During the 1970’s and 1980’s, Japanese manufacturer Toyota had made a name for itself in the Japanese motor racing scene. Outside of their home country the association between Toyota and racing successes was not as strong, with no discernible factory presence in any of the major categories.
Toyota had made its first careful steps into the global endurance racing scene by supplying a naturally aspirated 2.3L 4 cylinder engine to the burgeoning Sigma (later SARD) team for their 1975 Le Mans effort. Sadly the car failed to finish after suffering an oil pump failure.
The first Toyota-powered prototype to race at Le Mans: the Sigma MC75.
In the years that followed Toyota turned their attention away from Le Mans and focused on Group 4 rallying and the lucrative Japanese Group 5 Super Silhouette series. It was there that the company forged an alliance with race car constructor Dome.
The clever Germans at Team Schnitzer had meanwhile developed an outlandish 560 horsepower Celica LB Turbo Group 5 to take on the unbeatable Porsche 935. The car was entered under the Team TOM’S banner into the 1980 24 Hours of Le Mans. The cars was however not designed with endurance racing in mind, and failed to qualify due to various engine reliability issues.
Another ill-fated venture: the howling mad Schnitzer Celica LB Turbo.
Another 5 years went by without a Toyota entry at Le Mans. Dome had in the meantime been busy racing Ford-powered prototypes, starting with the Zero RL in 1979. The experience gained from the six years of running at the tough 24 Hour event was invaluable for Toyota when it finally decided to return once more.
Toyota again contracted Dome to develop a new chassis which would have to comply with Group C rules in effect since 1982. This time the company’s aim was the top of the line C1 category, which competed for overall victories. Dome complied by delivering a traditional aluminium honeycomb monocoque. Ground effect aerodynamics were also incorporated into the design, as the technology hadn’t yet been banned in Group C.
The car's ground effect inducing venturi tunnels gave it a unique look.
Fitted in the middle was a relatively small 2.1L 4T-GT 4-cylinder turbocharged engine, which produced around 600 horsepower. To cope with the violent peaky power delivery of the tiny timebomb, a beefed-up 5-speed manual was installed. The engine was the smallest in the C1 field, and the only 4-cylinder. All in all the car weighed just 900 kg (1985 lbs).
Dome 85C-L, Le Mans 1985
Two cars were entered into the 1985 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Curiously both cars carried different names, neither of them being Toyota itself. In fact the machines were run by two completely different teams. Toyota’s in house motorsport division Tom’s was responsible for the #36 car, while #38 was handled by Dome.
The #38 car after night practice, Le Mans 1985.
One of the biggest difference between the two teams was their approach in the selection of drivers. The #36 car was staffed exclusively by Japan’s finest, whereas #38 featured a more varied selection of nationalities. For #36 Tom’s hired Satoru Nakajima, Masanori Sekiya and Kaoru Hoshino, while Dome employed Eje Elgh (SWE), former F1-driver Geoff Lees (GB) and Toshio Suzuki to pilot #38.
The #1 Porsche 962C of Jacky Ickx (BEL) / Jochen Mass (GER) passing the TOM'S in qualifying.
Despite the competitive power figure, the cars lacked pace compared to the massive armada of Porsche’s 956B and 962C models. Lancia’s LC2 and Jaguar XJR-5 were also too much to handle for the 85C-L.
Eventually #38 driven by Geoff Lees took the highest grid position in a disappointing 22nd with a time 3:43.770, some 39 seconds off the pole time set by the #2 Porsche 962C of Derek Bell (GB) / Hans Joachim Stuck (GER). The sister car piloted by Satoru Nakajima set a best time of 3:48.670, good enough for 29th on the grid. The lack of pace was however not a major concern, as qualifying meant very little for a 24 hour endurance event.
During the race the cars performed admirably, keeping out of trouble and steadily racking up the laps. For the first 140 laps all was going completely according to plan. But then disaster struck for the #38 Team Dome car. Lap 141 proved one too many for the car’s clutch, and it was forced to retire. This left Toyota with just the TOM’S car to defend the company’s honor. There was no telling if the #36 would be spared the clutch failure of its sister car, but TOM’S stubbornly kept on going.
#36 battling with the #79 Ecosse C285 Cosworth of Ray Mallock (GB) / David Leslie (GB) / Mike Wilds (GB)
As expected the 85C-L had no chance of keeping up with the all-powerful Porsche’s and Lancia’s, but it still slowly but surely made up places. Mechanical problems and accidents were taking its toll throughout the field, and cars were dropping out left and right. The high rate of attrition helped the car along considerably. Sadly the lack of speed meant the top 10 was just out of reach for Toyota.
With a massive 8 laps between it and the 11th placed EMKA C84/1 Aston Martin, the TOM’S 85C-L was forced to settle for 12th place. The result was not quite the dream debut Toyota had hoped for, but it did show promise for the future. Amazingly the TOM’S 85C-L was the 4th best non-Porsche finisher. Only Lancia (6th & 7th) and the EMKA had done better against the 10 time Le Mans winning Germans.
After careful consideration, the Tom’s 85C-L was Toyota’s first serious attack on the European bastion of Le Mans. Though it lacked outright speed, it showed great potential from a manufacturer relatively new to the discipline. In the years that followed Toyota and chassis partner Dome would very work hard to continuously improve their impressive prototypes every year.
Unlike many competing manufacturers, Toyota’s original Le Mans program managed to outlast the turmoil of the demise of Group C. After 15 attempts they are however still yet to score an overall victory, despite countless hours of diligent hard work.