Ignoring collective sighs of dismay and raised eyebrows from classic car snobs, we’ve sneaked a few Japanese gems into these columns once in a while. Although many from the aforementioned set wouldn’t even go near one of these, we believe cars like the Honda S600, Datsun 510, Skyline ‘Kenmeri’ and the Toyota Celica deserve to be on any list of classics from the Sixties and Seventies.
Although most Japanese carmakers swapped fun and sportiness for mediocrity and dullness for commercial reasons, it was not before the Eighties saw a few more great specimens driving out from the Land of the Rising Sun. And arguably the best of this lot was the Toyota MR2. Although it rolled off the production line only in 1984, the MR2’s seeds were sown in the mid-Seventies under Akio Yoshida, resulting in the SA-X prototype in 1981 and the SV-3 concept in 1983.
With its mid-engine layout and input at the development stage from the likes of Lotus chassis and suspension engineer Roger Becker and racing legend Dan Gurney, the car was expected to be sporty. But when the MR2 (denoting mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive two-seater) finally hit production, it surprised the motoring world with its sublime handling and performance that came with a typically Japanese price tag.
At launch the MR2 was powered by the same 128bhp 1.6-litre four-cylinder 4A-GE engine from the AE86 mounted transversely mid-ship. Considering the car weighed in at just 950kg, this was more than enough power. A few changes followed soon, with a T-top MR2 with added options such as leather seats being introduced and the C50 gearbox replaced by the more reliable C52 transmission. In 1988, Toyota introduced a supercharged version of the same engine now producing 145 horsepower.
Then came the Mk2 MR2 in 1989, which was longer, wider and heavier; it was considered more of a GT than an all-out sportscar. It featured two powertrain options — a 156bhp 2.0-litre engine and a 220bhp turbocharged version — and soon began to be compared with European exotics such as the Ferrari 328gtb and the 348tb. Production ceased in 1999, but the first and second generation MR2s still have a solid following.
Although the Mk2 is more refined than the Mk1, many Japanese classic lovers still swear by the first generation, citing the latter’s heft and consequently diminished sportiness. So if you’re not one of those who only consider European and American cars as classics, then the first and second generation Toyota MR2s are definitely worth a look.