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 |   |  1981 Toyota Starlet (KP61) - The Angry Duckling
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1981 Toyota Starlet (KP61) - The Angry Duckling

What do you get when you drop an 8,500-rpm, 20-valve 4A-GE into a Toyota Starlet?

B.K. Nakadashi
Dec 24, 2018
Photographer: Dax Rodriguez

Remember that girl in high school? Maybe you shared classes or a shy smile in homeroom. A little nerdy, a little quiet, never showy. Maybe you only caught a glimpse of her in the halls. Maybe she blended in with the scenery and you never took notice. But one day, years later, a chance meeting means your paths cross, and suddenly you see her in a new light. Did she change? Or has she always been the same—and you just grew up and stopped judging solely on appearances? And then (if she's suitably amused by your pathetic advances) you get to know her and like her for who she is. Or perhaps she recalls your indifference, remembers you among those who snubbed her young and yearning heart, and hates you for it. She's not an ugly duckling, just a damn angry one (and ladies don't get offended; you've known dudes that fit this profile!)

1981 toyota starlet t3 rear wing Photo 2/29   |   1981 Toyota Starlet T3 Rear Wing

Take this Toyota Starlet. It was not born hot. No Starlet was. Its claim to fame was a 50-plus-mpg fuel economy rating in the 55-mph era—not much for an enthusiast to hang his hat on. Calling a Starlet plain Jane was an insult to ladies named Jane. But time and circumstances have changed this particular Starlet from a frumpy econobox into a full-on nut-twister whose perfect stance and retina-frying paint still doesn't quite transmit its potential. Not a single bodyline has been altered, but its look most certainly has. It's got spunk, and a go-get-'em attitude. You should weep for having missed out on its charms and potential.

Around his hometown of Phoenix, Steve Salazar is "the Toyota Whisperer." He owns no fewer than 10 vehicles...all of them Toyotas: a Scion FR-S; an '85 MR2 that looks like it drove out of the pages of Super Street circa 1999; a slammed '77 Hilux; a pair of Tundras, including a daily driven '02 Ironman edition with a TRD supercharger; an '85 AE86 coupe; a '17 Corolla iM; and an in-process '66 Stout atop a '92 pickup frame running a Tundra 2UZ V-8. Oh, and a pair of Starlets—including the angry duckling seen here, which was a decade in the making.

1981 toyota starlet 4age black top Photo 6/29   |   1981 Toyota Starlet 4Age Black Top

Unlike the point-and-shoot rotary-powered Starlets he'd spotted at import drags, Salazar envisioned a more holistic approach for his KP61. "You're probably aware of the street fighter motorcycle concept—basically you take everything off that you can, and the result is more minimalistic than a cafe racer," Salazar explains. "That's what I intended with this Starlet. It's light, it's powerful, it's obnoxious, and it overloads all of your senses. I wanted it to be the epitome of old rear-drive race cars but able to be driven on the street." Power, handling, braking, and maximum reprehensibility, all in one package.

The engine is a "Black Top" 4A-GE, the final iteration of Toyota's legendary Four. Launched in 1995 in a variety of JDM Corolla and Sprinter models, it was a technical marvel for its day: five valves per cylinder, variable valve timing on the intake cam, four individual 45mm throttle bodies, lighter connecting rods, 11:1 compression, and more. Stock, it's rated around 160 hp, but freed of emissions equipment, power steering, and air-conditioning, and treated to a TRD header, it's fair to guesstimate 180 hp, with factory reliability. And the 4AG bolts right up to a standard five-speed T50 transmission (and a complete AE86 limited-slip rear, disc brakes, and all). Easy.

1981 toyota starlet recaro seats Photo 10/29   |   1981 Toyota Starlet Recaro Seats

Look past the Elevens'-applied '02 Lexus IS 300 yellow paint and the old-school Panasports. Check the JDM bumpers, taillights, and fender mirrors. Scope the sportier-than-stock, overseas-only Starlet S grille, with the factory red stripe. Shaved badging, U.S.-spec license plate lights, side markers, and fuel door clean up the surfaces subtly. Don't forget a fuel cell now lives in the hatch. The T3 wing, above the rear window, holds echoes of the '82 Toyota Supra. Finding parts was a challenge—and only one of many reasons this build took a solid decade to complete. Salazar credits making friends on KP61-related forums and web pages.

