Drift Classics: Toyota Corolla AE86
If you’re a fan of drifting, or JDM classics, then the Toyota Corolla AE86 needs no introduction. This front-engine, rear-wheel drive two door has won the hearts of driving and drifting enthusiasts around the world and established its place in history as arguably one of the greatest Japanese small sports cars of all time. It was also the inspiration for Toyota's latest sports coupe, the very popular GT86 and Subaru BR-Z stablemate.
Over its lifetime, the little Corolla has gone from mid-range sports compact to cheap drifter and on to cherished classic. But what is it that makes the AE86 so irresistible to fans?
The History of the Ae86
If you were a prospective Corolla owner back in the mid-’80s, it was a pretty confusing time to go shopping for Toyota’s little star. Firstly, and rather unusually, at the time you could buy the Corolla in both front- and rear-wheel drive configurations, something that's pretty much unheard of nowadays. Adding to that, there were four body styles to choose from, two headlamp variations and various engine configurations. Now consider the various names, badges and trims available in the different markets around the world and you’ll understand that I could probably fill a book on the permutations of Toyota Corolla in the 1980s alone.
In the name of concision, let’s focus on the star of the show, and the model that has now gained cult status around the world – the AE86. Toyota never officially called the Corolla by this name, rather it was a moniker adopted by enthusiasts to specifically identify the rear-wheel drive, two-door model equipped with the 4A-GE motor that remains so revered today.
Fewer and fewer AE86 are seen in competitive drifting now, where the style has shifted on to higher horsepower cars
In Japan, the AE86, also known as the hachi-roku (translated from Japanese to ‘eight-six’), was sold as either the Corolla Levin, with fixed headlamps, or the Sprinter Trueno, with motorised pop-up headlamps. Both models were available as either a two-door coupe, or two-door hatchback, but mechanically they remained much the same. The Levin model was never sold in the U.S., and the Trueno version wasn’t offered to the European market either. Still with me?
Scream if you want to go faster
Putting the exact trim levels and body styles to one side for the moment, at the heart of every AE86 lies the reason that this model became so sought after over the years. Toyota’s 1.6-litre 4A-GE powerplant is a high-revving naturally-aspirated twin-cam 16v engine that produces circa 120bhp and 109lb/ft torque. By today’s standard that’s really not much, and less than you’d find in your average small family hatchback, but back in the 1980s and propelling the lightweight, rear-wheel drive, live-axle AE86, and screaming to its 7600rpm redline, the 4A-GE made the AE86 a true driver’s car.
For this reason, the AE86 became the car of choice for illegal street racers on the mountain roads of Japan, or ‘touge’. When drifting, and the Corolla itself, was further popularised by the likes of Keiichi Tsuchiya in the mid-to-late ‘80s, the AE86 became the drifters’ weapon of choice, and it’s small form, high-revving engine and low weight promoted a fast and aggressive driving style still admired by AE86 fans today. The hachi-roku also featured predominantly in the Japanese animated series Initial D, which no doubt also helped boost its popularity.
It wasn’t just the Japanese art of drifting that found an appreciation for Toyota’s RWD Corolla. The front-engined rear-wheel drive platform also found fans across rallying, sprint and hillclimb around the world too. From new, the AE86 didn’t sell in particularly high numbers in the UK and mainland Europe, but enjoyed more concentrated popularity in the U.S (thanks to the size of the market) and in Ireland – the huge following of road rallying in the latter no doubt a deciding factor. With time, the AE86 went from a well-kept secret to cult favourite, and as lively, rear-wheel drive compact cars became a thing of the past, the value of used AE86 began to climb.
It's said that owning an AE86 is about more than just the car that you drive. It's a lifestyle. Because of their age, the cars needs almost constant maintenance, repair and upgrading. However once you've got the bug it's difficult to learn to love anything other than an AE86.
The AE86's cult following was further compounded by the increasing popularity of drifting around the world – at first the AE86 offered an affordable inroad and was the perfect car to learn how to drift in. However, as desirability increased, as did price and most drift enthusiasts soon found themselves priced out of the humble Corolla, in Europe at least.
In the U.S. prices haven’t risen quite as high, with AE86 still obtainable for sub $6,000. However in the UK and Europe, things are very different. Stories of those ‘in the know’ leaving notes on the windscreens of AE86 they spotted at the supermarket, or following owners back home and offering to buy their cars are plentiful.
Corolla AE86 prices have skyrocketed in recent years, especially when it comes to unique, restored, or low-milage examples
A few years ago it might have been that you found an elderly AE86 owner who didn’t know what they had, and it might have been possible to snatch up a bargain, but those times are long gone now – original UK cars, for example, are highly desirable in Ireland, and prices are hovering between £15,000-£20,000 for pristine, low-mileage examples. If you’re after a right-hand drive AE86 now, your best bet is importing from Japan – average imports sell for between £7,000-£10,000, with special examples, those with a heritage or built by notable tuners sometimes exceeding £20,000.
How do they drift?
It’s been said that if you can drift a Corolla then you can drift anything – without the crutch of high-horsepower to lean on, the AE86 demands a heavy right foot, high speed initiations, use of weight transfers, a committed driving style and plenty of clutch kicking to keep the car sideways.
There are few better drivers to demonstrate this than master of the AE86, Katsuhiro Ueo. Wind noise and low quality aside, this remains one of the greatest drift videos on the interwebs…
It’s not easy, but few cars are more rewarding to drift than the humble AE86. With dwindling numbers and increasing values it's becoming more and more of a rarity to see them on the circuit, but long may it live on in the hearts and minds of those who can appreciate a true drift classic.
The burning question is: will its younger brother, the GT86, eventually sit in its place?
Photography by Jordan Butters