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Meet the brains behind the Toyota GT 86

  1. Tada-san is sat in the lounge of a picturesque Scottish hideaway deep in Argyll staring at a map. He is nursing a small measure of whisky. He is serious. His colleague, Sasaki-san, also clasps a measure of Scotland’s finest malt, as he traces his finger across the map to a point the pair of them suddenly recognise. Their eyes light up in unison as though having discovered gravity.

    “We want to find Nessie,” Tada-san declares, in warm, Japanese intonation. “We want to see the Loch Ness Monster.” Sasaki-san agrees.

    Photography: Katie Johnson

  2. First, an introduction is required. For those of you who’ve spent an inordinate amount of time over the past four years watching the global economy crumble faster than a set of rear tyres on an AMG Merc - to the detriment of everything else in the world - there is a new sports car on the market. But this is something different. It’s called the Toyota GT 86. And the Subaru BRZ. They’re the same car in all but name, and they’re both really rather excellent. And here, two of its chief proponents are sitting before TG trying to figure out the route to a mythological water beast in a cold Scottish Loch.

    They are Tetsuya Tada (R) and Yoshinori Sasaki (L); chief engineer and assistant chief engineer respectively, friends for over 20 years and soldiers of rear-drive fortune. They’re also a little bit…merry, at the moment. Hence the hunt for Nessie. We wait until morning, when all is lucid and the roads (and heads) are clear, to have a blast in Tada and Sasaki’s hottest project, taking in some breathtaking Scottish scenery and letting them talk freely about the ‘86; a car very close to both mens’ hearts.

  3. “The former chief engineer of Toyota, Mr Isao Tsuzuki, he gave me a chance to move into Toyota and change my job,” recalls Tada-san. “When I got the offer from Toyota, I thought, ‘wow, I could make a sportscar’. Tsuzuki-san brought me down to earth quickly. He said, ‘stop daydreaming, you need a lot of experience for that.”

    Tada-san smiles though, as clearly, he’s got the last laugh. “So I worked at Toyota for many years as a chassis engineer, when one day I get a call from Mr Toyoda, who said ‘I want to speak with you urgently in my office’. I thought, god, what have I done now.”

  4. His warm inflections and polite mannerisms belie the brains underneath. For Mr Toyoda, then VP of Toyota, was about to present Tada with the opportunity of a lifetime. “He said I should think about building a sports car, with no conditions attached. Unlimited. Whatever I wanted - big, small, anything.” Suffice to say, Tada-san’s insides just exploded and the inner petrolhead was allowed to run free.

    He quickly assembled his inner circle, something Sasaki-san recalls to great effect. “I remember at the time, I was working as a chassis designer in charge of the Avensis and Corolla. I met Tada-san at Toyota’s proving ground in Higashi-Fuji, and he walks up to me and says, ‘Oh, long time no see, what are you up to?’ I said I was bored working on the Corolla. So he says, ‘I’m building a sports car… do you envy me?’”

  5. Sasaki-san laughs, before getting serious. “Then he asks if I want to join him.” His eyes make a gesture that confirms his appointment as Tada-san’s assistant. “After this, Tada was thinking about all kinds of sports cars, but there was this young guy on the team, really enthusiastic, who had owned four or five AE86s in the past. He thought our new sportscar should be like this.”

    And so it began. Tada-san himself had ideas too; as is well documented, the GT 86 is the spiritual successor to not only the AE86 with which it shares its name, but also the gorgeous Toyota 2000 GT and a little known coupe called the Sports 800.

  6. “Of course,” notes Sasaki-san, “rear-engined, rear-driven cars - and even mid-ship designs - are OK. But if you want to make an enjoyable sports car, it should be front-engined, rear-drive. Like the Toyota Sports 800. That car had a flat-two engine, and we liked the low centre of gravity. But Toyota didn’t have this kind of engine. Around the same time we were planning the 86, our relationship with Subaru had just begun. Both sides were thinking hard on a collaboration…”

    Can you see where this is going? Thankfully, Toyota’s history in rear-driven sports cars - and that dinky 800 - helped shelve the collaborators’ initial plans to build an SUV together, which they very nearly did. “Tada-san thought it a good chance to get Subaru’s flat-four boxer engine for the new 86. Discussions started and we finally agreed. This was really the start of ‘Team 86’ - not two different companies, but one group of people.”

  7. Naturally this story pans out with a fairy-tale ending. But as with any major Hollywood blockbuster, our plucky protagonists were fraught with danger and met hurdles seemingly impossible to surmount. “When I first proposed my idea to Toyota [about a lightweight rear-drive sports car], they kept asking, ‘how does it measure up to the competition - is it faster, is it more powerful, what can we use to sell it?’ Of course, I said ‘nothing’, and they…well, they were shocked.”

