Toyota AE86 Hydrogen and EV conversions will let enthusiasts enjoy older cars for decades to come, says CEO

The rumors we reported on were true. At the 2023 Tokyo Auto Salon Toyota did indeed unveil two AE86s converted to run on alternative energy. A flip-up headlight Sprinter Trueno was converted to hydrogen power, and a fixed-headlight Corolla Levin was converted to a fully electric power. “There are lots of people at the Auto Salon who want to enjoy car life with their favorite cars,” said CEO Akio Toyoda, “I hope to dismiss the fear that we won’t be able to drive our beloved cars when we go carbon neutral.”

The Hydrogen Hachiroku isn’t powered by a fuel cell. Instead, it burns hydrogen with a conventional piston engine. Toyota’s been experimenting with hydrogen combustion in much-hyped a GR Corolla race car campaigned in Japan’s Super Taikyu endurance series. It was thought that the H2 car would be powered by the same engine.

But, surprise, Toyoda-san revealed that the AE86 was actually converted to hydrogen using the original 4AG motor! I interviewed chief engineer of the GR Corolla hydrogen race car Naoyuki Sakamoto in 2021 and he told me that existing internal-combustion engines could be converted to use hydrogen fuel as long as the fuel injectors, fuel delivery system, and fuel tank were modified. No modification to internals were necessary.

Unfortunately that tank of hydrogen fuel takes up the entire trunk, though it does have a snazzy carbon fiber cover. It takes much more hydrogen fuel to travel the same distance as gasoline, as it turns out. At its initial Super Taikyu race of 2021, the GR Corolla could only run about 10 laps before it needed to refuel, and that car had four hydrogen tanks in the trunk.

There is some hope, though. In one year of campaigning the GR Corolla, Toyota has improved the engine’s efficiency significantly. By season’s end engineers had increased its range by 30% over the season. They also managed to bump horsepower by 24 percent and torque by 33 percent, putting those figures on par with gasoline engine equivalents. Refueling time was improved as well, from about 5 minutes to 90 seconds.

Drivers of the GR Corolla reported that the H2 race car drove pretty much like a gasoline-powered car, but since hydrogen burns faster the throttle response was improved. And because the car had minimal modifications, the interior remained largely unscathed.

The same can’t be said for the Corolla Levin electric conversion. The battery pack takes up not only the entire trunk, but the rear seats as well. Both conversions would seem to have some negative effects on handling, but the heavy battery pack looks to be quite a bit heavier. Toyota left most of the interior gutted as well. Why did the Sprinter get hydrogen while the Corolla got batteries? It’s all there in the name: Corolla LEVin.

Amazingly, they kept the T50 5-speed manual in tact. Apparently this was one of the reasons Toyota was developing a stick shift for electric venicles. In the Lexus prototype it was all software, but realistic enough that it would even roll backwards on a hill and stall if not operated smoothly.

In a development video, Toyota showed how the two cars were converted. Towards the end driver Masahiro Sasaki (more on him in a bit) takes each car onto a track. He’s definitely able to push the EV more, and it appears to have some kind of recorded engine noise played in the cabin as the car accelerates.

Perhaps the most heartwarming thing about Toyota’s TAS presentation was the revelation that so many leaders within the company drive AE86s. In addition to the converted cars, Toyota also displayed the personal Sprinter Trueno of Masahiro Sasaki, seen here sporting Bridgeston RAP wheels.

Sasaki is one of Toyota’s development drivers, responsible for cars like the new Toyota 86. He also races for Toyota in SuperGT and at the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring, and drives the GR Corolla H2 race car in Super Taikyu. According to Akio Toyoda, “This AE86 was the master that taught professional driver Masahiro Sasaki, and was restored so that he could always return to his roots.”

Sasaki wasn’t the only one. Koji Sato, president of the Gazoo Racing division, also recently acquired an an AE86 Corolla Levin. Akio Toyoda gently ribbed him for not having it ready for the Auto Salon. It was in the midst of a restoration, Sato explained.

Last but not least, Toyota also showed off a ST165 Celica GT-Four, the same car that won the WRC Rally Legends race earlier this year.

A video of Akio Toyoda’s presentation in full.

