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1986 Toyota Corolla GT - S - Family Business

The Story Of A 3SGE-Swapped Rolling Chalkboard For Life

Luke Munnell
Oct 26, 2009

The silence was deafening. It was around midnight, after three hours of conversation, when Bernard Nicolas hit his only snag in discussing the Hachi Roku laid out before you. He'd managed to describe seemingly every detail of his past project cars (which include a '94 JZA80 Supra, '93 FD3S RX-7 and '94 SW20 MR2, among others), personal history, the technical aspects of this particular Hachi's build-every question I threw at him was not only answered, but descried in detail, illustrated and elaborated. There was literally nothing about this car the guy hadn't considered at least a hundred times over during its three-year build, or about the seven others he's owned before it. Until now.

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"So, after owning and modifying at least one of nearly every tuners' dream cars," I ask, "what is it about the Hachi that keeps you coming back?"

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Bernard grew up in the Philippines, at a time when merely owning a car signified a level of status and personal achievement. "When you got a car back then," he says, "it pretty much stayed with you for life, so you learned to take care of it and respect it." Bernard was just a baby when his dad first scored an '81 Corolla of his own, and can just barely remember accompanying him to the drag races in Greenhills, Quezon City, after pops caught the modifying bug. "All the cars at the strip were Toyotas-Filipinos love Toyotas!" he laughs, "They're easy to work on and last forever. It wasn't uncommon to see people racing their 200K-mile daily drivers at the track every weekend." He continues, changing tone from enthusiastic to serious, "But basically, they were what we could afford, and we took pride in making them the best we could."

Bernard's dad taught him the basics of car care and modifying at a young age-out of necessity, and as a way to learn independence and patience. As Bernard explains, "It taught me that there's a solution for every problem, as long as you're patient enough and willing to figure it out." His stories of building cars back home are impressive-culminating in one involving ditching the OEM engine management and fuel injection on a friend's '91 Corolla in favor of dual carbs and a TEC-II, back in '95-the year before he moved to the States.

"When I came to the San Francisco area in the mid '90s," he laughs, "I was broke. So I bought a Corolla GT-S just to drive every day, because I'd learned how to keep it in good shape and make it reliable." But then one day, as he was tooling away on the car in his driveway, a curious neighbor dropped by for some conversation. And this was the point where our conversation took on a whole new tone. "He mentioned that he had a GT-S, and began telling me about the differences in the Japanese cars, and how people were building them for road-racing, or sliding them around in the canyons for fun, and that they were kind of a big deal . . . " he eventually stops for a breath, "And it all just kind of took off from there."

The following years saw Bernard settle into a career and grow more successful. He bought, built and sold many cars, and as that gave way to owning a house in SoCal, Bernard again found himself broke and in need of reliable transportation. "I was actually borrowing a friend's car one day, to go look at a car to buy as a daily," he explains, "when I saw this stock Hachi parked under a tree, like it was waiting for someone." He continues, "Just for kicks, I left a note on it, asking if it was for sale. When I got a call back, I knew it was waiting for me." It became Bernard's new daily transportation, and later, when something more modern could be bought to take its place, his next project car. "I could finally afford to take my time and do it right. So that's what I decided to do."

Interiors of older cars are becoming increasingly difficult to find in acceptable condition. That's why, apart from the Sparco seating, Nardi wheel and light Pioneer electronics, Bernard elected to keep his Hachi's interior fully intact. His take on exterior styling was a different matter. In Japan, the AE86 Corolla was offered in both coupe and liftback variants, with fixed-type headlights denoting the Corolla Levin, and flip-ups, the Sprinter Trueno. Bernard knew he wanted to swap his car's front end with JDM Levin styling, so the front and rear bumpers, grille and headlights were all replaced with JDM AE86 Levin pieces. A TRD rear wing, zenki Levin front spoiler, and "hella rare"-as Bernard would say-Crystal Body Yokohama (CBY) fender flares were all added, before the car was taken to P.J. Bonifacio's shop in La Puente, CA, for its fresh coats of MK IV Supra Anthracite paint. "I was bored with 4AG engines at that point, and didn't know what I wanted to do with my car," Bernard recalls, "But when I saw P.J.'s personal 3SGTE-powered Levin, I was inspired." A few calls to Danstoy in Sante Fe Springs, CA, and Bernard had a plan. "P.J.'s turbo car was fast and all," he explains, "but I wanted to keep mine naturally aspirated for a more 'traditional' feel."

