Gather around for a slide show of holiday pictures. This is like when a family member assaults you with photo albums, iPads and 100 pictures of the same thing. Except this time it’s cars, and maybe you’ll enjoy it. Think less photos of cocktails by the beach and more small Toyotas at a racetrack. Join Ben Chandler and I on an adventure from England to Ireland for 86 Fest 2021 at Mondello Park.
Before we get into this specific trip to 86 Fest, let’s recap on how the hell I ended up falling head over heels for a 1980s Toyota in the first place. Like most car obsessions, it began subconsciously with images of stylish cars being burned into my mind from the internet.
Speedhunters itself has a big part to play in this. It’s where I’d head to look at weird and wonderful cars I’d never seen before, to read phrases I didn’t know the meaning of, and to stare wide-eyed at the screen for hours. It was 2008/2009, my entire existence was crammed into a single room in a crumbling house-share in Coventry, and I was at university. Back then, Speedhunters was one of the only ways of knowing what the hell was happening halfway around the world in Japan.
Above are a few of the cars that rattled around my brain, but by far one of the most important posts on this website about AE86s is this one. It runs down some of the most important old school cars and is a cheat code to bring yourself up to speed with these diminutive Toyotas.
Fast forward some 13 years, and I found myself absolutely shaking the internet upside-down to get hold of an AE86. I don’t know what the rush was, but I ended up in a frenzy, telling myself I needed to try one before they all turn to soil. It felt like it was one of those cars I’d have to try for myself to really understand. I thought to myself, how can I write about ‘car culture’ having never driven, let alone owned an AE86? That’s something I’d need to fix.
You’ll notice that my car doesn’t look like any of the cars pictured so far, and that’s part of the magic with AE86s. You sort of get what you’re given and can’t be too picky. AE86s almost find you, and then you deal with whatever they have to offer.
This particular blue Corolla Levin notchback was owned by a friend of a friend, Simon. He’d not had a great time with the car; it had been a tricky import for him and on arrival from Japan the AE86’s highly-worked 4A-GE had spun a bearing. Not a great start to ownership, I know. Luckily, Simon hadn’t grown too attached to it in this time and was happy to do a deal to see the car shine again.
Simon must have got the memo to wear a fisherman beanie that day, too.
In fact, come to think of it, Ben was there on day one of my AE86 ownership. He was kind enough to help me collect the car and ferry the spare engine parts, steering column and anything else I’d need for the 86 life. It’s kind of fitting then, that Ben would end up riding shotgun to Mondello Park a few months later.
The car itself was in fantastic condition. I’m really rust-phobic and have spent way too much time in my 20s poking around underneath ’80s hatchbacks to want to do any rust repairs now. Luckily for me, the pockets were good.
It had also been repainted in the most authentic back-street-Japan way, something that oddly appealed to me. Simon nor I had a single clue what the colour was either, which was entertaining at first but quickly became a headache later on down the line.
Mechanically, the car had some awesome parts including a Freedom ECU, tubular headers, a really loud 5Zigen exhaust made it go pretty quickly, and someone had really spent some money on the footwork.
For the first few weeks of ownership I drove it everywhere. I was so excited. There were a few snags during that time, but that’s just cars. It’s a way of getting to know them, and you’ve just got to roll with the punches. Besides, with friends like these, nothing is an issue.
With a little bit of tidying up, a fuel pump change and a much larger bucket seat fitted, I was ready for my first track day.
Unfortunately for me, my additional weight really makes a difference in the little Toyota. The aggressive 14×9-inch -19 RS Watanabe wheels made contact with the arches pretty much all through the debut Brands Hatch evening session. I had the time of my life though; the revvy engine and nimble chassis made for a package that really packed a punch.
There was really only one option to remedy the wheel fitment – to flare and stretch the stock arches in order to cover the wheel set. Watanabe wheels in this size are not common to find, and they’re such an iconic AE86 look that I had to find a way to make them work.
Unfortunately, it did mean I had to get the welder out and spend some time under the car to tub the rear arches. These old cars always get you somehow it seems.
Thankfully, my friend Luke Herbert just opened a new business, imaginatively named Luke’s Paintshop. He also ‘gets’ old Japanese styles and has an early two-tone Nissan PS13 himself. Luke was more than up for trying to replicate the ‘bubble’ arch look of those old Japanese street-style AE86s.
I dropped off the car to Luke with very roughly tubbed rear arches, a new front bumper and this grainy image from the internet as a guide, and let him get to work.
