The history of the famed AE86 dates back to 1983 when Toyota first debuted the car on the Japanese Domestic Market (JDM). Although sales of the AE86 weren’t stellar, the car created a cult following that led the car through production until mid 1987. There were two model versions of the AE86 in production titled the “Zenki” and the “Kouki”. Each of the models could be purchased in either coupe or hatchback form. To define the difference between the Zenki and Kouki, Toyota fitted the Zenki with small front mounted indicators and altered rear tails. The Zenki was also badged with a “SPRINTER” label above the right tail light. The Kouki was contrastingly fitted with larger indicators that were corner mounted and tail lights that featured a band of either red or black and white connecting across the top of the tail lights. Most AE86 enthusiasts are partial to the hatchback variant but both trim lines are equally as coveted.
To bolster AE86 sales, Toyota added two new models in addition to the Zenki and Kouki. These models were dubbed the “Trueno” and “Corolla Levin”. Derivations of these models can still be purchased from Toyota today in the form of the AE111. Namely, the differences between the Trueno and Levin came down to lighting assemblies. The Trueno was equipped with unique pop-up lights where the Levin featured fixed units that mirrored the Corollas in production at the time. Due to the fitment of the headlights, the Trueno and Levin showcased distinct front profiles that defined a look unique to each trim line. The grill on the Trueno was smaller and was later phased out completely, while the Levin had a more pronounced nose and larger grill.
Power in the AE86 was delivered by Toyota’s 2T-G engine that was quickly replaced by the 4A-GE motor in 1984. The 2T-G was a familiar motor to Toyota that exhibited exceptional strength and build quality. When Toyota proposed the 4A-GE the public responded hesitantly to the 4A-GE’s delicate appearance. The 4A-GE featured 4 valves per cylinder that made the configuration of the motor appear deficiently anemic in comparison to its predecessor. It was portrayed this way because the head required space for two more valves per cylinder in order to allow for high-revving situations. Toyota later improved their design to satisfy these complaints. The 4A-GE produced about 124hp, however the California compliant made about 112hp at 6600rpm in the fastest of models. Although this doesn’t sound like a ton of power, the AE86 was sold in a time when the Chevrolet Corvette only made about 205hp and the Mustang GT made about 175hp. Not to mention the Corvette and Mustang were fitted with large bore V8’s while the AE86 boasted a modest 1.6 liter motor in a 2200 pound package. The AE86 was never meant to compete with these vehicles and didn’t see a lot of quarter mile track time, but what it did offer was a compact, economical car that handled well and later was acknowledged for its drifting ability.
So why is the AE86 so famous among drifters? For an 18 year old car, the AE86 still makes appearances on the track, in film, and on the streets with relative frequency. Why is this? There are three main factors to the AE86’s continued success. The first being a Japanese cartoon by the name of “Initial D.” This cartoon follows a group of teenage drifters that get sideways in the hills of Japan while maintaining “normal” lives. One of the main characters, an 18 year old Japanese boy, drives an AE86 as a delivery car that he radically drifts on night time tofu delivery runs. This cartoon was adapted to a movie, also titled “Initial D”, which was produced for Japanese audiences but has crept its way into American drift culture as well. I must admit that I own a sub-titled copy myself. The second reason for the AE86’s resurgence of success is its ability drift well. The plot of Initial D isn’t all that crazy once you’ve gotten behind the wheel of an AE86. These vehicles are very capable because of their rear wheel drive set-up and solid rear axle. They are also very lightweight which allows for a more fluid loss of traction. I think the most discernible reason as to why the AE86 has become such a popular drift machine is that it was an inexpensive vehicle to acquire new and it was a vehicle that, with some simple suspension upgrades, could rip drifts with the best of the best. The AE86 was unique because it featured a high-revving motor, a light-weight package, and a low entry cost. At the time the AE86 was marketed, there wasn’t an abundance of competition that was equipped with similar qualities that the AE86 displayed. With features like these it was easy for the AE86 to form the cult following they have. With a laundry list of drift-ready features, the AE86 was a no-brainer for budget savvy wanna-be night-time drifters. The final reason why the AE86 succeeded was its attainableness. Not only was it good at drifting but it also could be acquired at a delivery boys wage. The AE86 is forever encapsulated in time for its handling prowess and drift thrift.
Credits: Emmett Vick and homepages.paradise.net.nz