Toyota’s born-again Supra will make its debut at the Detroit auto show in January 2019. It’s one of the most anticipated models in recent memory. Fans have been waiting ever since production of the fourth-generation model ended in 2002.
The next Supra will have big shoes to fill regardless of when we finally see it. Join us as we revisit the nameplate’s 40-year long history to find the source of its mystique:
Toyota’s sports car of the future (1969)
Toyota signaled its intention to remain in the sports car segment with the futuristic-looking EX-1 concept. Presented at the 1969 Tokyo Auto Show, it illustrated the company’s vision of a well-appointed grand tourer designed to comfortably and quickly travel long distances. It came with an electronically-operated roof-mounted spoiler, a Hot Wheels-esque styling cue then and now.
Executives stressed they had no plans to turn the concept into a production model but certain design elements lived on, as visitors to the 1970 Tokyo show found out.
The Celica is born (1970)
Toyota introduced the Celica, the model which blazed the trail the Supra later followed, at the 1970 Tokyo Auto Show. It took the form of a sporty-looking coupe that shared its basic platform and some of its mechanical components with the Carina. Demand from American motorists convinced Toyota to develop the Celica and boldly drop it into the same segment as the Ford Mustang.
The Celica XX (1978)
In April of 1978, Toyota unveiled a longer, wider and more powerful version of the Celica named XX in Japan. It received a 2.0-liter straight-six engine that required a longer front end to accommodate the two additional cylinders, and it offered a more luxurious interior. The firm’s vision of a grand tourer had come true. Its main rival, the Datsun 280ZX, arrived on the Japanese market before the end of 1978.
The Supra arrives in America (1979)
Toyota began selling the Celica XX in America in January of 1979, about six years after the country got its first taste of Dos Equis 'XX' Mexican beer. The brand’s North American division re-named the car Celica Supra to avoid being associated - or confused - with the beer.
The Mark I by the numbers (1979)
The Supra’s Cressida-derived 2.6-liter straight-six engine made just 110hp and 136lb ft of torque. It sent the 2800lb coupe from 0-60mph in 10.2sec. Still in lust? If you could travel back to 1979, Toyota would charge you $9578 (about $32,500 or £24,000 today) for a base model Supra.
On pace car duty (1979)
Enthusiasts wouldn’t revere the Supra as one of Toyota’s greatest sports car if the original model hadn’t spawned several successors. The first-generation car’s greatest achievement in racing was, by Toyota’s own admission, performing pace car duties in the 1979 US Grand Prix. The pace cars couldn’t post sluggish acceleration figures so Toyota supercharged the straight-six to double its horsepower output.
The second-generation Supra (1981)
The successor to the original Supra made its debut in 1981. It was again part of the Celica family and it again adopted the Celica XX nameplate in its home country. From a design standpoint, the coupe took a massive leap forward that brought it in line with the prevalent styling trends of the 1980s.
In America, the second-generation Supra launched with a 2.8-liter straight-six engine rated at 145hp. Rear-wheel drive and a five-speed manual transmission came standard. Toyota offered a four-speed automatic gearbox at an extra cost on some models.
Supra fever reaches Europe (1982)
Toyota began selling the Supra in Europe in August of 1982. In France, it was a little bit more expensive than the base version of its Porsche 924 rival. Toyota supplied its British dealer network with only 100 cars per month, making the Supra a rare and head-turning sight on UK roads.
The Supra, emancipated (1986)
Toyota separated the Celica and the Supra for the nameplate’s third generation. The Celica shifted to a front-wheel drive layout for cost reasons while the Supra retained its rear-wheel drive architecture.
Called A70 internally, the third-generation Supra was heavier than its predecessor. The added weight came with additional features like ABS and electronically-controlled suspension named Toyota Electronically Modulated Suspension (TEMS).
Losing its lid (1986)
The third-generation Supra inaugurated a feature many buyers clamored for when the original model made its debut: a way to remove the top. Though not a full convertible, it could be ordered with a removable targa top. The option remained available on the fourth-generation model and it became the standard configuration on American-spec Turbo models starting in 1996.
Toyota surfs the turbo wave… (1987)
In terms of weight, the third-generation Supra swelled to unprecedented proportions. Instead of making the car lighter, which would have been a costly and time-consuming process, Toyota decided to again surf the forced induction wave that swept across the entire automotive industry in the 1980s. It had already obtained good results turbocharging the second-generation model for the Japanese market.
230hp from a turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six engine lowered the Supra’s 0-60mph time to a very respectable 6.4sec.