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Bernard's 3S-powered Hachi would be only the fourth such powered car in existence at the time its conversion was to be completed-P.J.'s was the first, and both would be handled by Danstoy from start to finish. Bernard's 3SGE was sourced from the mid-mounted engine bay of a second-generation MR2. "The only front engine/rear-wheel-drive (FR) adaptation of the 3S from the factory was the BEAMS 3S, which is hard to come by in the States," Bernard informs. "The first-generation MR2 engine block's cast-in mounting provisions don't really work for FR mounting, and the third-generation engine's cylinder head actually flows less than the second's. So, the second-generation engine was really our best option." A lot of fabrication would be needed for what Bernard had in mind, and Danstoy preferred to do as much with OEM components as possible. The engine's stock mounts and alternator bracket had to be modified to provide clearance for the engine and sit it upright in the Corolla bay, and a 1S oil pickup and pan were brought into replace the now-useless 3S components (the MR2 3S sits at an angle in its bay, so its oil pickup and pan would be at the wrong angle for engines arranged perpendicular to the ground in FR bays). The individual throttle bodies and a fuel rail from a black-top 20-valve 4AG engine were used, but also had to be modified in several key places. "It was all a lot of work," explains Bernard, "but it saved us money in the long run, and brings OEM reliability." One of the only one-off pieces of hardware in the entire engine bay is coincidentally one of the most-eye-catching: a Danstoy high-rise, equal-length, stainless steel header that connects with an HKS Hiper exhaust. A tucked engine harness was created in house, and a venerable Electromotive TEC-II was brought in to manage the whole deal, because, in Bernard's words, "It just works".

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Since the original transmission wouldn't be up to the task of managing the torque of the modified 3S, a W55 five-speed gearbox from a 22R-powered Toyota Pickup was brought in, and mated to the bellhousing of an Australian-market Pickup, originally equipped with the 1S engine. "The 7M-powered MK III Supra's transmission was another option," explains Bernard, "but its gears were just too long for the naturally aspirated four-cylinder." Likewise, a larger Celica Supra rear differential was considered, but with a 3.9:1 final drive ratio, Bernard and co. preferred to keep the kouki AE86's 4.3:1 diff, and upgrade it with a TRD 1.5-way LSD. The Corolla's suspension was also upgraded; given QA1 coilovers at all four corners, Tanabe sway bars front and rear, and Cusco bracing throughout.

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And those wheels. Some old-school JDM purists will undoubtedly agree, even more so than its engine, its wheels are what define this car. We've all seen some that look similar, but not quite the same as these. These are real RS Watanabes, sized a ridiculous 14x9.5, -19 offset up front, and 14x10.5, -32 offset in the rear. "The wheels alone were $800 apiece," enlightens Bernard, "and that was the cost for them in rough shape, not including shipping." Why all the trouble? "These wheels are expensive now, because they're hard to find, but back when I was younger, that's what people put on these cars. To me, the car just doesn't look right without them."

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Fast forward to real-time, and my question for Bernard-and the looming, uncomfortable silence-still stand.

"So . . . ?" I begin to ask.

"I really don't know," he replies, his words formed cautiously and measured, "It's like this: say you have a Hachi, a modified 350Z and a restored 240Z all sitting together. Most people will be drawn to the Hachi. It's an old car that never gets old, and just . . . always manages to stay interesting." Second try: "To build one right takes a lot of patience and dedication, and even when you're done, all you have is a car that still isn't the best at anything. But people respect a well-built Corolla." And finally, one last offering that seems to sum it all up: "I don't know man," he confesses, cracking a grin and sitting back in his chair in confident surrender, "It just . . . makes me proud to own one."

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Behind The Build

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'86 Toyota Corolla GT-S

Output N/A

Engine Second-generation Toyota MR2 3SGE engine; Danstoy custom-ported cylinder head, modified 20-valve 4AG individual throttle bodies and components, modified engine mounts, custom alternator bracket, modified starter motor housing, wiring harness, custom high-rise header; Ferrera valves, springs, retainers; HKS Hyper exhaust; Koyo radiator; MSD plug wires; RC Engineering fuel injectors; Electromotive TEC-II engine management, tuned by Danstoy

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Drivetrain Fourth-generation Toyota Pickup W55 transmission; ACT Stage 2 clutch; Fidanza flywheel; TRD limited-slip differential

Suspension QA1 coilovers; KYB AGX shocks (front); QA1 32-level adjustable shocks (rear); Tanabe sway bars (front and rear); Cusco tri-point upper front strut bar, six-point cage

Wheels/Tires RS Watanabe wheels (14x9.5 -19 offset front, 14x10.5 -32 offset rear); 195/60-14 Falken Ziex tires (front); 205/55-14 Toyo Proxes tires (rear)

Brakes Hawk pads

Exterior JBlood side skirts; TRD wing; CBY fender flares; AE86 Levin front bumper, rear bumper, hood; zenki Levin front spoiler; MK IV Supra Anthracite paint

Interior Sparco Torino front seats; Sabelt harnesses; Nardi steering wheel

Electronics Pioneer head unit, speakers

Gratitude Roy, Cathy, Kaylin, Grace Lou, Elena, Rona, Abi Jerez, Andrew, Jason, Jay, Elena Beth, Pat, Karlo, Ding, Evelyn, Sarah Lee, Victoria, Jed, Allan, Marvin Edward, Don, P.J. Bonifacio for the awesome paint job, Danstoy for the build, Team High Intenzity, QuickWorks Photo's Patrick Lauder for the shots, Joshua Works, Carlos Perales, Gary in Sacramento, and Vigan;,,,,

Name. Bernard Nicolas

Age. 33

Hometown. Bellflower, CA

Occupation. Telecommunications

Build Time. Three Years


Hobbies. Turtle cycle maintenance, G.I. Joe collecting, Ewok Village

Favorite Quote. "Tootcha"

By Luke Munnell
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