Collectible Classic: 1982–1986 Toyota Celica Supra

Saving the world from British sports cars

Robert GuioPhotographerMike MichelsWriter

There he was on TV, my idol Dan Gurney stepping out of the car and delivering the advertising spot's tagline: "That's the right stuff!" I was hooked. After owning two British cars, the idea of a driving a Japanese 2+2 coupe that didn't leak rainwater and always started was irresistible, especially since it had a twin-cam inline-six engine, a five-speed gearbox, four-wheel disc brakes, and the looks of something from "Magnum, P.I."

The second-generation Toyota Supra (known officially as the Celica Supra) was a breakthrough car for the Japanese importer. It became Motor Trend's Import Car of the Year and also made Car and Driver's 10 Best, plus it was introduced at the same time Toyota partnered with Dan Gurney's All American Racers to win a string of championships in IMSA sports car racing. The first Celica Supra introduced in 1978 was like a Chevy Monte Carlo, a Japanese-style personal luxury car. But this second generation added a P-type performance version to the luxury L-type, and it indeed had all the right stuff. ("The Right Stuff," the movie version of Tom Wolfe's book about the Mercury space program, would appear in 1983.)

In fact Toyota then owned a stake in Lotus Engineering, so chassis tuning for the new car had been handed over to the legendary Roger Becker. "The Supra work came as a result of a commercial shot on our Lotus test track involving an F1 transporter and Colin Chapman driving the Supra around the track," recalls Becker. "Only it wasn't Colin; it was me dressed as him! Later, I was playing around with the car doing a few donuts in front of the attending Toyota audience. They asked what I thought of the car, and shortly afterward I got the request to tune the car as if it were a Lotus. They wanted to give me free rein on how the car should behave and just left me to it. I was very surprised."

The Supra's 5M-GE 2.8-liter inline-six produced smooth, continuous power to 6,500 rpm, some 145 hp in 1982 increasing to 161 hp by 1986. The five-speed overdrive gearbox had longish shift throws and could be notchy, but fifth gear (then kind of a new thing) also made for relaxed long-distance runs at speed. The car had balanced handling despite understeer promoted by that heavy, iron engine block up front, although the rear suspension with semi-trailing arms delivered trailing throttle oversteer.

The 1982 Toyota Supra P-type I bought was red (naturally) and included the model's trademark sunshade/spoiler at the leading edge of the hatchback. What really set this car apart was the interior, which featured eight-way-adjustable Recaro-style seats with an inflatable lumbar support, a business-like dash with climate control, and a very '80s-style graphic equalizer for the audio system. Unfortunately organized theft rings in Los Angeles liked the Supra interior and stereo as much as I did. The entire interior was the thieves' target because the seats were highly prized for just about any Japanese car. More often the racket was to sell the "used" parts back to insurance companies to economically replace a stripped interior. And so before an aftermarket security system could be installed on my new Supra, the car disappeared one night, with only broken glass left behind.

Fortunately my car was quickly recovered, and 12 pages of new parts plus labor for a total of $10,000 in repairs made my car as good as new. I remained paranoid about security for 110,000 otherwise-satisfying miles. The Supra was such a good car that you might say it inspired me to join Toyota, where I subsequently worked for 30 years. I reluctantly sold the Supra to my brother, who drove it another 50,000 miles during which it was stolen, recovered, and rebuilt yet again.

Today, the second-gen Toyota Supra has gained an appreciative following. Mike Bingham is president of the Toyota Owners and Restorers Club (TORC) and a longtime service director at a Toyota dealership. "These cars are really reliable. I see many with original electrics still working perfectly," he says. "They're easy to work on, and the drivetrain was used in many other Toyota models, so common parts are available from the aftermarket or from Toyota, while other sources are starting to make replica trim and badging."

In 1984 the Celica badging disappeared from the Supra, and the third-generation 1986½ car became a unique nameplate when the Celica went front-wheel drive. Of course, the Mac Daddy of the Supra is the fourth-generation 1993-2002 edition with its mighty twin-turbo inline-six, yet the classic 1982-1986 model still has special appeal. For the cost of an exotic JDM carbon-fiber body kit for the fourth-gen Supra, you can get a reliable 1980s interpretation of the Jaguar E-type that has been massaged by Lotus. Even better, it will start up every morning.

The Specs

Engine 2.8L DOHC 12-valve I-6/145 hp @ 5,200 rpm, 155 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual
Drive Rear-wheel
Front Suspension Strut-type, torsion bars
Rear Suspension Semi-trailing arms, coil springs
Brakes Disc
Weight 2,932 lb

The Info

Years Produced 1982-1986
Number Sold 115,000
Original Price L-type $14,098,  P-type $14,598 ('82)

Why Buy

A Toyota is made to keep running, so repairs generally aren't troublesome. Commonality with the Celica means salvage body parts are out there. Bingham recommends checking for oil in the cam valley and around the spark plugs because leaks in this area were an early problem. It's not a simple fix, but the head doesn't have to be removed. The engine has hydraulically actuated rocker-type valve lifters that are self-adjusting, which was unusual for a DOHC engine at the time. Oil supply can be problematic, though, which causes noticeable ticking from the lifters. The transmission is generally robust. A nylon finger at the end of the shift lever that engages the shift forks wears out, but it is easily fixed by removing the shifter from inside the car and replacing $20 worth of parts.