…and dives deeper into the turbo segment (1988)
Engineers pushed the turbocharged six-cylinder’s output to 270hp for the Turbo A, a model built to homologate the car in race series like the Japanese Touring Car Championship (JTCC), European touring car series and even the World Rally Championship’s Group A category. Toyota points out the limited-edition Supra 3.0GT Turbo A was the fastest Japanese production car at the time, with 0-60mph acceleration in 5sec dead, off to a top speed of 167mph.
The beginning of the 1JZ (1991)
Power increased again when, in select markets, the Supra received Toyota’s now-famous JZ engine. In this application, the turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six sent 276hp to the coupe’s rear wheels. The US-spec third-generation model retained the old six-cylinder until the end of its production run, however.
Japan’s Corvette? (1992)
Make no mistake: even in America, a big coupe market in the 1990s, the Supra was hardly a volume model. That’s what the Celica was for. Sales totaled 3571, 1174 and nearly 2700 in 1991, 1992 and 1993, respectively. At $39,900, or $70,150 (£51,500) today, the 1992 Supra Turbo was the most expensive member of the Toyota line-up by a long way. It cost nearly six times more than the Tercel, the cheapest Toyota at the time, and its price tag placed it well into Chevrolet Corvette territory.
The Supra’s final evolution (1993)
Toyota spent four years making the fourth-generation Supra better in every way than its predecessors. It was more powerful than the outgoing model, it was lighter and it was correspondingly faster. The weight-saving measures included using hollow carpet fibers and fitting a hollow rear spoiler.
The Mark IV by the numbers (1993)
Tipping the scale at 3210lb (1459kg), the base Supra used a 3.0-liter straight-six engine rated at 220hp and 240lb ft of torque. The range-topping Turbo model cranked the power dial up to 320hp and 315lb ft, which it channeled to the rear wheels through Toyota’s first-ever six-speed manual transmission. Faster than a Porsche 911 Carrera, the Supra Turbo posted a 0-60mph time of 4.6sec.
24 Hours of Le Mans debut (1995)
The Supra competed in a dizzying array of motorsport events over its long production run. It participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time in 1995. That year, the starting grid featured cars like the Nissan Skyline GT-R, the Ferrari F40, the obscure Venturi 600LM and the redoubtable McLaren F1 GTR, which won the event. The factory-backed Supra finished 14th overall.
Luck wasn’t on the Supra’s side in 1996, either. It dropped out of the race after 205 laps.
The Supra heads to the big screen (2001)
The Supra’s unwavering popularity on the tuner scene earned it a prominent role in the original Fast & Furious movie released in 2001. Heavily modified inside and out, the orange car used in the film inspired many enthusiasts to build lookalikes. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste but it contributed to the nameplate’s mystique. The car that starred in the movie sold for $185,000 (about £123,000 at the time) in 2015.
Supra production ends (2002)
Toyota stopped selling the Supra in the UK in late 1996 and the US about two years later. The Japanese market couldn’t sustain the Supra on its own for much longer. Toyota ended production in July 2002. It cited slow sales and the prohibitively expensive cost of making the coupe compliant with then-upcoming emissions regulations.
Supra production totaled 593,337 units across four generations and 24 years.
The Supra lives again (2018)
Toyota will finally launch the Supra’s long-awaited heir in 2019. It developed the model with input from BMW. Largely inspired by the 2014 FT-1 concept (pictured), the born-again Supra will slot above the 86 as an alternative to performance coupes like the Ford Mustang GT and the BMW 4 Series. Technical details remain unconfirmed but the line-up could include a powerful hybrid model. We expect to see it in showrooms in May 2019.
The German connection (2018)
The up-and-coming Supra will share numerous parts with the next-generation BMW Z4 but the two models won’t look anything alike. Previewed last year by the Concept Z4 (pictured), the Z4 will arrive as a convertible with a model-specific design. Each brand will inject its version of the car with its own DNA to ensure they offer enthusiasts a different driving experience.
New Supra (2018)
So we come to the new model - and this is a heavily camouflaged prototype car, which we drove in Setpember 2018. How did we get on? Our Matt Prior concluded, "A few years ago, a Cayman was regarded as unbeatable. Now everybody wants a crack at it. On this showing, Toyota is getting as close as anyone." So things are looking good for the new car.
What does Autocar know about it?
1. It will definitely wear the Supra badge
2. It will be built alongside the next-generation BMW Z4 at Magna Steyr’s factory in Austria
3. It will feature BMW switchgear
4. It will feature a four-wheel-drive hybrid system
5. The Supra will come only as a coupé - if you want a convertible, you'll have to buy the BMW.
6. We expect to see it unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January 2019, with deliveries starting later in the year.