Something that’s always interested me is the nomenclature behind the models that each car maker comes up with. Some of them make total sense, while others completely fail to represent the ethos of the car.
Take the Ford Aerostar for example; its name brings to mind images of a sleek aerodynamic sports car, but despite being “shaped by the wind” and posing with a Space Shuttle, the vehicle actually simultaneously resembles both an obese fish and a loaf of bread. It probably handles about like either of the latter, too.
The Toyota Starlet, on the other hand, seems to represent the tiny-but-mighty car perfectly.
The proper definition for the word is simply an actress aspiring to be a star, though I think to think of it a different way. A star is obviously one of the most powerful and breathtaking objects in our universe, and ‘-let’ in our case seems to just mean petite. Either way, the Starlet has big shoes to fill.
After a closer look at one a while back following the Old School Reunion outside Seattle, I’d say the car easily lived up to its name.A Long Lineage of Starlet Enthusiasts
I’ve got a thing for ‘80s aesthetic and tiny Japanese cars already, so when I spotted a particularly interesting Starlet a while back I slid right into the DMs of the owner, Mark Rivera, to get the details.
Going back to the very beginning, Mark says he came to the US from the Philippines when he was 12. He has loads of fond memories of his dad and uncle wrenching on ‘70s and ‘80s Toyotas in the beautiful archipelago they once called home.
His two heroes were especially into Starlets, but Mark didn’t initially have any interest in these older Japanese cars. When he was old enough to get a license he had a short stint with Hondas and then eventually grew to love more modern American muscle cars. They’re a far cry from what he was driving the day we met up, though you’ll find this wide-body Toyota has become a bit more muscular over the years.
During a particularly nostalgic season, Mark started to have an itch to wrench on something old and Japanese, so he took to Craigslist in search of a Datsun 510 for his next money-pit purchase. He met up with a guy who had a collection of Datsuns but – surprise – he wanted way too much for them.
Right when Mark was about to leave he noticed a little silhouette under a car cover on the side of the Craiglist seller’s house. When he found out it was a yellow rendition of one of the tiny Toyotas he remembered from back in the Philippines, his car plans started shifting. He asked to take it for a drive and it started right up.
His dad had a second-gen Starlet when Mark was a kid, and he remembered his father admiring the fuel-injected kouki third-gen car, which apparently are pretty rare in the States. After a short drive he fell in love with it despite its entirely rusty body. Mark made an offer, but again the Craigslist guy – surprise – wanted too much.
Mark left feeling conflicted, but five minutes later he felt his phone buzz in his pocket. It was the stingy seller; he had a change of heart and was willing to part with the Starlet for a fair price. A quick text, and a covered-up and almost missed, rusty Starlet changed the course of the following months of Mark’s life.It’s All About The Process
This car was essentially Mark’s first full restoration and there were no two ways about it: this Starlet was going to need a lot of work. The rust issue was the first problem that needed tackling, but luckily Mark’s uncle is an expert welder — and obviously a Starlet enthusiast — so he was happy to help. It took them at least a month of constant work to get rid of the car’s cancer.
Next up was paint, which Mark had also never done before. His first attempt was a little rough, but his second go at it resulted in quite a nice finish. To attain it, Mark transformed his home garage into a paint booth and sprayed his Starlet in a Scion tC gunmetal gray with rainbow flake to spice it up.
The personal touches didn’t stop there though. Since the Starlet wasn’t original anyway, some extreme choices were made in terms of the bodywork and Mark fitted the car with custom fiberglass fender flares, a duckbill wing, and a rear window louver.
Mark wanted to fully comb through the car, so he completely modified the interior as well. He added old school Recaro XL seats with fishnet headrests to make sure he was comfortable in the clown-car-sized ride. The Sabelt harnesses are paired with a 4-point roll bar, which is just as well, because you’d be hard-pressed to take a tumble in a small Starlet and come out unharmed. Patterned door cards and a molded carpet round off the cabin.
Mark had never really rebuilt an engine either, but that didn’t stop him from trying (and succeeding). He ended up ditching the factory power-plant and swapped in a 1.6-liter 4A-GE, the legendary inline four that Yamaha designed and Toyota manufactured in numbers.
Replacement and aftermarket parts are plentiful for these popular engines, so before Mark dropped the engine in he tore it down for a full rebuild. A higher compression ratio cranks up the power a bit, and I love that, despite his dad’s admiration of the factory fuel injection setup, Mark opted for dual Weber carburetors.
Other parts used throughout the car include adjustable front coilovers, polyurethane bushings, T3 camber plates, and adjustable KYB shocks in the rear. StopTech slotted front rotors have also been added behind those glorious OG 13-inch Enkei Apache four-spoke wheels.The Future Looks Bright (Red)
Although Mark’s car is modified from top to bottom, we all know there never really is a finish line. He plans to repaint the car in Renaissance Red, which is a shade the 2020 Supra wears. It’ll be a perfectly eye-catching pigment for an already bold Starlet, and Mark can leverage off and hone in his skills he picked up through the first go-around.
Of course, for Mark, the car has a lot of meaning. The special vehicles in our lives often need a mix of nostalgia, performance, and style to really matter. Though, if you haven’t found your forever car like Mark, don’t worry. It could be covered up just down the street, or parked with a for sale sign at your favorite restaurant one day.
The keepers often come in unexpected ways.
Photos by Trevor Yale Ryan