Two weeks later and the result was phenomenal. It really pays to find people who share your vision to help you get there. Luke was unhinged enough to take an angle grinder to my E30 and bond on a carbon roof skin, so this was a walk in the park by comparison.
The crazy thing here is, Luke’s only painted the arches and bumper; he’s not blended the panels at all. I didn’t want to lose any of the dents, chips or little bits of wear and tear all over the car. The brief was to paint it, but not make it look like it was painted, a counter-intuitive idea for most paint shops.
This, along with having absolutely no idea what the colour was, made for an entertaining challenge for Luke. Then, all that was left was to fire up the plotter and cut some chrome vinyl to finish the look.Finding The Right Rig
The funny thing about driver’s cars, is they are rarely any fun to drive long distances. I learned that in that respect, the AE86 is a true driver’s car.
Take a stripped out, 30-year-old 1,600cc tin can, and then think about driving it to Ireland, unable to hear your passenger talk for 10 hours. Although, some might say that would be an advantage with Ben in the car, not me of course, I’d never say that.
It would of been an adventure, no doubt about it, but I’ve broken down abroad too many times before and it can get complicated. With the dreaded b-word (Brexit) casting even more doubt about what was required to enter Ireland, breaking down was not something I wanted to add to the list of possible issues.
After looking into the cost of hiring a trailer, the complexity of towing, then the cost of hiring a transporter, somehow I arrived at the solution of buying a cheap transporter from Facebook Marketplace to make the trip. That’s a hell of a scope creep I know, but deep down owning a transporter sounded kind of fun. Also, I need absolutely no excuse to go on the hunt for vehicles.
It didn’t really solve the ‘breaking down’ aspect of things of course; I’d be buying an absolutely unproven vehicle and attempting to do a fair journey in it straight out of the box. Choosing a commercial vehicle to do the trip also made things complicated from a customs standpoint, but at this point Ben and I only had around a week to find a truck and get booked for the trip. In for a penny, in for a pound.
As luck would have it, a very tidy looking truck turned up around three hours from my house. It was cheap, it was a Transit, and the seller was available to show it to me right away. To make things even better, I could drive myself there and put the car on the back for the journey home. It was too good to be true. What could possibly go wrong?Trip Prep
Usually, preparing for a trip would mean physically making sure the car was up for the journey, but this time around it was only part of the fun. In opting for the ‘easy journey’ in a truck, we’d slipped into a bureaucratic black hole of ‘potential temporary import’. It seemed that the easy option also came with a caveat.
In the interests of being good citizens, Ben and I spent about 15 hours on the phone to UK customs, customs in Ireland, and numerous shipping and freight forwarders. Each gave a slightly different answer and, in truth, since Brexit I don’t think anyone really knows the answer. The question was reasonably simple: What paperwork is necessary in order to drive a truck with another car on the back to Ireland? The answers varied from purchasing a £500 carnet (which I also learned is pronounced ‘car-ney’ not ‘car-net’), to producing temporary import documents, to creating a list of items on board to leave at the port and be checked against when returning to the UK. None of these answers seemed particularly concrete. Luckily, I was able to speak with a couple of car transporter operators who had both confirmed that driving the truck over for a show could be done ‘non-commercially’, so we could drive straight on to the ferry with the normal passengers.
This news, along with Footman James’ excellent European breakdown and insurance cover meant that we were all set. Except the LED rear lights on the Transit failed and the wiring was made up of three runs of the same colour wire – not a puzzle I really wanted to solve at 10:00pm the night before leaving for Ireland, but there you go.Journey Across The Irish Sea
Arriving in Holyhead after five hours and 250 miles in the Transit was actually pretty simple. After a few coffee breaks along the way and the Transit on full song, it felt like things were going almost too smoothly. Even UK customs were fantastically friendly, despite some confused questioning surrounding the ‘VIA 666′ number plate on the 86.
It was at this point I got probably the best Instagram DM ever. Nikki at 86 Fest offered me the chance to drive Mondello Park at the event, which was a fantastic surprise. I was excited enough to be going to 86 Fest, let alone driving too. I didn’t have a helmet and the car was absolutely unprepared, but none of that mattered. Obviously I jumped at the chance and scrambled to find a spare helmet at the event.
