“When we started working on the FT-86 we had no idea where we would end up,” said Tetsuya Tada, whom I met last Sunday to talk about his work.
The FT-86 that eventually took shape on this blank sheet will be in showrooms down the street from you, all over the world, next year.
The FT-86 ”may just be the car to herald Toyota’s ‘second renaissance,” if some enthusiast blogs are right.
At the very least, this car will change how we think and dream of a sport scar: We won’t. This is not a dream car. For most of us, it will be an impulse buy.
Tetsuya Tada tells its story.
Tetsuya Tada is the Chief Engineer of the FT-86, Toyota’s new sports car that had powered the rumor mills for many years. Some enthusiast blogs enthusiastically painted Tada as the “Jason Bourne of Toyota Sports car development.” If that is the case, then he is the friendliest and most unassuming Jason Bourne I ever heard of. He is the man I’d expect to see carrying two bags when I take out my carefully sorted garbage after midnight in a quiet Japanese neighborhood. As a Toyota Chief Engineer however, Tada carries more responsibility and more power than the Ludlum hero. Scott Bellware once described the role of a Chief Engineer at Toyota like this:
Tada indeed is a rare person. Dressed in khaki pants and a striped shirt, the affable attitude accentuated by rimless glasses, he hides all that power well.
We met last Sunday at Toyota’s Megaweb down by the waterfront. Megaweb is part theme park, part test drive venue. We met there, because an FT-86 prototype is on display. We didn’t go there to drive it. First off, Megaweb is not a test track. It was barely appropriate to give the iQ a slow spin. Second, most of the FT-86 is still a secret. Doors and hatches of the car on display are locked tight. So were the lips of its Chief Engineer.
“You can ask anything except specs and price,” Tada-san announced after we found a quiet space away from the din of the Megaweb.
“In that case, let’s have lunch,” was my answer.
In lieu of talking about cars, we found out that Tada lived where I lived during his time in Germany: In
When Tada stared at a white page, it was 2007. He didn’t know what to think:
The customers wanted more: They wanted a sports car for less. A Veyron makes for good copy and dreams. But it also causes can’t-have-it frustrations. Tada listened intently to his future customers:
Tada and his team set out to design the impossible. A year later, they had the design, the specs, and the price point. Tada presented it to the board of Toyota. The concept was approved. The project had an important advocate on the board: Akio Toyoda. At the time, the CEO was Katsuaki Watanabe. The time was 2008, and all over the world, the skies were falling.
Tada puts it in his trademark humble words when he describes the boardroom discussions:
At the height of carmageddon, Tada received the go-ahead for what we would call an “enthusiast car.” The Japanese have a more befitting description. It’s a “
Asked what changed for the FT-86 when Toyoda took the helm of Toyota, Tada says: ”He became one of our test drivers.”
Asked what it means when you work in the shadow, but also in full view of the President of the world’s largest carmaker, Tada changes the subject. His true boss is the customer, and the customer didn’t want another rice racer:
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As for low to the ground, Tada promises a “production car with the world’s lowest center of gravity.” The FT-86 will be a tinkerer’s car. The car is named “FT-86” for a reason. Toyota wants to make a mental connection to the AE86, the archetypical cult-craze car from the Star Wars era. Nearly 20 years later, the
Tada indeed is a rare person. The Teutonic engineers I grew up with used go into convulsions or threw screaming fits when people modified “their cars” – except maybe using factory-approved and overpriced accessories.
Tada smiles when you ask him whether is hurts his pride as an engineer when the people of SEMA gang-rape “his car.”
A short, but honest answer. Isn’t it painful to spend years designing the perfect car, and to make it so perfect in a sense that some guys in a garage can modify it beyond recognition without even breaking a sweat or lighting a welder?
The Chief Engineer’s sensitivities are touched by the most benign act of modding – the choice of tires:
That owner may not need a lot of money, but he will need to know how to drive. He will need to use his own brain and the seat of his own pants. Tada had jotted down the principle in his self-derived design guide, and he sticks with it:
The FT-86 has about half of the computing power that is dragged around in a modern day car. The preferred shifter is a stick. An automatic is optional. The slushbox is nothing fancy. “No DSG or anything of that kind,” says Tada, and is proud. Sure, the automatic has a computer, but the shift points cannot be changed – at least not at the flip of a switch in the dashboard. Computers want to keep you on the straight and narrow, but some FT-86 owners want that car to go sideways. If you need nannies, go down to the children’s hospital.
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The FT-86 will be built at Fuji Heavy’s Subaru, and when I mention that, the engineer’s pride shifts into low gear – for extra revs. Tada quickly explains that this is just contract production, and it’s the same as “when we make cars at Central Motors or Kanto Auto Works.” Both are separate companies, but they are also part of the greater Toyota empire. Toyota owns a good chunk of Fuji Heavy, so Subaru is part of the family – in a way.
Subaru will produce its own version, probably called the BRZ. Both companies also developed the car together, and that must have been an interesting exercise. Recalls Tada:
In the maniac, well, enthusiast scene, it is pretty much gospel that the cars use Subaru’s flat four “D4-S” boxer engine. Depending on whom you believe, the production engine ranges from a tried & true to a refined & modified D4-S. That elicits protests from Tada, as loud as the softspoken man can manage:
Imagine how much engineer’s pride that one did cost. A completely new engine was developed. At the same time it comes with an invitation to be swapped for whatever follows the Subaru bolt pattern.
After years of concept cars, the production version of the FT-86 will debut at the Tokyo Motor Show, December 2 – December 11, 2011. “Next year” (most likely in spring), the car will be launched. It won’t be available in Japan first and years later elsewhere. It will, says Tada, be available next year “all over the world.” In the U.S., it will definitely by a Scion. In the rest of the world, it will be a Toyota.
Jack Baruth and Sajeev Mehta equipped me with a long list of questions. After Tada’s initial admonition that we can talk about everything except specs and price, I didn’t have much hope for answers, but nonetheless, I tried. The following Q&A ensued:
“Can you tell me the weight?” “No.”
“Can you tell me the horsepower?” “No.”
“Can you tell me the weight distribution?” “No.”
“Can you tell me the price” “No. It will be affordable.”
“Suspension?” “McPherson, double wishbone.” And a smile.
And so it went while Tada was conspicuously consulting his watch, signaling that time, patience, or both are running out. All I could do was to use the old investigative reporter trick, put two versions on the table, and ask which one is close. I used the crowd-sourced specs from the fountain of knowledge.
Tada eye-balls both. And gives his verdict. See above.
Last question time!
“Mr. Tada – is it true that you compared the color of the FT-86 to the ass of a monkey?”
Ooops. The Chief Engineer covers his mouth in feigned shock and explains that he indeed had experienced “some trouble” after magazines had written that he indeed had compared the car’s color to a monkey’s derriere. He quickly adds that he had referred not to just any monkey, but to a genuine Japanese monkey, those amicable animals that visit hot springs in wintertime, with icicles dangling from their furs – parts of Japan’s storied heritage.
And that’s not all, says Tada. The FT-86 red can also be compared to the world famous Japanese sunset (no sunrise is mentioned) and to the dragonfly. In Japan, the dragonfly is a symbol of courage, strength, and happiness – it even symbolizes the whole Japanese archipelago.
So there you have it. The FT-86 is so customizable, so tunable, so hot-roddable that it gives you a choice of associations triggered by its color. Depending on your mood, you can pick sunset, dragonfly, or an entirely appropriate greased monkey. As long as they are Japanese.