Despite some serious dieting, Salazar's Starlet still clocks in at the 3/4-ton mark. A/C and heat are gone. So is most of the interior, replaced by a Future Fab custom four-point cage and a pair of Recaro chairs covered in black leather. Fifteen-inch wheels sound tiny but fill the Backspin-flared wheel openings. Everything is operated manually. And, assuming 180 hp, it's roughly 8.4 pounds per horsepower, in a car with a wheelbase more than a foot shorter than a Corolla. And not a twitch of torque-steer in sight. Although..."I took it on the freeway. With grippy tires, and with that manual rack, no power assist, just a little pull, I was three lanes over."

The Angry Duckling, that smokin' little spinner, strikes again. You best hold on.

What's a Starlet?

1981 toyota starlet backspin starlet fender flares Photo 14/29   |   1981 Toyota Starlet Backspin Starlet Fender Flares

From 1981 to 1984, the Starlet was the fuel economy leader for Toyota here in the States—with as much as 57 mpg in 1983, with a fuel-injected 1.3L four-cylinder and a five-speed driving the rear wheels. It's sized roughly in line with an early Corolla; the footprint is within a couple of inches in any direction. Though it was available as a five-door hatch and a wagon elsewhere, America only got the Starlet three-door hatchback.

You'd think something with Toyota's legendary robust character, getting 50-plus mpg in the early '80s, in the wake of the second OPEC fuel crisis, would have been a best seller for Toyota. It wasn't. Remember that front-wheel drive was still new to Toyota then; the first Tercel was barely a year old when the Starlet rolled into the States. It's easy, in retrospect, to see the Starlet as Toyota hedging its bets just in case the Tercel fell on its face. It didn't, and the Starlet was quietly shown the door after the '84 model year.

1981 toyota starlet 4A GE blacktop swap Photo 18/29   |   1981 Toyota Starlet 4A GE Blacktop Swap

Although the Starlet had a long and storied life elsewhere in the years before and after the KP61-generation car came to America, Toyota retired its name here after a single generation. The contemporary media reviews all sounded more or less the same: The Starlet was good value for $5,000, particularly with the five-speed, but the rear-wheel drive compromised interior space behind the driver, the 1.3L was absurdly slow, and despite responsive steering from the rack-and-pinion setup, the tires were too skinny to make any use of it. It could also have used some sound deadening. Yawn.

If leftover Starlets are hard to find in stock form today, it's because the ones that didn't dissolve into oxide and merge with the earth have already had a renaissance of sorts. In the '90s, thanks to their rear-wheel-drive chassis and 1,500-pound curb weight, it was popular to drop a high-winding Mazda rotary engine under the hood and run 10s (or quicker) down the dragstrip. Plenty were converted for dragstrip use and ultimately used up.

1981 toyota starlet rear bumper Photo 25/29   |   1981 Toyota Starlet Rear Bumper
1981 toyota starlet panasport wheels Photo 29/29   |   1981 Toyota Starlet Panasport Wheels
By B.K. Nakadashi
33 Articles
1981 Toyota Starlet (KP61) - The Angry Duckling
Tuning Menu
Owner: Stephen Salazar
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ
Occupation: Police Officer
Engine: 4A-GE Black Top 1.6L 20-valve inline-four engine swap from AE111 Corolla; TRD header
Drivetrain: Five-speed T50 transmission with factory AE86 shifter; TRD clutch; '92 Toyota Hilux power brake booster and clutch pedal; AE86 rear axle with limited-slip differential; 2.5-inch exhaust; Magnaflow muffler
Engine Management: OEM MAP sensor
Footwork & Chassis: Megan front coilovers; GAZ rear coilovers
Brakes: AE86 front and rear disc conversion
Wheels & Tires: 15x7 Panasport wheels; 195/45R15 Toyo Proxes tires; Tire Bomb letter kit
Exterior: Backspin Starlet fender flares; T3 rear wing; JDM bumpers; Lexus Solar Yellow paint yellow; bodywork by Elevens'
Interior: Personal Emerson Fittipaldi steering wheel; Recaro seats upholstered by Bell Upholstery; FutureFab four-point rllcage; T3 door cards; Summit Racing fuel cell
Thanks: Mom and Dad, Heldy, Inti, Gerald, Dan, Donovan, Frank, Alex, AZ Toyota Guys, Elevens' paint, Tirebomb, Futurefab

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