In the queue for boarding, Ben and I had some time to eat some of the previous night’s pizza and Google a few facts to share with you about Irish Ferries and the vessel we would be boarding
We chose Irish Ferries on the recommendation of resident Irishman Paddy McGrath. It would be my first trip to Ireland, but Paddy regularly crosses the Irish Sea to the UK and then sometimes on to Europe. Paddy recommended Irish Ferries as the quickest and most comfortable way to cross. Good enough for Paddy, more than good enough for me.
Besides, Irish Ferries was founded in 1973, so you’d think they’d have it nailed by now, right?
The boat we were waiting for was named the ‘Dublin Swift’. It’s the fastest ferry on the Irish Sea, cruises at 35 knots (65km/h), and the travel time between Holyhead and Dublin would be just 1 hour, 49 minutes. Barely enough time to settle down.
It’s a huge twin-hulled aluminium catamaran that weighs in at 8,403 tonnes, and is powered by a combined 28,800kW. Four large water jets pump 60 tonnes of sea water a second to propel the craft. These are some top Speedhunting facts.
Dublin Swift was built by Austal Ships in Fremantle, Australia and comes in at over 100m long. Luckily for us, long enough to incorporate a lounge with a bar and snacks.
The final fact I’d like to share is why it is named the Swift. It’s not because of the speed, as I first thought. It’s named after celebrated Irish author and poet Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who is best known for being the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (where he is buried), and for writing the classic tale Gulliver’s Travels.
So now you know.
If you’ve forgotten something useful like a loved one’s birthday after that slew of facts, I am sorry. I enjoyed delivering them to you.
One thing I can say here is, Paddy was absolutely right. The Dublin Swift is the way to travel with a car to Ireland. Simply drive on, get strapped down, relax and wait. Even the sea was particularly kind to us on the way over and was billiard table smooth.Welcome To Ireland
Maybe I was too relaxed from the crossing at this point, but lining up for Irish customs on the exit I responded to the standard question ‘are there any drugs in the vehicle’ with a very non-standard answer of ‘not this time’. It may have overstepped the mark, but the customs officer found it amusing, which was a great sign of the attitude Ireland might have to offer.
Arriving in Dublin was simple, and I need not have worried so much about the red tape concerning entering. That’s the benefit of hindsight I guess. From the port to our first hotel was only around an hour and a half journey; Ben had the foresight to book somewhere very close to Mondello Park so we could unload and relax ahead of the big day.
What he didn’t tell me was the nearest hotel to Mondello Park was a popular wedding venue. You can imagine people’s faces when two scruffy lads turned up in a grey transit with an old Toyota on the back…
With the car unloaded, rather than rest or head to the bar, Ben and I consulted the ‘car life’ guidebook and headed out to cruise around in the ’86 and see what we could find in the local town.
Maybe it was the tiredness or maybe we’re just really psychologically damaged, but we got excited enough about attending 86 Fest the next day that we even hunted out a jet wash to clean the Corolla.86 Fest
Driving from the hotel to 86 Fest on the morning of the show was incredible. It was held on a Friday so commuters and school kids were on their daily travels as we made our way through the town. Every now and then you’d hear someone shout ‘rev it’ and we gladly obliged.
What you’ve got to remember is this event is just for one very specific car – only AE86 generation Toyotas. It’s wildly specific. As an 86 owner you’ll rarely come across another example on the road, but here, on this day, we were literally tripping over them. People were waiting in petrol stations for convoys, lay-bys were packed out with cars, and at one point we were literally in an AE86 traffic jam. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
A familiar face was waiting to greet us at Mondello, and it looked like he was in the final stages of his own 86 Fest prep. Paddy, I don’t think you fooled anyone with that one…
Not too far away was a gentleman holding a helmet; Mikey had answered my distress call and very kindly lent me one of his for the day. I can’t thank him enough for that. He also has a very cool Levin coupe with a Quaife Type 9 dog box in it. I absolutely love the way this thing looks and sounds. It’s not Mikey’s only ’86 either; check out his white three-door here.
Elsewhere in the paddock there was just about every type of AE86 you could possibly imagine. Hundreds of them, from this well-worn 4A-GZE…
…To ferocious V8-swapped competition monsters.
If there’s an AE86 and it’s in Ireland, chances are Paddy has already gone into extreme detail on it. So I will not disrespect these cars by re-describing them badly, but rather make it easy for you to find the story on this site by linking directly to them: 600 Reasons Why A V8-Swapped AE86 Is A Good Thing.
Walking around, it was clear to see there are two camps that people fall into here: Those who love the ‘UK-spec’ Corolla GTs, and those who absolutely love the Japanese style.
