To the untrained eye, Toyota AE86s - or Hachiroku (eight-six) - are ostensibly generic 1980s Japanese cars. While this may have been broadly true when it was released almost three decades ago, it’s since metamorphosed into something altogether more interesting.
After a good few hours meandering along the lengthily back alleys of the internet, we've only been able to find one original and roadworthy Hachiroku for sale anywhere in the UK - a Corolla GT Coupe. The asking price? A healthy £11,500 - almost as much as some Ferraris of a similar vintage. Even cars without a valid MOT or Road Tax sell for upwards of £5,000, such is the clamour for unmolested examples.
And who do we have to thank for the AE86’s sky-high residuals? In part, professional racing driver and “Drift King” Keiichi Tsuchiya. In an interview with Jeremy Clarkson, Tsuchiya said: “When I was racing, everyone knew that I would win, so to stop people being bored and fed up with the same old thing, I started drifting the car through the corners, much more than the other drivers”.
Tsuchiya perfected his craft on Japan’s twisty mountain roads, and had become a respected street racer by the time he made his professional debut in 1977. In 1987, he convinced popular car magazines and tuning companies to finance and produce a video of him showcasing his skills behind the wheel of an AE86 - called Pluspy (below), it was the first video of its kind. A year later, Tsuchiya co-organized the first legitimate drifting event, D1 Grand Prix.
As if it wasn’t enough that the founder of competitive drifting favoured the AE86, its iconic status was truly cemented a few years later when it became the star of hugely successful Japanese comic book series Initial D. Based on Tsuchiya, the lead character is a night-time delivery driver and street-racer by the name of Takumi Fujiwara. His car of choice? An AE86 Sprinter Trueno, just like Tsuchiya’s.
Add to this the AE86’s successes in circuit racing and rallying, and you’ve got one very desirable vehicle. A legend, then. But what’s it like from behind the wheel? Toyota graciously lent us the keys to its prized Heritage-Fleet AE86 (pictured) at a recent drive event, so we could find out for ourselves…
With 123bhp from its 1.6-litre four-pot, you’d be forgiven for writing the AE86 off as slow - although to do so would be to miss the point of the car completely. But in reality it feels much more sprightly than its specifications would have you believe. It does weigh less than a tonne, after all.
The engine is eager to spin all the way up to its 7600rpm red line, and once you get there, the gearbox is adequately precise and a pleasure to use. The steering does without power assistance. Though weighty, it’s precise and has excellent feedback - although this is undermined by the sometimes awkward way in which the AE86 rolls into some corners. A quick exit is occasionally hampered by a spinning rear wheel, too, given this particular car does without the optional LSD. The brake pedal is very long, and the throttle has a lovely feel to it. There’s a real delicacy in the way all of the major controls operate - driven smoothly, it really is great fun.
Above all, the AE86 is an excellent car in which to learn about the nature of rear-wheel drive, with the classic RWD balance and an elegant, mechanical simplicity that has made it so attractive to drifters. It's nearly 30 years old, and feels it in some respects - although it could still teach some more modern sportscars a thing or two about handling.
Compared with the AE86’s younger brother - the GT86 - it really is remarkable how the engineers have managed to encapsulate the spirit of the old car in the mannerisms of the new. Although easier to drive much, much faster, the GT86 delivers in many of the same key areas - namely excitement, feedback and balance. But with air conditioning, power steering and even sat-nav, we'd be more than willing to use it every day.
We’ll take one of each, thanks.