It's often said "There's nothing new under the sun," and sometimes that's reinforced in surprising ways. At the spavined Tokyo show last fall, Toyota unveiled its FT-86 concept, a curious closed sports car with a water-cooled, flat-four engine sitting ahead of the front axle but driving the rear wheels. The FT-86's Subaru engine is derived from the old German Borgward/Lloyd Arabella. It's an odd layout, but one seen before.
In the early 1950s, Carl Borgward was just starting to imagine the front-wheel-drive Arabella when a quaint British manufacturer of two-cylinder delivery trucks, Jowett of Bradford, introduced its Javelin Jupiter sports car with the same configuration as the FT-86 and with equally significant German engineering input. The Jowett Javelin Jupiter's elegant multitubular, torsion-bar-suspended chassis came from the fertile mind of Robert Eberan von Eberhorst. Once Ferdinand Porsche's assistant, von Eberhorst designed the 1938-39 Auto Union V-12 grand prix cars. Jowett had built not quite 900 of the gawky JJJ roadsters when Ford bought the Briggs Motor Bodies company and cut off Jowett - which in any case was on shaky financial ground, as was Subaru when General Motors abandoned its interest in 2005.
The FT-86 is quirky enough to become a real success when it goes into production, probably next year. It carries quite a few racing/performance visual cues, especially at the back, but it's relatively ordinary otherwise, although its triangular headlamp aperture was obviously inspired by the
Alfa Romeo Brera, minus the triple round lenses. It would be dead easy to remove the roof, keep the straight-A-pillar windshield, and have a terrific roadster, almost a necessity in today's sports car market. And the FT-86's haunches are even high enough to hold a folding metal top, if required by the market.
It has been too long since Toyota had a sports car, and the bucks-up Lexus LFA can't replace the affordable MR2 and Supra models that were abandoned when Toyota decided that it wanted to replace GM as the world's number-one car manufacturer, leaving no room for niche models. Subaru, like Daihatsu, is now a suzerainty of Toyota that can reasonably turn out low-volume products while making reasonable profits. Using an existing all-wheel-drive platform and dropping the front driveline makes sense but results in the strange physical layout pioneered by Jowett. It worked well enough, since Jupiters won the 1.5-liter class at Le Mans in 1950, '51, and '52.
As a successor to the MR2, the FT-86 concept has a lot going for it. It looks pretty good, has an interesting mechanical package, and should handle well and be fun to drive. The one negative: FT-86 is not a good name for a car, even from a company that has embraced Camry, Prius, and Yaris. The numbers eight and six evoke Toyota's illustrious tuner car, the mid-1980s Corolla Sport (code-named AE86). But I prefer to think of it as an oblique homage to the Jupiter and its flat-out top speed of . . . 86 mph.
1. All of these sharp creases are related to the comet-tail shape radiating from the big Toyota badge. OK, but a bit boring.
2. This windshield looks tailor-made for a later droptop version of the FT-86.
3. Triangular Alfa Romeo-style "eye slit" is derivative but looks sporty and serious.
4. One hopes that the production version really will have functional brake-cooling scoops.
5. Notice how the skin pushes out from the base surface around the grille.
6. Flattened hexagonal texture is boring, too. The production version needs to be more distinctive.
7. Deep indent below the edge of the rear deck gives the impression of a substantial spoiler.
8. Taillights that are tucked under the deck-lid edge are very well integrated into the composition of the rear end.
9. This is one serious-looking diffuser. Or the simulacrum of one.
10. The exhausts, too, look as if they should be evacuating seven or eight liters' worth of power.
11. Crisp edges define demarcation of the side and rear surfaces and also add a welcome sense of intent.
12. The upswept side line that almost all carmakers use now will quickly lose favor. It stiffens side stampings nicely, but it's much too common.
13. This separation crease, which gives a distinct front fender, is currently used on many Japanese cars, especially Mazdas.
14. The interior door panels are understatedly simple and provide a kind of elegance that more complexity would erase.
15. This simple, almost austere panel appears right for a sports car and is as purposeful as that impressive diffuser under the tail as a statement of purpose.
16. All of the driver's information is located above the steering-column axis. It is all very clear and quite welcome.
17. The flat-bottomed steering wheel is completely appropriate for a sports car.