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How the Supra Went From Celica to Supercar

new 2021 toyota supra

Is that a Supra?!?!?! Yes, as a matter of fact, that’s what we’re going to talk about today. From humble beginnings to tuning legend to, well, we’ll get to that. 

Today is all about the real Fast and Furious hero. And while I might have called it overrated in one of our videos, I can’t argue with the fact that it’s one of the most iconic JDM cars ever built. 

The Prehistory – Toyota Tries on Sports Cars

toyota sport 800

To really understand the Supra and why people really aren’t excited about this particular car, we should cover the history. Toyota’s first sports car, which we talked about in the 86 video you already watched (right?) was the Sport 800. But we don’t care about that today. Instead, take a look at the drop-dead gorgeous 2000GT.

The 2000GT – Toyota Gets It

toyota 2000gt

The 2000GT is where the design language of the Toyota sports car started. The long, protruding hood, the sloped rear end, the flowing design that starts in the front and ends in the back with just a little lift.

But there was a problem with the 2000GT and it’s the same problem this modern Supra faces: the problem is Nissan. The Datsun Z, a favorite of mine that I’ve talked about many times before, was just a much more popular sports car. It was lighter, had more power, and was less than half the price. In short, Nissan crushed it and practically invented the Japanese sports car we know and love today. 

The Celica Years – Celestial Supras Surprise

toyota celica supra

Toyota was left playing catch-up. So, in 1978, they made their own six-cylinder, high-volume sports car with a little help from Lotus and called it the Celica XX. We fixed that when it got to the USA, though, and called it the Celica Supra.

So how was the Celica Supra? It was fine. That’s all. Road & Track said it was either a slow Datsun or an expensive Mazda. Take your pick. That changed in 1982 with the Celica Supra Mark II. Compared to the Mark I, the Mark II was faster, had way better suspension, and could actually hang with the new Nissans. It was even regularly praised as the defining GT car of the early 80s.

In fact, in a truly amazing diss to Porsche, Car and Driver wondered if “Porsche was in the right business” after they drove the Mark II. Wow.

The Mark III – What’s in a Name?

toyota supra mark iii

It was the golden age of JDM and Toyota was at the height of their game. The 86 was a huge success, the Celica was making waves in rally, and the Supra finally split off into its own thing. It got a turbo, serious suspension technology, and it got called the “perfect” car. It was faster than anything else in its class and had that famous Toyota reliability. 

Nowadays, you can get the early Supras for cheap. Basically, with either the Mark II or Mark III, you can either get a super cheap one that needs work or a sorted one for around $10,000 to $15,000. That’s pretty reasonable for a car that can be turned into a really fun car with not much work. 

Alright, let’s be honest. The Supra Mark III is cool, but no one cares. The one you, and most people, actually like is the “Supercar Killer” Mark IV.

The Myth – Smoke Him

toyota supra mark iv

It’s time to talk about the Supra that made Supras famous and, really, the reason this new Supra isn’t as exciting as it could be. See, in the late 80s, Toyota was developing a brand new platform for their new luxury sportscar, the Soarer, or SC300 here in the States. So, when the Supra needed an update, they took their new platform and made history by equipping it with the absolutely legendary 2JZ-GTE. People who don’t even know what cars are know what the 2JZ is. 

And, with the rare factory turbo option, Toyota wasn’t trying to play with the Z anymore. They wanted Skylines and Hondas for lunch. They wanted to take on Ferraris and Lamborghinis and Vipers. When the Mark IV launched in 1993, it was one of the best-performing cars tested and set Road & Track records that wouldn’t be broken until 2004 by the 911.

The Mark IV was, simply put, the winner of the “JDM Wars.” I mean, there was the Skyline GT-R, of course, but that wasn’t available in the States. And there was the NSX, which was twice as expensive and slower. Ouch. So, here in the USA, the Supra was king. It even found its way into video games. Remember Gran Turismo? Tom’s Supra was more or less their mascot, although that one was actually a four-cylinder, but that’s a story for another day. 

Regardless, you’d think that it was the car everyone wanted. They sold like hotcakes, right? Nope. Toyota couldn’t give them away. 

