An all-new generation of Toyota’s iconic musclecar – the Supra – is unveiled today at the 2019 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, almost 17 years after the last generation ceased production. The revival of the model is a continuation of the company’s aim to bring back excitement to its product line, a direction which was set by Akio Toyoda when he became President in 2009. Toyoda, a racing driver himself, would remember well the era when the original Supra set performance benchmarks for Japanese sportscars and aims to bring that back.
The Supra was actually a variant of the Celica at the start, having been introduced as a higher-performance version of the sportscar. It was called Celica XX in Japan and Supra elsewhere, the name being taken from the Latin word for ‘transcending’ or ‘above’. It remained a variant of the Celica from 1978 when it was first introduced until the middle of 1986 when it became a model line of its own.
Although 2-litre 12-valve 6-cylinder engines (M-EU) were available mainly for the Japanese market (for tax reasons), the Supra was primarily associated with the bigger 2.6-litre 12-valve inline 6-cylinder engine (4M-E) that was a direct descendant of the M engine Toyota 2000GT, Japan’s first supercar.
The 4M-E SOHC engine had a bigger bore from the original M engine and produced 110 ps with 184 Nm; prior to being stifled by stricter emission regulations that started being introduced from the mid-1970s, the engine was able to produce up to 123 ps with 193 Nm (at 3600 rpm). It was Toyota’s first production engine equipped with electronic fuel-injection.
In 1980, one year before the first generation ended, Toyota was able to offer the Supra with a bigger engine displacement of 2.8 litres. This still had a SOHC cylinder head and 2 valves per cylinder It was an advanced engine in its time, with hydraulic lifters (the first in a Toyota engine) and later versions with more electronic controls saw outputs rising as high as 175 ps/230 Nm. However, the engine for the first generation of the Supra had only 116 ps/197 Nm.
Power to the rear wheels went through a 5-speed manual transmission (the ‘bulletproof’ W50) but those who didn’t want to be in control of their shifting could also order it with a 4-speed automatic transmission. A LSD was also available as an option or standard, depending on the market.
The 4-wheel independent suspension was, needless to say, tuned to complement the engine’s high performance. Lotus Engineering was also commissioned to assist in tuning. Stopping power was as good as it could be in the late 1970s with disc brakes on all 4 wheels.
Slightly larger than the Celica, with the bonnet dimensions increased to accommodate the longer 6-cylinder engine, the Supra was designed and developed to put a Toyota representative in the GT markets of Japan and North America (where Nissan had already gained a strong presence with its Datsun Z). Calty, Toyota’s advanced design studio in California which was established in 1973, was influential in the styling of the first Supra.
The carmaker had realised it could only develop the right sort of cars for what was then the world’s largest car market by having a studio there to be fully immersed in the culture and environment. This move paid off when Calty provided valuable input for the Supra which would become a popular sportscar in North America in the decades that followed.
The first Supra is not remembered for being a ‘movie star’ although later generations appeared in movies and TV series (Jacky Chan’s ‘Thunderbolt’, ‘The Firm’, ‘Dukes of Hazzard’, ‘Bangkok Dangerous’, ‘L.A. Law’ and ‘Power Rangers’, to name a few), the most memorable is probably the orange Mk 4 Supra in ‘The Fast & Furious’. The only time the first Supra was on the big screen was when it was the Pace Car for the 1979 US F1 Grand Prix.