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Everyday Classics: Norfolk’s role in giving Toyota MR2 fun factor

11:10 25 October 2015

First-generation Toyota MR2 is a rev-happy, mid-engined, lightweight two-seater with great handling thanks to input from Lotus.

First-generation Toyota MR2 is a rev-happy, mid-engined, lightweight two-seater with great handling thanks to input from Lotus.

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Our new look at Everyday Classics – iconic cars at affordable prices – starts with Toyota’s MR2 and how the Japanese giant turned to Norfolk sports car builder Lotus to help turn it into a cult car.

Toyota MR2 Mark I

Dates manufactured: 1984-89

Popular colours: Red, white, blue

Cost when new: £9,535 (1985)

Approximate value now: £4,500

Number on UK roads now: 2,781

Rival models: Fiat X1/9 and Mazda MX-5

In a world that was just coming to terms with the explosion of hot-hatchbacks like the Peugeot 205 GTI and Volkswagen Golf GTI, 1984 witnessed another incredible arrival – the Toyota MR2.

Until then, engines mounted in the middle for better handling balance – and pub chat bragging rights – were the preserve of supercars. Fiat had its X1/9, but the MR2 brought Toyota’s legendary reliability and ease of use to the mix and a legend was born.

The MR2 (Midship Runabout, 2-seater) was first dreamed up in 1976 with an idea to create an economical car that was fun to drive. Eight years later, this project had morphed into a full-blown sports car and the 1.6-litre engine in the first generation MR2 had 122bhp. That was enough for a 121mph top speed and 0 to 62mph in 7.7 seconds, which could see off most hot-hatches.

Just as importantly, the lightweight MR2 tipped the scales at only 1,051kg. Many claim the car was designed by Lotus, hence the light weight, but the MR2 was a pure-bred Toyota. However, Roger Becker, then Lotus chief engineer, did help with the set-up of the suspension and handling. Little wonder the MR2 received immediate praise from the press for the way it drove when it was launched.

The only significant change for the MR2 during its production life for European buyers was the introduction of the T-Bar roof model in 1987. This model came with two lift-out panels to give a semi-open cockpit. The panels store behind the seats and it was another instant success for the MR2.

In Japan, also in 1987, Toyota launched a supercharged version of the MR2 that had 145bhp to satisfy the demand for more power from some customers. Sadly, it wasn’t offered in Europe and any that you do find will have been imported privately.

The rev-hungry 1.6-litre petrol engine was the only option in the UK and it remains a superb motor. Happy to spin up to its red line all day long, it feels more urgent than its on-paper figures suggest, yet it’s superbly reliable. The five-speed manual gearbox is generally robust too, though it can pop out of fifth gear when it starts to become worn.

However, the biggest worry with the MR2 is rust. It can take hold anywhere and is often hidden behind the plastic body kit of later models, so check any car thoroughly before committing cash to buying it.

Find a good one, though, and the MR2 will reward every day with its brilliant handling. It’s also still very affordable, as it was a car that sold to ordinary drivers rather than rock stars, despite its exotic mid-engined layout.

If you drive a first-generation Toyota MR2 tell us why it is so special. Email motoring@archant.co.uk

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