Thanks to the proliferation of online ideas and a global economy to pull parts from, it’s never been easier for those who pursue project car perfection to shape and form their wildest dreams.
But with so many choices and options at arm’s reach, it makes me wonder why so many ‘built’ cars are doing little more than playing ‘follow the leader.’
If our parents were telling the truth and we are indeed all ‘unique and beautiful snowflakes’, why are there so few new ideas when it comes to expressing ourselves?
While there were dozens of polished, stand-out machines on display at Speedhunters Live in Melbourne earlier this year, none extended their middle finger to flip off the status quo quite like Karl’s unconventionally cool KE Corolla wagon.
I’d struggle to describe it as a traditionally handsome vehicle as age hasn’t been all that kind to the 38-year-old chassis or design. I doubt its price tag would have those Instagram car-spotter types frothing at the mouth, either. But really, none of that matters; not to Karl, anyway.
This charismatic wagon exudes charisma and a genuine no f**ks given attitude. Clearly, e-fame, social likes, or the approval of international strangers were a low priority for the project. Instead, the Corolla has been moulded around function, authenticity, fun, and recreating the essence of an early JDM drift scene played through worn-out VHS tapes.The Reliable Runabout
“I’ve had more cars than I can count. I’ve always been into motorsport. Even when I was young, my late father and I were always in the garage together. He always stressed the importance of the daily driver. ‘You gotta have a back-up car,’ he’d tell me. ‘You can’t make any serious progress with a project that you’re building for race/show etc., and expect to drive it to work on Monday.’ So no matter what car I was racing or drifting, I always had something cheap and reliable to get me from A to B.”
And that’s how this love affair began way back in 2012 during a break from drifting and a step back from the car scene in general.
“I wanted to build something old, slow and cool to cruise around in – and I wanted to do it as cheaply as possible.”
Shortly after, a plan was made when a mate stumbled across a serendipitous car ad. The very next day Karl found himself handing over some of the cash from a recently parted-out Nissan Silvia S13 to a grandma in the suburbs for a completely stock, low roof, flat-front KE70 wagon.
The way it sits now is essentially the byproduct of building something with no plan other than keeping it fun.
The first iteration was fairly simple – a big-port 4A-GE, coilovers up front and reset leaf springs in the rear, decent wheels, a chin spoiler, and some bullet SSS fender mirrors. It wasn’t particularly fast, but it sounded good and handled adequately.
Essentially, the project was finished.
The Corolla was running well and looking the part; by most metrics, this was a completed project. That was until things took a sudden turn.
At some random time after completion, and for no particular reason at all, Karl’s desire to drift was rekindled. The Corolla was quickly earmarked to be repurposed as a slide mule.
Using the wagon was, in Karl’s words, “a dumb move.” You see, while the KE70 sedans share 99% of the AE86’s DNA, which makes an excellent base for a drift car, the KE70 wagons and panelvans were designed to be workhorses. This means they have leaf springs in the rear, rather than traditional spring-over-shock, live axles.
They hop and chatter, they sway from side to side. The lack of a Panhard rod to stabilize the chassis made for one sloppy jalopy. But despite all this, one single video clip of Katsuhiro Ueo drifting his flat gray, high-roof panel van on the touge with its 4A-GE singing off the clock was all the motivation needed to make it work.
The first attempt included throwing on a set of ITBs, big N2 Powercraft equal-length headers, HKS cams and gears, and a Haltech for the little 16V unit. It wasn’t great, but it did the job right up until a rod exploded with enough velocity to put a hole through the starter motor.
Rebuilding the 4A-GE strong enough to be useful for drifting was going to be a prohibitively expensive exercise. Fortunately, there was another option for Karl.
An opportunity to revisit a prior project that was left unfinished due to a lack of funds. This was the perfect time to check that off the bucket list and finish fitting a 3S-GE BEAMS engine into a Corolla.
A motor and 6-speed gearbox were sourced from a friend, and after some gentle massaging with a sledgehammer, the combo found its new home in the humble KE70.
Now, this would have been the most opportune time to address the terrible rear suspension situation, but power fixes everything, right? Yes, I am being sarcastic, but this instance it sure helped.
The sad little wagon finally had the power it needed to carry serious speed through corners, and enough torque to force the wallowing leaf springs into cooperation. The KE70 could now be flicked around like its younger, sportier, AE86 brother, and Karl was ecstatic.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. The rear end wheel hop was amplified now that it was capable of putting some real power down, and the T-series axles weren’t holding up – Karl quickly lost count of how many he’d snapped. Annoying, right? Especially with 86 part prices skyrocketing and becoming more difficult to source.
Beefing up the current leaf suspension with either a rally setup, or replacing the spring with something from a larger commercial vehicle were both options taken off the table early on.
“I hated the idea of spending money and effort and still having suspension from a horse and cart.”
Karl laughed as he explained the third option presented by the same mate who sent him the car advertisement.
“Every option requires chopping the floor up, so what’s stopping me from fitting an entire IRS subframe back there? It will dramatically improve the handling, driveshafts take more abuse than axles, and I’ll get an unlimited amount of adjustment. It was a pretty genius idea, honestly.”
So, for the same price as one T-series axle, the boys purchased an entire S13 subframe – hub-to-hub, complete with arms, diff, and brakes.