Poor Sales – The SUV Curse Begins

toyota supra mark 4

Why did they have poor sales? Because, in the early 90s, Americans started worshipping a new god, the pickup truck. As a result, the sports car arms race of the 80s had birthed some of the best cars to ever exist: the RX-7, 300ZX, 3000GT, Lancer Evo, GT-R, and Supra, just in time for the world to stop caring about sports cars and start buying trucks and SUVs. 

When the Supra launched, the F-150 was out-selling every other car on the market handily and the new Explorer was dominating the new, untapped “Soccer Mom” market. In 1998, Toyota sold less than 700 Supras and pulled the plug on the USA market. It’d continue for a few more years overseas, but the numbers only went down. Then, this happened. 

Fast and Furious – The Original Was Orange

toyota supra mark iv fast and furious

It’s not totally fair to say that the Supra is only popular because of the Fast and Furious series, but it kind of is. See, tuners knew forever that the Supra was amazing and that the 2JZ was one of the most mod-happy motors ever. So, even though the Average Joe wanted an Explorer instead of a Mark IV, journalists, racing nerds, and the auto show circuit were full of them.

And that included a guy named Craig Lieberman, who was big in the early tuning scene. If you don’t know Craig, you should, because he’s basically the reason Fast and Furious had good cars. They brought him on as a car culture consultant and his personal Supra became the orange car that Brian drives in the first movie. Craig is pretty much the reason the Supra exploded in value. Thank you, Craig. 

Now, even just an alright, non-turbo Supra Mark IV is $50,000. Want a real, rare, turbo Supra? Good luck. In short, long after Toyota had given up on the Supra, suddenly the Supra was an absolute legend that everyone wanted and it became mythical. 

Bro, is that a Supra? Can it beat every single car on Earth in a race? No. But there’s plenty of people that think it will, which is why I think Toyota was insane to even attempt to bring back the badge. And I think I’m right.

The New Supra – Bold, Marketable, Wordly

2021 toyota supra

So, this is it, the new Supra, the successor to one of the most talked-about cars ever. And, on paper, it’s pretty good. It has a long nose, rear-wheel drive, turbocharged inline-six, and automatic transmission. Wait. What? I honestly don’t know how they could miss the mark that badly. Who cares about the Supra outside of enthusiasts, right? And what do enthusiasts want? To save the manuals.

So, what does Toyota do? Automatic only. Why? Well, and you know what I’m going to say because you’ve heard it all before, it’s not really a Supra. It’s a BMW Z4. There’s just no escaping it. Toyota teamed up with BMW to make a sports car. And, by doing so, it lost all the Toyota. 

Now, that’s not a new thing. The 86 is a Toyota and a Subaru, and the original 2000GT had Toyota and Yamaha parts. Side note: the Mark IV Supra did not have any parts developed by Yamaha (that seems to be something people made up to try and help the Mark V) but the earlier Toyota sports cars did, which is probably where that myth came from. 

And I’m not saying BMWs are bad. I’ve owned M3s and I’ve driven some seriously fast Bavarian cars. That’s not the problem. The problem is that Toyota is basically treating us like idiots. They say they can’t put a manual in the Supra because it’d be too close to the 86. But, really, it’s just that BMW didn’t make a manual Z4 when it launched. It feels abusive. 

They made all this hype, they made it sound like they had really listened to the fans and were bringing back the perfect enthusiast car. And we get, sort of. It’s a rebadged, expensive BMW. It’s really fun to drive, but so is the BMW M2 that I’d rather have, which actually comes with three pedals. Or better yet…

The Competition – IZU

nissan 400z

How about a car that actually lives up to the hype? Nissan, it seems, never forgot about how the Supra went from being an imitation Z to the fastest car on the block, and they’re out for revenge. If I were Toyota, I’d really be questioning my decisions right now. 

At the end of the day, I don’t want to be too mean. The new Supra is a great car. It’s fun to drive. But, for someone who grew up with GT-Rs, Hachirokus, and the NSX, the New Supra just seems like a lame imitation.

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