There’s a lot to be said for these AE86 conversions. One of the biggest negatives about driving an electric car (or modern cars in general) is that all of them are also throttle-, brake- and steer-by wire. These negate the driving feel and road feedback that make classic cars so enjoyable and fun.

Pairing a new school powertrain with an analog driving experience might make die-hard enthusiasts less resistant to the change. We can either fight the tide or go with the flow. At least Toyota is presenting some options to keep our vintage machines alive.

Images courtesy of Toyota.

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13 Responses to Toyota AE86 Hydrogen and EV conversions will let enthusiasts enjoy older cars for decades to come, says CEO

  1. Alan says:

    It’s a pragmatic approach for people in certain restrictive jurisdictions, I hope that never includes me however. A good ICE is the heart of a vintage sports car, these conversions are merely mechanical taxidermy.

  2. Alan says:

    Oh yeah, go hydrogen!

  3. speedie says:

    Toyota is putting a lot of energy into rebranding its car lineup as sporty and fun to drive. It is needed, for in the pursuit of profits and world dominance, its cars over the last 20 years have been burdened with a “dependable but boring to drive” reputation. Recognizing and supporting its loyal (and aging) performance fans from the 80s and 90s is part of the marketing to rebuild that reputation.

    Now to the power trains: I think the electric version is a nod to the current market demand, while hydrogen is Toyota refusing to give up on all the R&D money it has invested in that fuel. People complain about range anxiety in electric cars and there are way more electric charging stations than hydrogen. In my state of Massachusetts there are 0 public and only 2 private hydrogen stations. For comparison there are 5,459 public and 362 private electric charging stations (and more opening every month). Toyota, which has historically been pretty good at using its crystal ball, invested heavily in hydrogen, while others focused on electric. A rare miss by them.

  4. f31roger says:

    Please Nissan!!! I want to keep my F31s!!!

    If this is the future for old cars, I’m all for it. Especially living in California.
    Might not be the powerhouse… but I love my cars to just be good cruisers.

  5. Ryan Senensky says:

    Hydrogen sounds like a great future honestly. In addition to my Japanese stuff, I have been investing in hot rods and classic American car projects. The sound is like 3/4 of the experience with those old V8 cars. Being able to use hydrogen sounds like my play for hot rodding and JNC ownership in the 2040s.

  6. Fred Langille says:

    My only concern is how safe is it if/when (and, it WILL happen) a Hydrogen car gest whamboed and becomes an orbiting satellite! The safety factor needs to be 110% for me to fully espouse the idea. Perhaps an automatic ejection of the tank upon impact is the way to go?

    • Ben Hsu says:

      An ejecting hydrogen tank should make for some good Cars & Coffee exits.

    • jan groenendijk says:

      probably similar to CNG cars. i`ve worked on a few hydrogen applications in a research setting and of course had the occasional screw-up resulting in ruined workstations, damaged equipment and frightened co-workers…

      To be honest, it’s not much different from a regular gas tank going KABLAMMO!
      the biggest issue i forsee is that hydrogen permeates quickly so the fuel delivery system would have to be well ventilated, checked and even replaced at regular intervals. (similar to a gas stove in an RV)

      indoor storage of H2 vehicles should also be done in well ventilated areas.

      That being said, EV batteries scare me more when it comes to combustability and the fact that they can (re-)ignite hours, if not days after collision or the initial fire has been put out.

    • Jeremy A says:

      When a hydrogen tank is pierced, the hydrogen floats up and burns vertically, instead of splashing everywhere and sticking to everything while it burns the way gasoline does. I’d rather have a hydrogen fire happen in a cash than a gasoline fire any day.

  7. EJ says:

    Mr Toyoda has to be the best car CEO of current times, yeah?

    Too bad his products in my country are pretty crap… I really like the guy!

  8. Marc B says:

    So what does the Kanji on the doors say on each car? They are different from each other, and they do not say “Fujiwara Tofu Store”, like on Takumi’s AE86.

    • Matt says:

      The Levin has ‘denki jidousha’ printed on the door, meaning simply ‘electric car’. The trueno has ‘suiso enjin’, meaning ‘hydrogen engine’. Definitely a homage to the initial D manga. Love this latest era of Toyota, there is a lot to like for car fans.

    • Michael K. says:

      They say Hydrogen Engine and Electric Vehicle

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