The cars we loved.
Today we take turbocharging, multi-valves and all wheel drive for granted in sports cars, even in modest priced sports coupes. During the 80’s these technologies were still on the wish list of sports coupe lovers with modest budgets. Toyota had quietly been a trailblazer in marring quality and efficiency with sporty and fun to drive in some of its cars for years. For Toyota that trend started with the sporty Celica. In typical fashion, Toyota like many other Japanese manufacturers introduced Americans to mass-produced cars employing the latest technologies with a certain level of reliability and attention to detail.
In 1985 Toyota introduced a new Celica, now no longer sharing its body with the Supra, the Celica was left to develop as a lower cost GT coupe while the Supra went increasingly upscale in its pursuit of Corvettes and Porsches. The shape looked like a tug of war between the boxy previous car and the new rounded forms of the 80’s. Some trademark features carried over like black pop up lights that blended into a low horizontal grille. The overall look was in some respects similar to the Probe/MX6, especially from the B pillar back. It may have come as a surprise that Toyota was grooming a super Celica that in many ways exceeded the performance of its bigger heavier brother, the Supra.
Starting with the ST165 standard Celica’s already advanced 2.0 litre16 valve 4 cylinder engine with DOHC, the new super Celica called the GT four would add turbocharging and a water to air intercooler boosting power from the ST162’s 135 to 190hp. Just as important, the front wheel drive base would be modified to use a four-wheel drive system earning the new car the ST165 designation. Called different names in various markets, the GT-Four was known as the All-trac Turbo in the United States when it appeared in late 1987 as a 88 model. The liftback only design had nearly every available Celica option including leather seats. Many cars in typical Japanese fashion wore their technical credentials on the doors, in futuristic script describing all the key technology under the hood. Terms like DOHC, intercooler and EFI were still new to many Americans who grew up with big pushrod V8’s with carburators. The GT-Four/All-trac was a rolling portfolio of advanced technologies – seldom seen in one car. There were five exterior colors and a standard five speed manual transmission. Ground effects further distinguished the All-trac from standard Celica. There were no convertible models, although the very first prototype was a convertible concept at the 1985 Tokyo Motor Show.
The All-trac was not the first all wheel drive car GT coupe on the market, but it was the most refined and rewarding to drive. By 1988 it’s only real competition was the Subaru XT6, a quirky looking coupe with handling that was more truck like compared to the Toyota. Not that the Subaru was a bad car, there simply had not been anything as slick and smooth as the All Trac in that class before. Built for rallying in extreme conditions, the All Trac was as durable as it was fun to drive.
The key to the All Trac’s great all-weather performance was of course the advantage of four-wheel drive. Toyota used a sophisticated center differential that could be activated from a button inside to distribute power 50/50 between the front and rear axles. Further control came in the form of a second set of differentials at each set of wheels that further applied power to each wheel differently. Although not an advanced as the systems that have become common today, because the wheels with the least amount of traction would spin at a faster rate. This system gave the GT-4 needed traction while being very communicative to the driver. A kind of unpredictable predictability insured that the car would go in the direction the driver wanted it, but would do so with some of the fun of a rear wheel drive set up. For most drivers in the first half of the 80’s, four wheel drive was associated with Jeeps or trucks where all wheels spun with no regard to traction and front to rear distribution. With front MacPherson struts and rear struts with trailing link and a anti-sway bar, this Celica’s suspension was anything but truck-like. It managed to deliver a comfortable ride despite its considerable performance potential. 0 to 60 came in the 7.3 to 7.7second range (depending on transmission and driver skill) while top speed was 135mph. That momentum was stopped by front vented and rear solid disc brakes all while rolling on 14 inch wheels and delivering 25 mpg on the highway. That’s not so super now, but in the pre Diamond Star 80’s, it was a big deal. The All Trac was not the first all wheel drive sport coupe, but it quickly established the configuration as a desirable feature in a road going car.
Toyota raced versions of the All Trac and achieved some measure of success as the 80’s came to a close. One of the selling points that Toyota made was that the all wheel drive system in its racing versions was almost un-changed for the road car. Sales were considerably low by design as the All Trac was designed for rally racing. It was expensive and imported in small numbers compared the popular and ubiquitous ST and GT versions. By 1990, the feild of all wheel drive cars had become a bit more crowded. New players like the Eclipse, Talon and Laser offered all wheel drive fun for less money. Toyota responded with a new Celica and an even more potent All-Trac in 1990.
Any All-Trac Celica will be a rare find. The first cars will likely be the most absent simply due to age and wear. Most drivers really enjoyed these cars with no regard to the possibility of future collectability. 80’s era Toyota’s and most Japanese cars were not known for their rust proofing abilities, so a good example un molested 88 or 89 cars would be a treasure indeed. The All Trac legacy is one of high quality workmanship, extreme performance and dependability. For many high performance car makers, that combination was still a work in progress for anything less that the cost of a Porsche.