The history of Japanese Rally Cars at the Toyota Automobile Museum

The Toyota Automobile Museum recently ended a special exhibit about the history of Japanese cars in rallying. As those who’ve visited the TAM will know, despite the name, the institution welcomes all marques. As such, the exhibit assembled cars from the heritage collections of not just Toyota, but its rival carmakers as well. Since Japan has been and is still under strict travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was really no way for anyone overseas to see this exhibit in person. Here’s what you missed.

The exhibit was officially titled Gekijou! 2.5 Dimensional Vroom: WRC Japanese Car Trajectory. Gekijou is translated as “to run fast” in Japanese. The “2.5 Dimensional” part comes from the fact that the cars were staged in manga-like dioramas that gave the impression they were jumping off the pages of a comic book.

Toyota might welcome other marques, but it still features its own cars front and center. Those who were able to see the exhibit in person were welcomed by a 1984 Toyota Celica TCT. The Twin Cam Turbo ran in Group B and proved to be incredibly tough. The TA64 won, among other races, the grueling Safari Rally three consecutive times between 1984 and 1986. The car on display was the 1985 winner.

Joining the TCT was its all-wheel-drive successor, the Celica GT-Four ST165. It helped Toyota secure victory at the Safari Rally once again in 1990, and the car displayed was the very one to achieve that win. The Celicas were joined by a Toyota Corolla WRC from 1997.

Technically the Safari Rally was just another round on the WRC calendar, but its breadth and sheer difficulty set it apart from the rest of the races. Spanning thousands of miles across multiple countries, winning (or even finishing) it was a singular accomplishment, like the rallying equivalent of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s why nearly every Japanese carmaker took on the race in their early years, hoping to prove their cars on the world stage.

Nissan had been competing in the Safari Rally since 1963, before there was even a WRC. They’d eventually become the first Japanese marque to win it in 1970, a feat it would go on to repeat many times. Nissan loaned the museum two of these Safari Rally champions from its own collection. The first was the Datsun 240Z that was the overall winner for the 1973 Safari Rally, (very) complete with battle scars. Beside it was the overall winner for the 1982 Safari Rally. The Nissan Violet’s victory capped off a four-year streak for Nissan from 1979-82, and marked the final year for Group 4 regulations.

Mitsubishi had been campaigning cars in Australia’s Southern Cross Rally since 1967. It officially joined the WRV n 1973 and took numerous victories between then and 1976. After a break, they returned to WRC in 1981 and maintained a presence all the way until 2001.

The 1974 Mitsubishi Lancer 1600GSR was originally a factory effort for the 1974 running of the Safari Rally, but the oil crisis forced Mitsubishi to pull out officially. Suddenly finding himself without a ride, driver Joginder Singh decided to buy the Lancer from Mitsubishi and enter it himself, according to the museum. Mitsubishi was apparently so moved by his commitment, they supplied him with parts The rest is history, with the Lancer subsequently taking its first WRC victory at the Safari Rally that year.

Mitsubishi’s involvement in WRC spanned decades. Tommi Mäkinen won the Drivers Championship four consecutive years behind the wheel of a Lancer Evolution, starting in 1996 with the Evo III. From there he entered the era of  vehicle standardization  with the Group A Evo IV in 1997. The following year, in 1998, Mäkinen and Mitsubishi won both the Drivers and Manufacturers Championships with the Evo V. The Evo VI served as Mäkinen’s final championship car in 1999, commemorated by a Mäkinen Edition road car. The car displayed was a replica of a 2001 Monte Carlo Rally Mäkinen-spec Evo VI.

Mazda always focused its factory efforts on endurance racing, but privateers began entering them in rally races as early as 1970. One such privateer, Hajime Nakagawa and co-driver Osamu Morikawa entered the first Mazda to compete in an WRC race. That little known piece of Mazda motorsports history was the RX-7 on display. Nakagawa and Morikawa entered it at the 1979 Rallye Monte Carlo, winning their class (Group 2 Class 4) in Mazda’s WRC debut.

Daihatsu began its rallying efforts in 1978 at the Safari Rally. While they haven’t gotten as much print as the overall race-winning Toyotas and Nissans, the little Daihatsus claimed many class championships over the years.

The 1982 G10 Charade seen here was one such winner. That year, the race was particularly tough, with only 21 of the 73 cars finishing at all. The Charade was one of them, taking the 1.0-liter and under Group 2 Class 11 victory in the process. Its performance surprised everyone, prompting the rally chairman to praise the tiny hatch as having “rewritten rally history” and earning the mighty Daihatsu the nickname “Little Giant Killer“.

