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Toyota’s Performance Boss Was Going to Make a New Supra in 1997. Years After It Was Cancelled, He Finally Gets His Chance

Illustration for article titled Toyota’s Performance Boss Was Going to Make a New Supra in 1997. Years After It Was Cancelled, He Finally Gets His Chanceem/em
Photo: Toyota

Tetsuya Tada, you’ll not be surprised to hear, is a regular car nut, just like you and I, and Dave, that guy down the block who owns a Camaro. You’d hardly expect otherwise from the man who created the sweet-hearted GT86 coupe, and who was personally appointed by Akio Toyoda himself to rebirth the Toyota Supra for a new generation.


What I mean, though, is that he’s really a car nut. He’s utterly happy even when tired from a long day’s driving, and trying to enjoy his dinner, to sit and talk endlessly about cars, especially his beloved new Supra, but cars in general. By the end of our chat, my notebook was full, and my hand ached from constantly trying to scribble down what Tada was saying.

Tada’s association with the Supra goes almost all the way back to the 1993 with the fourth-generation car, the A80. That car, developed by famed engineer and Lexus LS godfather Ichiro Suzuki, would go on to become something of a legend (rather like Suzuki himself) and Tada found himself assigned to Suzuki’s ‘Z-Division,’ ready to begin work on the next Supra.


That didn’t work out so well, though.

“Suzuki-san was doing the A80 Supra and invited me to join his team,” Tada told us over dinner, through an interpreter. “I got excited because I knew that meant I’d be working on the next Supra. That was in 1997…”

Tada laughs hard at this once-painful memory. “That was exactly when Toyota began shedding cars like the Supra, cars with small margins. The Supra project was suspended almost as soon as I joined.”

Yes, there was supposed to be another Supra. Take a moment and allow yourself to feel those emotions and work through them. I’ll be here when you’re ready.


Anyway, Tada was given a humble people carrier, the Toyota Raum mini-minivan, to work on.

“I can’t tell you how disappointed and angry I was,” he says. “I went to Suzuki-san to complain. But he said I was getting it wrong. Because the basics of car making are the same, whether for the Raum or the Supra.

Illustration for article titled Toyota’s Performance Boss Was Going to Make a New Supra in 1997. Years After It Was Cancelled, He Finally Gets His Chanceem/em

“He said it’s about thinking through and through about the person who’s going to be owning and driving the car. You have to spend day and night thinking about what they want, nothing else matters. Of course, you have metrics, and targets, and costs to think about, but that’s really all nonsense. The numbers and targets mean nothing. Think about the people who drive this car, the heart, the feeling, what they get from the car. That’s what I’ve tried to do with the Supra.”


Tada has clearly been doing a lot of thinking. It would surely have been tempting for Toyota, having partnered with BMW for the Supra project, and developing the car alongside the new Z4, to simply let the Germans do the dirty work, stick a coupe body and a Toyota badge on the finished product, and finish early on Friday.

That’s avowedly not the Toyota way, and certainly not Tada’s. His work on the car was focused on keeping it as simple as possible. Why? So that as many people as possible could afford it, he said. So that it didn’t become some over-priced exotic. So that the basic car would be tune-able afterwards.


You’d think most senior car engineers would scoff at aftermarket tuners, but not Tada. He knows that while some independent tuners take some of the bread off Toyota’s table, the fact is that the tuning community forms a big part of the Supra’s customers base, and is one of the major reasons why there’s still, in this world of SUVs and hybrids, a clamor for a new Supra.

“One example of this is that we wanted to set a very high rigidity target for the car, but we didn’t want to use carbon fiber,” he says. “Why? Because using carbon makes the car very expensive to buy, and it is also expensive to customize after.”


Instead, he’s built the Supra’s body and chassis from high-tensile steel, aluminum, some carbon-reinforced plastic, and lots of bonding, rather than heavier, less stiff, welding. The result is that the mostly-steel Supra is more torsionally stiff than a carbon Lexus LFA, yet it’s still simple enough to be tuned and tweaked. Tada has even reinforced the rear structure to cope with the downforce from aftermarket wings, and left holes pre-drilled at key points for bodykits and aerodynamic add-ons.

