This Toyota coupe could’ve been a hit here
Toyota was a carmaker of extremes in the late 1970s. On the one hand, there were the solid compacts and subcompacts: Corona, Corolla, and Publica/ Starlet, primarily, though the Celica (and its Carina sedan stablemate) added some spice. On the high end there was the Crown sedan as well as the massive Century limousine. There was little middle ground in the mid- ’70s, but Toyota quickly moved to fill in the gaps. The Chaser/Cresta/Mk II/Cressida slid in beneath the Crown to shore up the soft-luxury end of things, but Toyota still wanted something else: a GT car that could compete with some of Europe’s best.
The idea was that the Soarer would be a luxurious GT with sporting attributes. It hid second-generation Supra chassis and mechanicals in crisply folded coupe sheetmetal that whispered its intent to compete in a GT-coupe league that included the BMW 6-series, the Opel Monza coupe, and other sporting two-doors of the 3-liter-ish displacement. (The grille badge, often said to be a griffin but actually a winged lion, suggests it all: fierce power combined with agility and lightness.)
Recall that the ’82 Supra was Celica-based, but had its nose stretched 7 inches to accommodate straight-six power; the longer wheelbase also allowed a smoother ride. Supras also had a variety of chassis upgrades that most Celicas didn’t receive: Supras had independent rear suspension, for example, while all Celicas (bar the high-zoot GTS) made do with a solid axle. As befitting its greater power (and increased price tag), the Supra had additional luxury accoutrements to elevate it above a mere Celica.
Though a turbocharged 2-liter was available, the heart of the Soarer was also shared by the American-spec Supra: the 2.8-liter 5M-GE inline-six. (A stroked 3-liter version, the 6M-GEU, came later in the early Soarer’s run.) With its 2-liter roots in the MS41-generation Crown of the mid-1960s, it also formed the basis for the aluminum DOHC-headed unit found in the legendary Toyota 2000GT. Continual evolution made the M-family engines Toyota’s only straight-six for almost three decades. The Soarer’s optional 5M-GE was substantially revised over previous iron-headed, carbureted SOHC variants, and it featured a belt-driven, wide-angle aluminum DOHC head (giving the Soarer and Supra the first DOHC Toyota six since the 2000GT) as well as a fully digital Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection system.
Which leads us to the suspension. Lotus had a hand in tweaking the Soarer’s (and the Mk II Supra’s) parameters. In exchange for Lotus sorting the suspension, Toyota sent some pieces for the Eclat-based Excel, including the W58 five-speed transmission, rear differential, alloy wheels, and more. Though anything weighing nearly 3,000 pounds (before driver and passenger) isn’t necessarily going to feel as snappy in the turns as usual Lotus fare might, there was a polish to the ride and handling that drivers in a speed-restricted country like Japan would rarely get to enjoy. The steering seemed a little on the firm side for something purporting to be such a luxury machine, but the chassis remained composed and taut, no matter what was thrown at it. The corners filled the driver with confidence, and the ride felt more than adequate over bumps that would have shaken other machines to their bones. You’d need a lot more engine to challenge that chassis’ high capabilities.
There were some vague murmurings about the Soarer coming to the United States— and why not? Its Supraesque mechanicals and chassis were ready for primetime in the States—but it never did.
American car magazines treated the early Soarer as a footnote only, so we turn to the United Kingdom’s Car magazine for some sage words. “It’s well on the way to being a very good car,” the venerable title claimed. “Overall the Soarer is an exceptional Toyota—very quiet, mostly pleasurable to drive and solid-feeling. The fact that it is as pleasant in a traffic jam as when hustling around the mountain roads will gain it some converts from European exotica in Japan… it is a car that the engineers at Munich, Stuttgart and Coventry would do well to study to see how the world is changing.”
Strictly speaking, the Soarer you see on these pages shouldn’t even be here. Yet Joji Luz, head of www.toygarage.com, one of Southern California’s most respected repositories for old-school Toyota information and parts, counts it among his collection. It came Stateside in the ’80s, well before the whole rolling-25-year-EPA-exempt rule would have applied. It’s completely federalized— an effort undertaken by the previous owner, who had also gone and both stroked the engine to 3 liters (hence the “3.0 GT Limited” badge on the trunk) and turbocharged it to boot. “When I bought it, all of the emissions certifications had been done,” Joji informed us of this one-time grey-market machine that came over when it was just a year or two old. “I was told that it mirrored the ’82 Supra emissions and safety standards. Even the digital dash was converted to read in miles-per-hour instead of kilometers. It was so expensive and time consuming to do that no other Soarer dared to follow.” It has now been put back to factory-stock, save for an aftermarket air intake with an open-element filter, for a skosh more power and torque. The irony is that today, most of the first two generations of Soarer are exempt and can easily enough be brought to the U.S. Mechanical parts are obtainable, but body, trim, and glass are another matter.
Open the door, and if the key is in the ignition (as it was for us), a female Japanese voice will greet you, doubtless telling you to put your seatbelt on, or take the key out, or some such thing. Slide inside, there on the “wrong” side of the cabin, and you discover that there’s good head room, although you’re a little tight in the shoulders. (Even in its premium cars of the day, Toyota was fighting to keep them narrow enough that they wouldn’t be bumped into another tax bracket.) The Recaro seats are not factory, we’re told, and to be honest are a little tight around our big occidental bones. Tilt wheel is available by twirling a knob on the left-hand side of the steering column.
Take stock of the grey leather interior: it’s still supple. The Japan-spec radio was replaced with one that gets U.S. stations, the air conditioning controls are on what is surely one of the first uses of a CRT touchscreen in automotive history, and there’s an overdrive lockout button on the console. There are also some familiar pieces here: the two-spoke ’70s-era-Battlestar- Galactica-Cylon-head-shaped steering wheel from the second-generation Supra is one, while the all-electronic gauges (including a speedometer in glowing green seven-segment LED numbers and a tach represented as a rainbow hockey stick graphic, all set into a tone-on-tone graphite graph-paper look) are laughably dated today. Any assumption of elegance or sporting intent stop cold with the pre-Pac-Man gauge cluster, though it’s a solid reminder of the Soarer’s period charm.
The second-generation Soarer, sharing its chassis with the third-generation Toyota Supra, offered optional turbo power from a 3-liter straight-six. The Soarer would rise to greater fame as the Lexus SC300 and SC400 coupes from 1993, machines which shared the twin-turbo Supra’s chassis (and mechanicals, at home). The original, meanwhile, has a solid following at home—yet is virtually unknown in the States, while its kissin’ cousin, the Mk II Supra, is a pillar of the vintage kyu-sha (old-school Japanese-car enthusiast) crowd. Had the Soarer made it Stateside officially, we suspect it would be similarly celebrated.
Engine DOHC Toyota 5M-GE inline-6; iron block, aluminum head
Displacement 2.8 liters (168.4-cu.in.)
Horsepower 170 @ 5,600 rpm
Fuel system Bosch L-Jetronic electronic fuel injection
Transmission Four-speed automatic with Overdrive
Wheelbase 104.7 inches
Length 183.3 inches
Width 66.7 inches
Height 53.5 inches
Curb weight 2,866 pounds
Production 130,000 (all trim levels 1981-’85)