Curbside Classic: The Legendary 1985 Toyota Corolla AE86 GT-S

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic the legendary 1985 toyota corolla ae86 gt s

Is it a stretch to say that finding this beater Corolla AE86 GT-S on the street is the equivalent of finding an original and beat up 1970 Hemi ‘Cuda? Maybe, but they’re both legends, and while the odds of finding the GT-S are definitely better, they’re not exactly easy to come by either. I’ve had my eye out for one for quite a while, and suddenly this showed up in the neighborhood; a wish fulfilled. Now I’d be happy just to catch that non-hemi beater ‘Cuda I’ve seen driving. Anyway, with all the excitement building about the coming FT-86 coupe and a possibly even cheaper and lighter RWD car, it’s time to take a look at its inspiration.

The AE86 Corolla came about almost as a fluke or afterthought, but what a charmed one. In 1983, the Corolla sedan switched over to a completely new FWD chassis. But whether for expediency, or to deliberately prolong the opportunity for fun potential, Toyota chose to keep the coupe and liftback models on the previous generation’s RWD platform, but dressed up in a new suit of sheet metal. From 1983 through 1987, the AE86 designation applied to these orphans, but the gifted child in the bunch was the GT-S version.

While the basic and SR-5 versions had a 1587 cc SOHC 4AC engine with a carburetor and 87 hp, the GT-S came with the DOHC 16 valve 4AGE engine with AFM multiport injection and T-VIS variable induction system. I’ve seen quotes of 124 hp, but the California-compliant version made 112 hp @ 6600 rpm. That may not seem like much in today’s world, but it has to be put in the context of its time.

In 1984, the Corvette mustered all of 205 hp out of 5.7 liters, and the Mustang GT managed 175 hp from its 5 liter V8. 112 eager horses from 1.6 liters was a feat at the time, thanks to the kind of advanced technology that Detroit was still dreaming about back then. And the Corolla was a featherweight, tipping the scales at around 2200 lbs. Anyway, it wasn’t raw acceleration that was the big draw here, but a delightfully balanced RWD coupe with quick steering and an ability to hang on way beyond one might expect from its 185/60-14 tiny tires.

There really was nothing quite like it it at the time; it was the last of its kind. The GT-S was comparable to what an Alfa or BMW 1600 were in their day in the sixties. Bare bones, balanced, quick-revving, and a competent suspension, if not exactly the most sophisticated one. Front struts and a live real axle with four links, and anti-sway bars on both ends kept things under control even on tight downhill mountain passes.

That was where the AE86 first made a name for itself, by Japan’s street racers who flew them down “touges”, tightly-curving narrow downhill roads. And it became the seminal drifter, in the hands of the Drift King himself, Keiichi Tsuchiya. He played a large role in popularizing the whole sport of drifting, and the AE86 Corolla was his mount of choice.

It wasn’t just drifting that established the AE86’s competition creds. It was a popular choice for showroom stock, Group A and N racing, rallying and circuit racing. An eminently tunable engine, and the last RWD platform of its kind, the AE86 is still sought after for a variety of competition and street uses. That’s why there aren’t hardly any left in an unmolested state as this one.

The owner of this one picked it up cheap a while back, and says it’s a barrel load of fun to drive. It’s approaching 300k miles on the clock, but these vintage Toyotas are built for the long haul as well as the long drift. What a combination, after the cantankerous European sports coupes everyone put up with for decades.

The AE86 still commands a huge and loyal following, akin to the Fox-body 5.0 Mustang. The two are almost perfect reflections of the same theme expressed on different scales and engine technology: light, simple, RWD, easily tunable to any degree desired. Elemental sports coupes, living legends: a formula for automotive immortality.

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  • Caddis Caddis on Sep 18, 2010

    I picked up a 1983 ae86 hatch sr5 for 750 bucks is that a pretty good deal?

  • Matthew N Fanetti Matthew N Fanetti on Mar 21, 2023

    I bought a Silver1985 Corolla GTS Hatchback used in 1989 with 80k miles for $5000. I was a struggling student and I had no idea how good the car really was. All I knew was on the test drive I got to 80 faster than I expected from a Corolla. Slowly I figured out how special it was. It handled like nothing I had driven before, tearing up backroads at speeds that were downright crazy. On the highway I had it to about 128mph on two occasions, though it took some time to get there, it just kept going until I chickened out. I was an irresponsible kids doing donuts in parking lots and coming out of corners sideways. I really drove it hard, but it never needed engine repair even to the day I sold it in 1999 with 225000 miles on it, still running well - but rusty and things were beginning to crap out (Like AC, etc.). I smoked a same year Mustang GT - off the line - by revving up and dumping the clutch. Started to go sideways, but nothing broke or even needed attention. Daily driving, only needed the clutch into first. It was that smooth and well-synced. Super tight, but drivable LSD. Just awesome from daily chores to super-fun.

    To this day I wish I had kept it, because now I have the money to fix it. It is hard to explain how amazing this car was back in the day - and available to people with limited money - and still the highest quality.

  • Analoggrotto Not a single Telluride, give me a break.
  • Tassos the seller's name: "My VW Sucks" (!!!)WHy am I not in the very least surprised.
  • George Who’s winning the UAW strike? Nobody.Who’s losing the UAW strike? Everybody.
  • Zznalg Now, a slam of Subaru. I own an Outback Wilderness. Subaru has capitulated to lawyers and the regulatory environment to render life with their vehicles quite unpleasant. A few cases in point: The vehicles won't allow you to drive one MPH without ALL the seatbelts fastened. You cannot pull a Subaru out of a garage or parking space with no seatbelt without the car screaming at you. First there is the annoying beeping. After a few seconds Subaru ups its game and raised the volume ridiculously. To get it to shut up, I've even had to turn off the car and open a door. It is not enough to put it into park. The beeping continues. I am Not talking about driving without a seatbelt. I'm talking about 1 MPH maneuvers in one's own driveway. Next, the car's auto-breaking is tuned to slow you down or even slam on your brakes at every possible opportunity. The other day, my Wilderness decided to do just that almost resulting in my being rear ended. For NO reason. Next, the Outback Wilderness' transmission is tuned to prevent forward motion. It does its best to NOT GIVE POWER in nearly every situation unless you keep the accelerator depressed for more than 1-3 seconds. This is actually unsafe. In fact at highway speeds, when one presses the gas, the car momentarily reduces power and slows down. The paddle shifters help. But overall, Subaru has so neutered the Outback Wilderness to make a potentially great vehicle quite a drag to own and actually unsafe, in the service seemingly of preventing lawsuits and satisfying the EPA. I know not all of this may apply to the Crosstrek Wilderness but if you test drive one, you would be advised to look for these flaws.
  • Undead Zed I'm not particularly interested in the truck, but do look forward to the puns that the marketing department may try to work into the adverts."Visit your local dealership for a Flash drive today."