Toyota has been around a long time. They know what they are doing, and they make more cars than any other manufacturer in the world. And while many of us in the car community still think of them as a relatively new company, their agility, market savvy, and attention to North American performance offerings continues to endear generations of enthusiasts to the Toyota brand. No more so than with the popular and capable Supra.
The first Supra was an updated version of the Celica line. Having established the Celica name in the early 1970s the first Supra arrived in 1979 as part of the second-generation Celica design. Keen on hitting the American market, design duties were given to American David Stollery at Toyota’s Calty design studios in California. Toyota allowed Stollery a great deal of flexibility in designing the new Celica. Using the same body, doors, and rear design as the Stollery Celica, the Supra was modified from the cowl forward with new front fenders and hood to accommodate the longer six-cylinder engine. Performance was markedly improved over the four-cylinder Celica but more importantly the Supra set a new standard for a performance car that offered Toyota reliability—luxury amenities, and notably good fuel economy.
As the model line progressed Toyota recognized the potential to expand the Supra offering and redesigned the Mark II in 1981. This time the new Supra offered pop up headlights, a range of performance features and body trim available in two models, and a longer wheelbase, once again to accommodate the inline, overhead cam six-cylinder engine. The Mark III followed in 1986, this time making the Supra a totally separate model with unique mechanical features including rear-wheel drive, a larger displacement engine, an all-new body and, in 1987, a turbocharged engine. Other features included ABS, double wishbone suspension, and an optional 4-speed automatic transmission.
Sales were robust as the model line continued for nearly seven years while Toyota and the emergent Lexus line of luxury cars drew attention away from the Supra as Toyota’s premier U.S. offering. But great things were soon to come as the fourth generation Supra Turbo arrived in 1993. Because Lexus had done such a great job of capturing the high-end market, and many former Supra owners were aging out of the model line and were destined to become Lexus buyers, Toyota made the decision to build the Supra as a serious performance car, capable of competing against top European offerings and going head-to-head with Honda’s Acura NSX. Toyota hit the target perfectly. The Supra offered a sequential twin-turbo engine which propelled the Supra to 4.5 second 0-60 times and delivered 13 second quarter mile times, all of which came not just in a straight line, but with impressive handling.
In addition to the robust power on tap from the 3.0 liter 320 hp 2JZ-GTE engine, the 6-speed Getrag manual transmission was the perfect addition to the driving experience. Aluminum components were used throughout the car to lighten weight including cast alloy front A-arms, an aluminum hood, aluminum front cross member, and numerous alloy transmission parts, all of which lightened the car by nearly 200 lbs. from the previous generation Supra. Although sales had dropped significantly in the late 1990s the Supra continued in production until 2002, but top Turbo models had already become restricted in California due to emissions requirements. Production for the new Supra would return in 2019 after a 17-year hiatus.
Having developed a serious following through the 1990s, the Mark IV Supra became a media icon when it starred in the first of the “Fast and Furious” franchise films in 2001. The Supra not only featured prominently in the plot of the movie, it highlighted the already popular street-racing youth sub-culture featuring highly modified and specially tuned cars, mostly of Japanese manufacture origin. Street racing aside, the end point of the first movie proclaimed the defeat of the American muscle car, a 1970 Dodge Charger R/T with the Supra becoming the heir-apparent to the future of street racing enthusiasts and a portent to the continuing franchise. Twenty years later, with prices for top original Mark IV Supras heading into $200k territory, it appears that dominance will continue.
From a design perspective, the Mark IV Supra is a very special car. With performance as a key goal, the overall length was shortened 13 inches and the width increased to give it a more purposeful, hunkered down stance. With organic forms emerging as the focus of early 1990s designs, early concepts evoked a very muscular presence emphasized by the fender lines swelling over the wheels. As chief exterior designer for the Mark IV, Seiji Fukushima stated, “a firm line holding the wheels, with the musculature of a sprinter.” This squat spooled-up stance reflects the tension in a sprinter as they line up for a race, ready to launch from the blocks.
During this same period, designers at Toyota were also experimenting with latex balloons filled with wet plaster, which could be squeezed into organic forms influencing the fender designs over the wheels. Earlier design submissions included pop-up headlights and no side vents but ultimately the large front valence intakes, exposed headlight clusters and broad central grille delivered a powerful visual statement to the taut body lines. Most notably, the rear view of the car was particularly commanding given the tall rear wing, wide taillight signature, and upward scalloped rear. The fastback glass, a consistent trait in all Supras, was retained using a compound curvature draped low and encircling the short rear deck of the car. Incidentally, the height and shape of the wing was deemed necessary to generate proper downforce without creating drag. Aftermarket wings frequently found on these cars are consistently less effective than the precisely engineered version that complements the original design.
Given today’s impressive standards and decades of technical advancement, it’s hard to imagine how impressive these cars were in 1993 when delivered new. They literally were a revelation of performance. One that still lives up to the lofty standards set nearly 30 years ago. The fluid, organic design that captured the early 1990s still holds up today. No wonder collectors and enthusiasts are clamoring for original examples of the Mark IV Supra. With state-of-the-art design and engineering, prominence in the largest automotive media entertainment franchise, and the fifth generation Supra making a return to the market, the Mark IV Supra could very well end up being one of the most significant and sought after GT cars of the 20th century.