This 1981 Toyota Starlet is now a street terror

By Jeff Koch         

(July 1, 2024) It is the fate of many mild-mannered, low-powered, light, rear-drive cars to attract the attention of the hop-up crowd. Cars designed for the economy market have their raison d’être stripped away. Thin, low-rolling-resistance tires are swapped for fat meats, and the original wheezy, efficient engine is yanked out to make room for (at the very least) a gently breathed-on mill in order to take advantage of the light chassis’ diminutive mass.

How soon were people bolting big V-8s into Mopar A-bodies or lightweight Ford Falcons? Hell, the factories started doing it themselves in 1964.

Such has been the case with the Toyota Starlet. If you don’t remember the Starlet, you’re not alone. Launched in Japan in 1978 as a direct descendent of the Japan-market Publica, the KP61 Starlet arrived in the U.S. for 1981 as Toyota’s fuel-economy leader (boasting up to 57 mpg in 1983). It had a fuel-injected 1.3-liter inline-four and a five-speed manual gearbox driving the rear wheels.

Following two fuel crises in the '70s, while Toyota was going gangbusters with Corollas and the new front-wheel-drive Tercel, you’d think the Starlet would have been like manna from heaven: Prius-like fuel mileage with none of the expensive high-tech stuff.  With Toyota slowly converting its line to front-wheel-drive, and heavily hyping the interior-space and sloppy-weather-traction benefits therein, a small car with rear-wheel drive seemed out of step with the company's image. Tepid press reviews helped little. As a U.S. import, the Starlet lasted only through the 1984 model year.

Many found their way onto the drag-racing circuit in the 1990s. The car's sub-1500-pound curb weight and rear-wheel drive made it popular with the Mazda Rotary crowd. It didn’t take much to achieve a screaming 10-second run in a 13B-powered Starlet. There are those who have a vision for Starlet performance beyond the usual modifications. Steve Salazar of Phoenix is one of those people.

He embraced the car’s inherent minimalism but then stuffed it with tried-and-true Toyota components from bigger and, dare we say, more robustly powered models to achieve a reliably quick all-around point-and-shoot machine that, despite its eye-searing yellow paint, no one sees coming.

The engine is a  4A-GE that, in basic form, was found in the back of the first-generation MR2 as well as under the hood of the vaunted AE86 rear-wheel-drive Corollas of the mid-'80s. But development of the twin-cam inline-four continued in Japan long after rear-drive Corollas were dusty memories. The 4A-GE in Salazar's Starlet is one of these later mills, a 20-valve Black Top example featuring five valves per cylinder, variable valve timing on the intake cam, four 45-mm throttle bodies, a 11.0:1 compression ratio, and more.

It was factory-rated for 160 horsepower at 7800 rpm. The bulk of the engine is stock, although removing the air conditioning, power steering, and emissions equipment eased its burden, as did swapping the factory manifold for an exhaust header. That translates to maybe 180 horsepower at the flywheel? For a car that weighs 1500 pounds.

It’s still that light because anything resembling a creature comfort has disappeared. Along with the aforementioned deletions, the heater and radio are also gone. The interior, painted to match the body, is as minimalist as can be. Two black leather Recaro seats sit in front of a Future Fab four-point roll cage and a welded-in bar tying the rear shock towers together. Door cards by Techno Toy Tuning (T3) replaced Toyota’s original vinyl side bits. The gauges remain stock; the factory 85-mph speedometer and 6,000-rpm tach are hilariously out of touch in context.

Toyota’s long-lived T50 five-speed stick backs up the 4A-GE. Surprisingly, the Starlet can accommodate the solid rear axle purloined from an AE86 Corolla—limited-slip diff, rear brakes, and all. Installing the Corolla’s front struts and brakes (which have far more aftermarket applications than anything from the Starlet) required minimal fuss.

The body is more Toyota than you might think. It's wrapped up in yellow paint that’s a dead ringer for a hue from the original Lexus IS300 (known as the Toyota Altezza at home). Smaller JDM bumpers, shaved badging and side markers, a red-framed Japan-only Starlet S grille, and license-plate lights moved from the rear panel to the bumper clean up the exterior.

Additions include the deep air dam, the T3-made wing above the rear window, and the custom Backspin Starlet wheel flares. The black rocker stripe, which looks almost like ’73 Porsche Carrera decor, is derived from a script used on a previous-generation Starlet that never came stateside. Steve confesses to juggling between period wheel-and-tire combinations. For our shoot, the car wore a set of 13-inch Enkei Mosport rims on 175/50 Yokohama rubber, although he has wheel-and-tire sets up to 15 inches in diameter, depending on the look and mood he’s going for.

Is it the fate of all mild-mannered, low-powered, light, rear-drive cars to attract the attention of the hop-up crowd? If they’re built like Steve Salazar’s stunning Starlet, then we’re not opposed.