- The three-door KP61 was the first Starlet to make it to US shores and was motivated by a 1.3-liter four-cylinder that mustered a whopping 58 horsepower through a five-speed transmission.
- Widened fenders dressed in House of Kolors Pavo Purple frame the 14-inch Watanabe wheels for perfect period-correct JDM nostalgia.
Photography by Drew Manley
When the subject of vintage Toyota arises, a few usual suspects will dominate the conversation. The Supra is perhaps most notable as the icon of Toyota performance, followed by the Celica and its American muscle car-emulating roots. Finally, the AE86 Corolla is the ’80s paradigm of the “slow car fast” philosophy. Even outside the sports car realm, the Toyota truck and early 4Runners have their devoted followings, and the JDM-only 1JZ sedans and wagons have begun to make regular appearances at Cars and Coffee and drift events alike. While there are certainly pockets of enthusiasts for every Toyota model, online car auctions have convinced me that there’s a passionate fanbase for every car, no matter how forgettable. There’s also an element of tragedy because dozens of models will seemingly be lost to infrequently visited Wikipedia articles if not for a devoted few.
REMEMBERING THE PAST
Julian Angeles’ passion for the Toyota Starlet started in a familiar place for many enthusiasts. His father owned the car for years before it was passed to Julian, and he couldn’t help but fall for the little econobox. He remembers, “My favorite memory in this car was around 2009. My dad would cruise around Little Tokyo, and I would hear the little burbles and pops as we bumped ‘Regulate’ by Warren G and Nate Dogg.”
The three-door KP61 was the first Starlet to make it to US shores and was motivated by a 1.3-liter four-cylinder that mustered a whopping 58 horsepower through a five-speed transmission. While those specs certainly won’t set the world on fire, all of that power was sent to the rear wheels. For Julian, the basic recipe was there: lightweight, manual, rear-wheel drive. Really, the little Toyota just needed more power.
REVAMPING A CLASSIC
The Starlet had spent its life in the Vegas sun before Julian’s ownership, so honestly, it needed a little help in the aesthetic department as well. Despite those conditions, the body was straight with zero rust — a rare find for Toyotas of this vintage. While the recipe for many vintage Japanese builds is the OEM+ or shakotan route, Julian wanted to push the little hatchback’s visual impact a little further. The Starlet was repainted in a love-it-or-hate-it House of Kolors Pavo Purple. Whichever side someone falls on, one can be sure that it won’t be mistaken for another Starlet build. The body kit is a replica of the TRD N2 kit. With the widened fenders framing the 14-inch Watanabe wheels, the effect is just perfect period-correct JDM nostalgia.
ABOUT THAT NEED FOR MORE POWER
For a small car like the Starlet, every bump in horsepower and torque makes a notable difference. In a world populated by Hellcats and Cobras, power numbers that barely tick three digits can seem downright historic. For Julian, though, doubling the power was a good goal. The Toyota’s original 4K was pulled and replaced with a TRD 4K Upright motor, sourced from the Philippines. For those readers that have experience in importing a JDM engine, forget everything you know about logistics.
Julian recounts, “[Fellow Toyota enthusiast] Joel Tan helped us source the motor, which had been owned by racing legend Pablo Ko. We decided to purchase the motor, break it down, and pack it into multiple luggage bags. The motor boarded the plane and passed through customs like a breeze.” The car hasn’t been on a dyno, but it should be making around 110hp and 100 lb-ft of torque, plenty to move the hatch into fun territory.
TUNING THE SUSPENSION
Even with sufficient power, any vintage car needs some kind of suspension work to feel relevant in the modern age. Luckily, California-based Toyota shop Techno Toy Tuning makes coilover conversion parts for the Starlet to essentially restomod the tiny hatch into a proper driver. With its updated sway bars, braces, and other suspension bits, Julian thinks the Starlet makes a case for itself to stand among its more popular cousins as a rewarding, fun-to-own, slingable classic.
AS THE WORLD TURNS
As Japanese classics continue their stratospheric rise in value, the community needs to remember cars like the Starlet, and it needs owners like Julian to prove what they are capable of. For many, these cars were disposable transportation appliances. With original Starlets capable of 50mpg, these hatchbacks joined the other Japanese compacts as America transitioned between two eras. Interestingly, we’re seeing that same transition happen today in the vintage enthusiast market.
As the Japanese hero cars of the eighties and nineties push ever closer (and sometimes over) the $100k mark, vehicles like the Starlet remind us that there’s still potential in the forgotten or undervalued more pedestrian models. Will those cars need more attention? Absolutely. But that’s the fun of the hobby, and that’s what we were all going to do anyway.
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Julian Angeles' 1981 Toyota Starlet
|Exterior:||House of Kolors Pavo Purple paint, N2 widebody kit|
|Interior:||Braum seats, Braum 5-point harnesses, Final Konnexion steering wheel and shift knob, Techno Toy Tuning door cards, custom Alcantara/leather rear seats, Dynamat Xtreme sound reduction|
|Engine:||TRD 4K Upright Engine, custom headers, twin 40 DCOE Weber carburetors, Redline intake manifold|
|Chassis:||custom roll cage, Techno Toy Tuning front suspension conversion with AE86 strut casings, front strut tower brace, camber plates, roll center adjusters, Wilwood calipers, slotted rotors, stainless steel braided brake lines|
|Wheels/Tires:||RS Watanabe magnesium wheels (14x10-inch front, 14x10.5-inch rear), Hayashi Racing Interspeed tires (245/30R14)|