Toyota could build and supply such parts itself, but Tada says: “If we did that, we’d kill the small companies that supply aftermarket parts and components. You have to look at the long term, look at the customers, and why they’re buying the car. Look at the GT86—a lot of the reason that people bought one was because of the fun of adding their own parts, their own customization. At the grassroots level, people are enjoying doing this, and so it’s much better for everyone.”


He added, “I always think back to what I did with my cars before I joined Toyota. I used to enjoy putting on a decal, or some new part. Maybe I wasn’t technically making the car any better, but I was having fun.”

Fun is not a concept that would have been much associated with Toyota in those post-A80-Supra years, but it’s come back in a big way under Akio Toyoda and thanks to the efforts of Tada and others like him. And the reason is not just to make cars that are fun to create, and fun to drive. It’s about fixing that high-performance, motorsport-style mentality into the whole company. Make fun cars, and take them racing, goes the theory, and that snappy decision making, low-waste process will filter through to more workaday models.

Illustration for article titled Toyota’s Performance Boss Was Going to Make a New Supra in 1997. Years After It Was Cancelled, He Finally Gets His Chanceem/em

So what works for a Supra works for a Corolla? Pretty much, yes, says Tada. “That’s the nature of cars. You ask 100 different questions about what people want, and get 100 different answers. What we need to do is to take the 100 ideas and take what’s good about them. But if you try to have everything, you end up with a car that doesn’t know what it is.”


Tada certainly knew what the new Supra was going to be, and you can tell that from the cars he was benchmarking it against. “The Porsche Cayman was the benchmark from the start,” he says. “There’s a difference in the engine layout, of course, but we’re in the same zone. We did think of a midship layout at one point, and BMW was quite keen on the idea too. If you look at it coldly, objectively, a mid-engine is best, but there’s a reason why we focus on front-engine. It’s all ingrained in us how to control a front-engine car.”

As you’d expect of a car nut, Tada becomes ever more effusive when he’s talking about fun cars, and clearly has respect for Porsche’s work on the 718 Cayman (“although I find its engine noise disappointing”). He’s keen too on the new Renault-built Alpine A110, having driven it back-to-back with the Supra just that morning on track: “It was very good. For daily use, I’m not so sure, but on the track it was great.”


We covered a lot more between main course and desert. Plans for racing versions of the Supra—a silhouette version for NASCAR has already been shown, but Tada’s keen on the possibility of GT3, GT4, and Le Mans GTE versions too. A more hardcore, stripped-out, track day version could also be a possibility (“Take 100kg out of the car and it’s a totally different experience,” says Tada) but there’s debate over whether it should be road-legal or not.


Beyond that, Tada’s Gazoo Racing division will continue to spread its focus out from just motorsport to making more road cars, becoming Toyota’s answer to Ford’s RS or even AMG. I casually suggest that he should do a Camry GRMN, and while there’s laughter, Tada doesn’t seem to think it’s too crazy an idea.

Ultimately though, Tada wants to create cars that draw people into the Toyota brand, and in turn make that brand more desirable. It seems to be working.


“When we showed the Supra at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, a little boy came up to me. A British boy, of primary school age, and asked me ‘will you be able to put a 2JZ engine into this one?’ I told him yes, of course you can.”

Who knows if he was serious. But I bet some intrepid tuner out there will try. Isn’t that the point of a Supra?

Illustration for article titled Toyota’s Performance Boss Was Going to Make a New Supra in 1997. Years After It Was Cancelled, He Finally Gets His Chanceem/em

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No disrespect to the man – and I do respect him immensely for several, if not many, reasons – but:

Bull. Shit.

Look, I get it. Engineering cars is expensive. Certifying cars is expensive. Working with a partner can be challenging, especially when you have potentially different philosophies about everything from driving dynamics to technology to warranty metrics.

But riddle me this: When in the process did you decide, either through clinics or surveys or whatever you used, that the people who “drive this car” don’t want a three-pedal manual, even if the take-rate is less than 20%?

This isn’t a Camry, or a Sequoia, or a Sienna. It’s a sports/GT car. So while the theory of development can be the same, the end product is very much not.