Like Mazda, Subaru’s earliest overseas rally races started in 1970. The company didn’t officially begin participating in WRC with a factory effort until 1980. Between then and 1988, its efforts concentrated mainly on, once again, the Safari Rally. That year, STi was established and Subaru began full participation in the WRC with factory backing in 1990.

After several years of valiant attempts, the Subaru Legacy RS became the first Subaru to take a checkered flag in an WRC race at the 1993 Rally New Zealand. That is the car you see here, a significant milestone in Subaru rallying history. It was also the first year Subaru took on a new sponsor, cigarette brand State Express 555, and codified its cars in the iconic blue and yellow livery with gold wheels.

In the latter half of 1993 Subaru introduced a new contender, based on the more compact Impreza. The car would carry Subaru to three consecutive Manufacturers Championships, from 1995-97, making the Impreza, as well the Subaru brand, synonymous with rallying. The car displayed was the 1996 championship car on loan from Subaru’s heritage collection.

Suzuki was a relative latecomer to the WRC scene when it arrived in 2008. However, it had been honing its skills in the since 2002 in the Junior World Rally Championship, a feeder series to the WRC. It won two JWRC races the following year, and swept the podium at the 2004 Rally Turkey. After establishing a reputation as one of the top JWRC manufacturers, Suzuki launched a full-scale WRC effort in the latter half of 2007 and ran a full calendar starting in 2008. The SX4 never quite achieved the lofty goals Suzuki had hoped for, though, and 2008 would also be its last full year. The car displayed was entered in Rally Great Britain in 2008, the final appearance for Suzuki in WRC.

There were so many rally cars lent to the museum that the exhibit overflowed into the rest of the museum. These cars didn’t get the manga treatment, but they were still worth seeing. In one corner there was a 2014 Subaru Impreza WRX STi with Nagoya Subaru sponsorship from one of many local rally races in Japan.

Similarly, a Toyota Yaris from the All-Japan Rally Championships sat by the entrance. As the “Morizo” name on the window implies, this car was personally driven by Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda under his alter ego.

In another corner lurked Toyota’s ST185 Celica GT-Four, winner of 1993’s Rally Australia.

A successor to the G10 Charade above, a G100-generation Daihatsu Charade GT-Ti won its class at the 1993 Safari Rally. Perhaps more amazingly, it won 7th overall in a field filled with much faster cars. It was also the final appearance for Daihatsu in WRC.

A Suzuki Swift Super 1600 that ran in the Junior World Rally Championships in 2007 helped prove the company’s track record in rallying. It allowed Suzuki to fully enter WRC in 2008, just in time for the global financial crisis. Sadly, Suzuki’s WRC ambitions where shuttered as soon as they had begun.

It’s a tragedy of history that Mazda’s Group B RX-7 never got a chance to truly compete against the legends of the series. It arrived just as AWD cars were ascendant, and Mazda switched to the 323 GTX before the world could see what the RX-7 could truly do, This car looks suspiciously similar to the car that went up for auction in 2017.

Another tragically stillborn race car was the 1985 Toyota 222D. Based on an AW11 MR2, it was originally built to compete in Group S. The prototype class was set to replace Group B, but was canceled before it could run. Group B cars had already been deemed too fast and too dangerous by officials, so the even more unlimited class was scuttled.

Connecting to the modern age of rallying was a 2017 Toyota Yaris WRC racer. Toyota i the lone Japanese manufacturer to carry the WRC torch now, so it makes sense that the museum would circle back here.

It’s truly a pleasure to see so many different marques representing an entire nations’s participation in one sport gathered under one roof. For example, this may have been the first time the G10 Daihatsu Charade and the Nissan Violet have been together since they ran on the plains of Africa 40 years ago at the 1982 Safari Rally. With vivid presentation and cross-marque cooperation, it was a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit to behold, even if most could only see it from the comfort of their own homes.

Additional Images:


Images courtesy of the Toyota Automobile Museum

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4 Responses to The history of Japanese Rally Cars at the Toyota Automobile Museum

  1. Lakdasa says:

    Missing are the Datsun Bluebirds the 510 comes to mind, Japan had a longer rally history than this.

    • Ian N says:

      Precisely what I was thinking! We called them “Datsun 1600” downunder, but the message is the same – where were they in the exhibit? Loved the beaten up “Zed” too!

  2. Christoph says:

    Very cool presentation!
    I would just have loved to see the ST185 beside the others. It´s the championship winner… Sad that its separate in a hidden corner…

  3. TheJWT says:

    I saw this exhibit in late March, but unfortunately the 222D wasn’t on display then! I would’ve loved to see it, but the Group B RX-7 was a good consolation prize

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