    Shielding off a constant barrage of requests to make the 86 superlative in several areas, Tada-san decided to let his project do the talking. “The development of this car stalled for six months because nobody would believe my vision. Then we built a prototype - a car that could showcase what I wanted. As soon as they drove it, they were sold.”

  8. And it’s here we get to the crux of the new GT 86 - and BRZ, of course. For Tada-san and Sasaki-san were insistent that this car not be about the numbers. “For the 86 we didn’t set up any numerical targets like lap times or acceleration,” Sasaki confirms. “We had one test driver, and after each set of tests, the only thing we’d ask was, ‘did you enjoy it’?

    “Of course he said ‘yes’ every time. The most important thing for me was - well, we say it like this: you must have a smile behind the wheel.” And for Sasaki-san, that means having a steering that is first rate. Like a 944 Turbo; a car that impressed Sasaki during his time in Europe. So the decision to run an electric steering system was, by normal convention, an odd one. Not so, says Sasaki.

  9. “Electric steering isn’t automatically a no-no for sports cars. Hydraulic setups have a long history behind them with many know-hows. But now we’re developing electric systems and figuring out new know-hows. We just took our time, introduced new software and tuned it. I would say this vehicle is born to turn.”

    It’s also born to slide at your tiniest input too, no? “Some people think this car oversteers too much,” says Sasaki, half smiling, “but I don’t think so. It has a very neutral balance, and if you do something more in a neutral car, you get three ways of turning the vehicle: brakes, acceleration and steering.” We can testify to how good a job these chaps have done, especially considering the lofty aim they were shooting at. “Dynamically,” says Tada-san, “we were aiming - always - for the Porsche Cayman.” And still aiming, as their appearance in Scotland is, aside from a monster hunt, to test out some minor aero tweaks and shock absorbers, which will be ready at some point early next year. It’s barely gone on sale, and already these two want more. (And by the by, this car was simply born for Scottish roads).

  10. Part of its dynamic excellence stems from Tada-san’s philosophy of putting the driver back in control. Despite a background in chassis control systems - think DSC and ABS and such - he was adamant that the new 86 have no electronic nannies helping out the driver. “Toyota is obviously very closely associated with safety,” Tada-san says, mutedly, “but we were very clear our new sports car would not have any driver aids. When I first told people about this in Toyota, they thought I was crazy. Really crazy!” He bursts out into a loud, rumbling, manic laugh. No, Tada-san, of course you’re not crazy…

    They toyed with the idea of fitting an electronic diff too, but quickly snuggled in a proper, fully-blown mechanical differential from Torsen, because - as Sasaki notes - “for the driver who needs quicker responses, we had to prepare a mechanical system”. From there on in, the template was set - low centre of gravity, Subaru engine (with Toyota injection technology), rear-wheel-drive with a LSD, and of course, the same tyres fitted to a Prius. Narrow ones. Narrow enough to get nice and sideways.

  11. This new 86 however, is just the beginning of Toyota’s sports car renaissance. Soon, there will be an entry-level sports car, and of course, a Big Dog range-topper. You know the name.

    “With my next sportscar,” explains Tada-san, “I want to make a big… ‘wow’.” His arms gesticulate large vortex circles. “Nobody expected us to build something like the GT 86. I want to give the world a shock.” Does that mean we are - whisper it - getting a new Supra?

  12. He laughs. Quite loudly. “Of course, anything is possible.” Sasaki-san also chirrups in. “With the 86, we didn’t want to use driver aids - that’s the thinking. But new Supra means big power, so we need something for that. It’ll be a different avenue of sports car from the GT 86.”

    Tantalisingly, neither of them would formulate anything concrete, so it remains as thus: the GT 86 is the hot new thing on the block, and a new Supra is “just one avenue of sports car Toyota could take. There are others too.” One thing is for sure however: if Tada-san has his way, the new sports car definitely won’t be a hybrid.

  13. “Our LMP1 programme gave us a good insight into hybrid performance, but for me, I think current hybrid technology is not good for road sports cars. I don’t really want that.” I inform him about the cosmically-quick Porsche 918 Spyder - built by a company both he and Sasaki greatly admire from an engineering perspective - and he laughs again. “That’s a very good hybrid drivetrain, but it’s for the man who has an unlimited amount of money. I don’t like that. I want to build a car that everybody can afford, a car for the ordinary people, not something that requires too much money.” A champion of the everyday petrolhead, no?

  14. It’s certainly a vibe that emanates from the pair of them - just a couple of petrolheads doing something they love. As Sasaki-san regales, he was initiated into the School of Performance at an early age - specifically with the GT 86’s granddaddy. “My father was a Toyota engineer, in charge of the very first Corolla Levin. He brought it home one day and asked if I wanted to join him on a test drive. It was the first time that I’ve been in a car that was so fast; I was pushed back into my seat. Then I decided - I will buy this car one day.”

    Buy it? He’s only gone and built it.

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