Toyota Starlet revival is the dream of new Gazoo Racing president

Much has been written about Koji Sato, the former Gazoo Racing president and AE86 owner who has since ascended to the top job at Toyota. He’s said that it’s his life’s dream to bring back the Celica. But what about the man who replaces him at the helm of Toyota’s performance division? Tomoya Takahashi, 45, is the new head of Gazoo Racing and has said that it’s his dream to revive the Toyota Starlet.

Americans may be most familiar with the early rear-wheel-drive Starlets like the KP61 that were briefly sold in the US. After leaving the US market they continued to be sold in Japan for many generations to come. And in the mid 80s, like many Toyotas, these hot hatches switched their drive wheels from rear to front, but continued to offer blazing performance at a bargain price. Toyota even organized a one-make racing series for Starlets.

Lightweight and powerful, they had all the hallmarks of range-topping Toyotas at the time — turbocharging, multivalve engines, optional AWD, all of which were printed on decals adorning the sides of the car. At the same time, variants geared more towards style than speed offered Bubble Era quirkiness like a “Jeans” edition with denim upholstery or a Canvas Top trim with an old school roll-back rooftop.

To be clear, as Takahashi was when speaking to Best Car, a Starlet revival would be his personal wish, not necessarily a direction he is taking at Gazoo. However, his infatuation with the Starlet may inform his philosophy as he takes the reins at GR. Specifically, Takahashi owned three successive turbo Starlets, a chuuki EP82 Starlet, a kouki EP82 Starlet, and an EP91.

As Takahashi explained in the interview, he believes strongly in lightness:

If you want a car to go fast in a straight line, you can put a big engine or motor in it, but that will make it heavy. A car that is heavy and cannot turn is not fun.

A lightweight car is the best, so we place great importance on making a lightweight car. Even under the current circumstances where it is difficult to make cars lighter due to collision safety and other factors, we carmakers believe that making lightweight cars is the best way to show our skills.

Takahashi went on to say that this responsiveness shouldn’t be limited to sports cars. He wants GR cars to have sharp handling not only at high speeds, but at low speeds in city driving.

Takahashi was born in Sapporo, Hokkaido, in northern Japan. He’s always loved cars, but his Starlet ownership set the course for his career. He said that in his teen years he’d delight in driving in snowy conditions and take his Starlets to smaller circuits in his home prefecture. But when the EK9 Civic Type R came out, he was shocked at how good of a hot hatch it was. Rather than switch allegiances, he eventually got a job at the Big T so he could built a Toyota to surpass it.

For the most part, Takahashi must carry out Gazoo Racing’s principles passed down from Akio Toyoda, who created the division when he was a junior exec. Those include using motorsports to “make ever-better cars” and to make motorsports a sustainable endeavor. There’s also the directive that Toyoda and Sato emphasized at this year’s Tokyo Auto Salon of “leave no car enthusiast behind”. This, Takahashi explained, means to continue supporting owners of classic Toyotas with the GR Heritage Parts Program.

Toyota is now on a 7 to 8 year cycle for most vehicles. However, Takahashi wants GR cars to remain fresh with annual improvements gleaned from that year’s racing and rally efforts. He hopes these lessons will percolate through the rest of Toyota’s lineup as well.

These don’t sound like the words of someone who’s toeing the company line. It’s easily a conversation we can imagine having with fellow enthusiasts. In the interview Takahashi also revealed another nugget involving our favorite race car driving former CEO. When Akio Toyoda handed him the keys to the GR kingdom, he passed along these words: “Please build a car that makes me smile.” That’s somehow encouraging and daunting at the same time, but Gazoo Racing and Toyota appear to be in good hands.



This post is filed under: News.

4 Responses to Toyota Starlet revival is the dream of new Gazoo Racing president

  1. Bryan Kitsune says:

    “A car that is heavy and cannot turn is not fun.”

    This quote should be plastered everywhere at Toyota headquarters.

    Of course, most Americans seem to disagree. :/

  2. Brett says:

    Takahashi understands the qualities needed to make a great car that rewards the driver; its a shame there aren’t more like him.

  3. Mark F Newton-John says:

    Sub-mini compacts are dead in the US, look at the Mazda 2, Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta, and Fiat 500. If anything, it would just be a successor to the current GR Yaris. Starlet would be a better name. since Yaris sounds odd.

    • Ginkei Garage Inc. says:

      Yaris is the name we’ve been used to in Europe for the past 24 years when it started with the “made in France” version of the JDM Vitz.

      Only few people here remember what the Starlet was, especially considering we never got the more interesting spicy models. For those who remember, it was just a beige and boring but dependable compact city car, like there were many in the 90’s (Mazda 121, Honda Logo, Mitsubishi Colt, Nissan Sunny, etc). They all ended up with old people or as first cars for youngsters and couldn’t be further away from anything sporty or epic.

      The Starlet name itself too is so much a product of the 70/80’s and doesn’t work anymore nowadays. Why would you name a car after a “young actress with aspirations” ? Sounds like old world poetry and a bit old fashioned. That kind of thing only works with the Fairlady I think.

      Considering the not so great reputation (in the real world, not internet hype) that the Celica and the Starlet accumulated during their FWD, 90’s era outside Japan. I’m not sure bringing back those names would benefit in any way, especially after all the effort Toyota made to build it’s new image with the GR line, GT86 and Supra. I think that the only name that needs to be brought back is the MR2, because it really symbolize the affordable midship sportscar.

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