Even though the idea seemed fairly straightforward in principal, it was definitely outside of the realm of Karl’s capabilities, so the subframe was loaded into the back of the wagon and shipped off to Jake at JDI Fabrications.
“He notched the chassis rails, raised the floor so the subframe could sit within the body, and made custom mounts for QA1, hot rod-style coilovers which are significantly shorter than an S13 unit, and saved us from having to cut up the factory wheel tubs for a custom strut top. The next step is to shorten the driveshafts so I can pull the base of the wheels in a little, and then I can take some camber out, although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like how silly it is.”
As an OG sneaker geek, it’s fitting (pun) to see the wagon shod with a shoe flex guaranteed to a deliver a massive nerd-gasm to other kyusha connoisseurs.
For the uninitiated, we’re looking at a set of three-piece Hayashi Racing Bombers. They’re not reps, they’re not re-releases, and yes, they’re probably worth more than the car – several times over in fact.
“I bought the first pair in 2012, and it took me six whole years of searching to find the second pair. I restored them myself and chucked on some wider lips, so they now sit at 14×8-inch, because 7-inch is as wide as they came from the manufacturer. Once I shorten the driveshafts, I’ll widen the rears again, I think.”
Finally, let’s talk about that colour. After 35 years of random shopping trolley dings, poorly fixed rust repairs, and Karl’s hard driving, the body had seen better days. At one point the Corolla was wearing a retro race livery inspired by Jun Imai’s Datsun 510, but as the vinyl began to peel away, it had no qualms with removing plenty of the paint with it.
It was also time for a change. At last count, there were at least nine other Corollas sporting the exact same livery.
Earlier this year, the worn-looking KE70 was sent to another mate, Ben, for a much-needed massage and refresh.
The shade of the final coat to be sprayed over the fresh bodywork and paint actually began as a joke. After referring to the wagon as his ‘coffee can car’ for years, the colour was matched to the iconic beige hue found on a Suntory Boss Café au Lait can.
Jokes aside, the colour was perfect. Not only is it close enough to resemble a factory hue from this vintage, it’s also a subtle nod to the ‘Looking’ AE86, another source of Karl’s motivation for the build.Final Words From Karl
“It’s really hard to explain what it feels like to drive this thing. It’s like nothing else I’ve experienced before. I was so paranoid that by upgrading the flaws in the suspension, I’d ruin what makes drifting these things so special – but I hadn’t. You still get the that Corolla feeling, but it responds to your inputs differently. It’s still giving you the same analog feeling in the steering wheel; you’re still able to toss it into a corner at the peak of the rev range while your right foot planted against the firewall – but it’s more obliging and obedient. It almost encourages you to be more aggressive because it’s so capable and confident. It’s a fantastic mix of theatre and precision.”
“I honestly don’t know why I’m so hopelessly attached to this car. On paper, it’s nothing more than a $500 shell with a bunch of good parts slapped on it. I think it’s because I genuinely feel like it’s ‘me’ personified. It’s loud. It’s obnoxious. It’s probably trying a little too hard to be different. Some aspects of it are meticulously thought out, and others are carelessly thrown together. It’s equally chaotic as it is arranged. It’s capable of doing a number of things, but certainly not doing any of them perfectly. All the characteristics that I desperately try to hide and suppress, this car wears proudly.”
While Karl’s Corolla wagon may not be competitive enough to be a pro-spec car, and is perhaps not clean enough to be show car, it’s his perfect ride. It’s an extension of his personality. It makes him laugh. It’s an excuse for him to tinker, and then to cruise with his mates.
Most importantly for Karl, it’s fun and it driving it feels a trillion times more rewarding than any amounts of likes, hearts or virtual thumbs-ups.
1981 Toyota Corolla Low-Roof Wagon
Toyota 3S-GE Beams G3 ‘Blacktop’, AE111 4A-GE 20V individual throttle bodies, Tomei header, custom 2.5-inch exhaust, Rocket muffler, Haltech Elite engine management system
Toyota J160 6-speed gearbox, TRD clutch, TRD flywheel, S13 differential with welded 4.3 center
Front: T3 coilovers with retrofitted BILSTEIN shock absorbers, T3 RCAs, T3 adjustable camber tops, AE86 front cradle, AE86 power steering arms, Cusco adjustable castor rods, TRD adjustable sway bar, Ultra Racing strut brace, Mazda FC3S FX-7 rotors & calipers, Rear: Nissan S13 subframe IRS conversion, custom Viking coilovers, GK Tech adjustable upper & lower control arms, GK Tech adjustable camber arms, Nissan S13 rotors & callipers
Hayashi Racing Bomber 3-piece 14×8-inch +-0 offset wheels (custom barrels)
Flared guards, Toyota AE70 quad headlights & grill, Toyota AE70 chrome front bumper and end caps, Madhouse chin spoiler, rear bumper delete, wing mirror delete, gutter strip delete, antenna delete, custom Suntory Boss Caféau Lait can-inspired paint colour
Rear weld-in half cage with harness bar fabricated by JVN Garage, floor raised to accommodate rear subframe, bed cut out to accommodate fuel cell, vintage TRD driver bucket seat, vintage TOM’S harness, Bride Brix passenger seat, JDM acrylic dished steering wheel, Omori gauges, TRD Duracon shift knob, hydraulic handbrake