summary made it’s way into Wackypedia;
      “Not withstanding the technical sophistication and powerful output of the engine, it was plagued with the problem of regularly blowing head gaskets due to improper torque specifications of the head bolts from the factory. The 7M-GTE turbo version suffered from the same problem. Permanent fixes typically involved a metal after-market head gasket, higher torque settings (usually 70-80 ft·lbf) and upgrading to head studs (through the ubiquitous ARP and their hardware) rather than bolts.”
      I’m sure there was a factory recall and some very unfavourable press.

      • 0 avatar

        ABOUT 87 TOYOTA TURBO SUPRA every single one (from 86 -91) blew the head gasket Multiple times causing Extreme damage to the engine if running fast. Toyota is a Joke of a company since they NEVER recalled any of these and would Not even accept letters to Tokyo about this problem. The ONLY problem with the engine was under torqued Head Bolts but this was a serious oversight on Toyota’s part and should have mandated a recall. They did NOT recall because it would have cost them BIG money due to the amount of destroyed engines already out there so they are basically a cheap company in my Opinion and I owned the dog too.
        While working on the car I saw numerous shoddy mechanical applications that were really substandard but hidden from general view too.
        My guess is the New Lexus LFA may have a similar oversight also since they messed up the initial Lexus line too. Toyota Supra Turbo was the TOP of the Line in 1987 in price and was around $32,000.
        Buy a Honda, they don’t make these kind of mistakes!

  • avatar

    Features that were standard/available on the Mark III that seemed really cool/advanced at the time but are fairly common now on even some lower-priced cars:

    Fade-out interior light dimming
    Driver’s-side auto down power window (some pedestrian cars now have this on both sides)
    Key in ignition interlock – car cannot be locked if the key is inserted in the ignition
    Automatic temperature control
    Headlight washers
    Heated outside mirrors
    Variable speed windshield wipers
    Memory tilt/telescoping wheel (mechanical) — the best design I’ve seen since
    Dual illuminated visors
    Automatic off headlights
    Automatic shut off for rear defogger
    Dual overhead maplights
    Lighted ignition switch
    Lighted driver’s-side keyhole (obsolete now that cars have remote keyless entry which was not available on the MkIII)

  • avatar

    Back in the early ’90’s I was selling cars for a large muli-brand dealer chain in the Atlanta area, mostly selling Toyotas, but some other makes too. At the time, the three sporty cars were the MR2, the Celica and the Supra. IIRC, we were told to sell the Supra (particularly the Turbo version) against the Corvette, and it seemed reasonable considering they were closer in features and price to each other than say the Camaro or Mustang. I would say the then-current Mustang is/was the Sten gun of muscle cars, cheap to buy, cheap to hop up and maintain. By comparison, the Supra (and especially the Turbo version) was rather expensive to maintain. I remember being told by one of the techs in the shop that the required maintenance on the Turbo model required a whole day to perform and cost in the neighborhood of $300-$400. That was a lot of money for a tuneup in 1991. I believe the labor charges had a lot to do with the time to r and r the Turbo plumbing itself. It was a neat car, but I never sold one. I DID sell a Land Cruiser, and if any of you out there have ever worked for South East Toyota, you will understand what an achievement that was, but comparatively, Supra Turbos should have been a much easier sell.
    Out of all of those cars back in the day, my favorite was any of the Celica Turbos, they were the most like the pony cars (except for wrong wheel drive), but just about any 5.0 Mustang or Camaro Z28 of the time would smoke those things. It’s hard to argue against the V8 torque.
    Maybe that yellow MkIII could use a GM LSx swap? That would be tres cool.

    • 0 avatar

      You bring up a good point about the Corvette and Mustang.  Supra buyers (often a suit & tie middle manager/executive) generally wouldn’t be caught dead in a Mustang or Camaro.  By the time the Mark III had come out the Mustang design was already 7 years old.  In high school parking lots everywhere you could find the same basic Fox style all clapped out with everything from primered bodies and spoilered hoods to whitewalls and wire-wheel covers.  And by 1986, the Mustang and Camaro had had 20 years playing the role of unsophisticated kid car.  Supra/ZX/RX-7/Starion buyers largely had their eyes on BMWs once the promotions came.

  • avatar

    I live in WA State, and that mold you see in the picture is common, especially with cars that sit along time. It grows on more than just cars, too! I don’t like it because it causes wood, such as a deck, to become very slick and treacherous.

  • avatar

    In 1991 Toyota Australia raced two Supra Turbos to a 1-2 finish in the Bathurst 12-Hour as part of the last phases of their marketing effort before being withdrawn from sale.
    In Japan they were raced in a “Group A” spec (500 made, all black), and also in more modified formats with the 3S-GTE engine (in place of the 7M-GTE). Toyota Team Europe even rallied them for a year in 1988 (?? – my memory is a bit vague on that).

  • avatar

    Toyota’s biggest mistake, the one I most blame for the demise of the Supra, was not offering the top end engines to the US market right away. The 7MGTE 3.0L turbo was only Toyota’s top of the line engine till 1989′. After that the JZ engine family was introduced and came in the Supra in Japan and it was fantastically better; more powerful and more reliable (it didn’t have the head gasket or oiling system problems the 7M engines had). I think if they had introduced the 280hp 1JZGTE to the US market the MKIII would have remained viable till it was replaced in 1993 with the MKIV (that coincidentally DID get a turbocharged JZ engine, the 2JZGTE). Starting in 89′ the poor 7M powered 230hp Turbo Supra was up against the 300ZX TT, 3000GT VR4, NSX, and even Toyota’s own MR2 turbo. The Supra being the least powerful Japanese flagship car doomed it, along with a few upset owners who had already had head gasket problems at low mileages. Look at the sales numbers from 86.5′ to 88′ vs 89′ to 92′ and you can see what I mean.

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