Operation GraySteel: Introducing our MR2 project car

A rambling essay about speed, beauty, and imagination.

Those that know me personally probably remember that before the BRZ, I previously owned a pair of MR2s —  a 2000 MR2 Spyder and a 1992 MR2 Turbo.  I sold both of these cars a while ago, but I still remain friends with several members of the MR2 community that I met during my ownership.  So I never really left the MR2 community and I somewhat regretted selling the MR2s.  They represent to me, a time when Toyota was making some great sports cars like the Mk4 Supra, the Celica Alltrac GT4, and of course the MR2.  And then it came to an end.  For a while now, I think many enthusiasts have felt like Toyota had lost its way … when the car you think of first when someone says Toyota is ‘Prius’, you have a problem.  Don’t get me wrong, the Prius is a great vehicle but it’s not exactly exciting to drive and for an enthusiast like me, it felt like Toyota had lost ground to other Japanese makes who continued to make and sell sporty cars like Nissan, Honda/Acura, and Mazda.  Don’t give up hope on Toyota just yet though — the latest CEO, Akio Toyoda, has shown enthusiasts that he is serious about bringing passion back to the Toyota brand, with the recent return of Toyota sports cars in the form of the 86 and the Supra.  And there have even been rumors and speculation that they might be bringing back the idea of a mid-engine sports car for a future release…

Mid-engine, rear wheel drive, 2-seater.  These are the characteristics of many exotic supercars and hypercars.  These are the kinds of things a young man might dream about. I’d fantasize about driving a sleek, powerful, curvy machine along the coast, soaking up the rays of the sun, or maybe streaking through a windy mountain road at speeds that might make an insurance adjuster pale.  Maybe just pulling into the local burger or boba joint behind the wheel of a shiny and low-to-the-ground coupe, and feeling everyone’s eyes on you as you roll through the parking lot.  But then reality set in:  I don’t have the money for a Porsche or a Ferrari.  Even if I did have the cash to buy one, the maintenance costs of owning one would surely drive you into insolvency.  What to do?  This, my friends, is where the MR2 comes in.

Imagine the sexy lines of a Ferrari like the F355, the handling prowess of a Lotus Esprit … and the reliability of a Toyota Camry.  Oh baby, where have you been all my life.  The MR2 has frequently been referred to as the “Mister Two”.  But when my wife sees the MR2 in my garage, she knows what she sees and she calls it as she sees it:  this is The Mistress.  I think she knows me better than I know myself.

I’m sure you can figure out what happened, but let’s spell it out.  I’ve always known I would own an MR2 again.  I missed the ones I had, and the opportunity came to nab this one, and it was too good to pass up.  Low-mileage, original paint (in an alluring Steel Mist Gray that changes appearance in different lighting), a straight body and minimal modifications.  Despite being 28 years old, this 1991 MR2 Turbo has only 59,000 miles!  And nearly everything in it is original — it’s got a premium stereo head unit that includes a CD player and cassette deck.  The engine bay is still clean, the interior is pretty near immaculate, and it starts right up with a twist of the old fashioned metal key.



It’s not totally perfect.  I am sorry to say, the previous owner made some questionable choices with the few modifications that were done to the car.  The shift knob was a flimsy and cheap-feeling plastic knob that had no weight to it at all and made shifting the 5-speed manual transmission a challenge.  The original leather shift boot was torn to shreds.  But those are fairly easy to replace.  An apparently no-name GReddy-style muffler/exhaust system with giant dual grapefruit cannon tips was installed somewhere along the way.  It actually sounds pretty good though.

The SW20 MR2 comes standard with cloth seats that seem to invariably get badly worn out very quickly and so it’s a common thing to have to replace the seats or get them reupholstered.  The seller went all out and got these BRAUM seats that appear to have cost a pretty penny, but unfortunately he went for a flashy style that features double-red-stitching in a quilted-diamond-pattern perhaps best reserved for highly extroverted designs like a Pagani Huayra or a Bugatti Chiron.  It’s a little too much for a humble Toyota in my humble opinion.  And the seats sit so high that I almost brush my head against the T-tops shade … and I’m only 5’8″.  I’m trying hard to like these seats, but I might have to find better fitting ones.

And perhaps the most egregious offense on this car… the wheels.  The car sits on monstrously large XXR 526 wheels, in an 18×9 fitment.  FRONT AND BACK.  For those of you who are not that familiar with MR cars, it’s typical to have staggered width wheels and the MR2 was no exception.  The 1991 MR2 came with 14×6 wheels in front, 14×7 in the back.  The 1993+ models came with slightly larger 15″ wheels.  But this guy, he just bought a full set of 18x9s and threw them on all 4 corners of the car.  They look ridiculously huge on a car this size.  And the fitment on the front is just horribly, horribly wrong.  An 18×9 sits too close to the OEM suspension and no correspondingly reasonable size tire would fit there.  So what did he do?  He threw on some 5mm spacers on already low offset wheels (+32mm) and stretched some cheap brand 215-35R18 tires across the 9″ wide rim.  The front wheels poke out about 1.5″ beyond the fenders.  It looks really bad, man, I don’t know what he was thinking.  I don’t even think these stretched tires are safe to drive on long-term.  I was worried that they were going to blow out on the drive back home.  So yeah, these wheels and tires have got to go.  ASAP.

One last comical note — the seller left a mix CD of Latino dance music in the CD player.  It actually felt pretty period correct for a 1991 car, so I happily blasted these techno-dance tunes on my cruise back up the I-5 to bring this car home.

Well, that’s about it for now.  I’m super excited to be owning one of my dream cars once again, and there’s going to be a bunch of little changes I want to make to this car.  But one of the first priorities is going to have to be taking care of some maintenance, you’ve got to keep in mind that this is a 28-year old car at this point and even if it has sat mostly unused for a good portion of its life, it’s going to need some attention and TLC to get back into prime condition.  I’m going to have to dial back my urges to do a bunch of aesthetic mods and performance mods, and use that saved money for important tune-up and preventative maintenance, with the 60K milestone coming up very soon.  Check back later for more updates!

One last thing… I’ve started a new Instagram account for the MR2 to keep things separate from the 86drive account, please give us a follow at @mr2_drive !



Posted in Feature Story, MR2, Photos, Project Car