One man who is definitely the latter is Paddy Connors, who owns not one but two very historically important cars. You may have seen the Bride car looking very sorry for itself after being hauled out of a bush by a forklift. If you haven’t, click here. Paddy McGrath will be bringing you the full story on the rebuild very soon.
But for now, soak up all the ex-D1 details and indulge in some memories on Ryota Yuasa’s page from the car’s competition days.
The second is the R.Y.O Japan BEAMS-engined demo car.
It’s at this point the track action started to kick off. Luckily, Mondello Park has some great spots to watch (and listen) from.
Track sessions at 86 Fest are split into ‘Grip’ and ‘Drift’ sessions, and there’s a board held up at the end of the pit lane in case you’re easily confused. To perfectly show the dual nature of the AE86 chassis, many cars crossed over from one session to the next going quickly and then also stylishly sideways.
Aside from the track, the infield was also bustling with activity. If you need parts, 86 Fest is the place to collect them.
I had to take a second look at this Levin and make sure it didn’t have the rear quarter removed and hauled away in the back of a tiny pick-up truck.
It’s also a brilliant place to gather inspiration. I have so many images on my phone of little details and touches I’d like to try my hand at. I didn’t catch the owner of this three-door Trueno, but I absolutely loved the Watanabes and the arch work.
We weren’t the only people to have made the journey across the sea to Mondello either, and there were plenty of other UK plates dotted around. This very special Black Limited made the trip over from the Midlands.
I really enjoy the mint condition, special edition cars, but there’s just something special about a Corolla that is showing signs of use.
Everywhere you looked there was something to get excited about. These grills are thermostatically controlled and flip around to provide extra airflow when necessary – a brilliantly unnecessary piece of Toyota art.
There were a few other notable ‘on theme’ cars around the place too. I will never complain about bumping into Starlets, Chasers and Hilux and Hilux Surfs.
It reminds you just how diverse the retro Toyota community is, and how many great cars Toyota has produced.
This gold Trueno coupe was taking our current K20 theme seriously.
For the most part, you’d be forgiven for thinking these images were taken somewhere in Japan. So here’s an image to remind you we are definitely in Ireland. It’s the perfect juxtaposition of Ireland’s car culture.
Of course, I had to take Nikki up on her offer at the chance of driving Mondello Park. So with Josh Greene as co-pilot, I headed out.
There’s nothing quite as nerve-racking as attempting to keep pace with a load of locals on a circuit you’ve never driven before, but throwing yourself in at the deep end is what AE86s are all about. I even found myself swaying aimlessly around in a drift session or two…
I’ll bring you the full rundown of what driving Mondello Park for the first time in an AE86 with hundreds of other 86s in another story.
But let me leave you with this image…
I’ll just say, it’s very easy to get carried away. Kill count: 1x front bumper and 1x gearbox input shaft. But that’s exactly why I brought a transporter to the event, right?Why 86 People Are The Best People
For me, AE86 ownership has opened the door to possibly one the best car communities out there. On the last night of the trip, Kevin Reilly dropped by the hotel with a fresh bumper and bonnet to keep me on my way. He’d spotted the broken bumper in the paddock at Mondello Park and offered to assist.
It wasn’t the kind gesture that struck me though, it was the conversation Ben, Kevin and I enjoyed while wrestling big fibreglass panels onto a truck at 10:00pm in the pouring rain.
Many Corolla owners have been into these cars for a very long time. They’ve loved them at their cheapest and most difficult to source parts for, and are still into them now. They’ve seen people come and go, big flash builds happen, and they’re not really swayed by latest trends. AE86s have outlasted almost all of them and the core style still remains.
There’s a playful stubbornness to AE86 ownership. Corolla people seem to respect attention to detail and enjoy a little bit of pain. Not everything has to make sense on paper if you’re just having a good time.
It’s fair to say that looking after these cars, using them properly and keeping them in one piece are things totally at odds with one another. There seems to be a compassion amongst owners and an unspoken ‘well if you’re daft enough to get involved with these cars, we’re here to help each other along’.
Which brings me on to Ireland and the people we’d had the pleasure of meeting on this short trip. Perhaps we were lucky with the company we kept, but everyone seemed to be incredibly warm and welcoming. Nothing seemed to be too much of an issue for anyone. Ireland is the perfect place to travel to in order to sample a little bit of car culture in a different setting.
If you’re looking for a prompt to book your trip to 86 Fest in 2022, this is it. I’ll be there too. Let’s drive together and see what else falls off.