It’s not usually something I do, the traffic light Grand Prix. I may have been partial to it 10 years ago, but now I realise it’s a bit sad. However, whilst sitting behind a badly driven BMW 3-series, I had the urge to pass him so I could make some progress. At the next set of traffic lights, I pulled into the right hand lane, ready to shoot off as the lights turned green.
As I came along side the BMW (an un-badged model, so probably a 316) I glanced across at the driver, expecting to see someone nervously hunched over the steering wheel. Instead, what I saw was a guy in shirt sleeves with his tie at a crooked angle, just finishing a mobile phone conversation. This perfectly explained the slowness of our journey and I was determined to get past him, but judging by the look on his face, he was determined to make this as hard as possible.
I had purchased the car I was driving a month or so before this, having traded in an MR2 Turbo for something with four seats. I still wanted speed and style, plus I loved the engine in the MR2, so it seemed logical to investigate the Celica GT4. After seeing a few examples, including a black ST202 (fantastic, but way out of my price range) and a dodgy UK wide body ST185, I finally did a deal on a 1990, Japanese import Celica GT4 in white, with sump guards and TRD suspension.
I had long been a fan of the ST185, with its curvy body seemingly melted over the chassis and then molded into shape by hand, plus that 220bhp engine was mated to a 4WD system and I had never owned an all wheel drive car before. The TRD suspension fitted to my car gave a much firmer ride, but needed careful setting up before it stopped eating tyres. Inside, things were less than inspirational, with functional being the kindest word I can use to describe it.
Up until the point I was sitting next to the BMW, I had only really driven some twisty B-roads and some fast A-roads, as I was getting used to feel of the car before really ‘enjoying’ it. For a while, the 4 wheel drive gave a slightly un-nerving sensation, but this disappeared once the suspension had been correctly adjusted and I had got more used to the feeling. But here I was with my honour at stake, next to a man who wasn’t going to give up easily.
As the light flicked to green, BMW man accelerated away with a chirp from his rear tyres. I planted the throttle and dumped the clutch. The GT4 squatted down and the chassis momentarily complained as the full force of the engine was sent through it, but with no perceptible wheel spin the car was off and I was into second gear as I sailed past the BMW. As I selected third gear and the turbo rush continued, I glanced at the speedometer and then my rear view mirror. BMW man had long ago given up and was far behind, and the speedo needle was climbing into forbidden territory, so I selected the next gear and slowed to the speed limit.
Yes, it was all very childish and probably a little bit dangerous, but that was the moment I really ‘connected’ with the car. I was astonished with the brutal acceleration that the combination of a turbo and all-wheel-drive could produce, a very different experience to the MR2, even though the cars share the same engine and power. My personal levels of mechanical sympathy and desire to not lose my license kept me from doing this type of start that often, but there were plenty of other ways to enjoy the car.
I used the Celica as an everyday car, including using it on my daily 20 mile work journey. I had a choice of an A-road, B-road or ‘almost unclassified’ road route, which were great benchmarks as to what sort of journey a car felt best with. The MR2 used to prefer the A-road option, while my future purchase of a Mazda MX-5 came into its own on the B and unclassified roads. The Celica was somewhere in between.
On the A-roads, it was fast and smooth, the accelerative capabilities making short work of overtaking opportunities, but to be honest, it never really felt anything other than a rapid car. There was nowhere for it to show its character, making the journey effortless and speedy. Certainly not a bad thing and this proved helpful on long motorway journeys too. It was on the B-roads that the GT4 could let its character out and have fun.
One particular stretch of road was newly surfaced and very smooth. It stretched for a couple of miles and linked to main roads, but was really only used by locals, so invariably it was quiet. Small kinks led to downhill straights before tight off-camber turns sent you back up the hill where you were met by a corner that always reminded me of the corkscrew at Laguna Seca raceway. The surrounding trees gave a stronger impression of speed, but could allow water to stand after a rainy night. It was all second and third gear stuff if you were pushing on and was a great way to start a day!
This was the road that the Celica loved. The cars low end acceleration pulled it out of the tight corners and the excellent handling gave such a high level of confidence that the small turns could be negotiated without a lift of the throttle. The brakes were strong and the feedback informative. I never pushed the car as hard as I thought it could go, because my ability as a driver would have run out long before the GT4’s!
For the year that I owned it, the Celica never let me down, but it did require regular servicing and ate two sets of tyres (not including the dead set when I got it) during this time. Combine this with copious amounts of petrol and it was an expensive playmate, but one I will never regret owning. I wonder if BMW man saw the light and went out and bought one?