In any genre of the automotive tuner segment, people come and go. Harsh as that may sound, it’s a reality of our scene. In today’s, how shall we say, “less than ideal” economic climate, we’ve seen a significant drop off in the popularity of modifying cars. Some folks just don’t have the gusto to stick it out through hard times, whereas others were never really that into it in the first place. But for those of us who have been here and are still in to it, there’s a sense of camaraderie that remains among true enthusiasts, and there are very few groups of enthusiasts who are more die-hard than classic Toyota car guys.
As a youngster, Noriel Dela Cruz was introduced to Toyotas and other classic Japanese cars at an early age. Growing up in the Philippines where it’s very easy to import JDM cars, Noriel spent his early teen years surrounded by all of his family members’ cars.
“I remember back in the day when my dad had a 1980 Mitsubishi Lancer L-type,” Noriel tells us. “My eldest brother, Nick Jr., would race it on the streets with me on the back seat after school — I felt the adrenaline even at a young age!” I think a lot of us can relate to a similar sentiment. At Modified, we don’t condone street racing, but we’re realistic; it would be silly to deny that street racing plays a big role in getting many people into cars. Noriel tells us that in his native Philippines, street racing isn’t a crime that is enforced as strictly as in many other parts of the world. We can’t say that’s a good idea in our minds, but this fact has certainly shaped the car scene in that particular region.
“When I first got my driver’s license and it was finally my turn to drive, I would always borrow one of my brothers’ ’80 KP61 Toyota Starlet with a 18RG motor and twin side Webber 45’s carbs, or the other favorite: the TE71 Corolla with 16-valve 4AGE redtop,” Noriel says. “I knew instantly that when the time came that I could afford to build on myself, I would be going the Classic Toyota route, unlike most other kids my age who would have gone with something like a Honda Civic.” We can respect that. No one can argue with the choice to be different and stand out from the crowd. However, finding your dream car becomes a reality sooner for some than others. For Noriel, it took a few more years until the Starlet on these pages became his.
“Even though I had all the heart in the world for old school Toyotas, it took me a good five years before I was able to get the connections I needed to build one properly here in the United States,” Noriel recalls. “When I first got [to the U.S.] back in 2003, all I wanted to do was work and didn’t have time for a hobby or any sort of fun. Before having my Starlet, I had to settle for a few other cars: a ’91 Nissan Sentra, ’86 Toyota Celica, ’03 Toyota Corolla S and my unfinished ’89 BMW 325i project.
“It was shortly after I met my fraternity brother, Benjie Fernandez (who owns an orange AE71 Corolla), that I got psyched and back into the idea of getting a Starlet like I’d always wanted. I finally found a suitable donor car in February 2008, but at first I didn’t know what to do with the car — build it for show or for track, or both,” Noriel says.
What he ended up doing was a little bit from column A and a little from column B. Noriel’s Starlet isn’t what we would call a “track car” necessarily, as it retains many of the creature comforts of a street car. With eye-catching Porsche 911 GT3 RS green paint, the Starlet is certainly a sight to be seen. Noriel has stayed true to the JDM roots by sticking with mostly OEM optional parts for his exterior. A pair of JDM “skinny” bumpers provide a subtle touch along the front and rear of the car, pieces that would most likely go unnoticed by anyone but a real enthusiast. The fender-mounted mirrors and TRD rear wing add more subtle sweetness to the Starlet’s shape, while the über-rare TRD fender flares carve a perfect shape around the even more rare (practically unattainably rare, in fact) 13x8-inch TRD Tosco Classic wheels. Noriel claims there are only a handful of sets of these wheels floating around in the States, especially in this sizing. He also shares his woes about how difficult it is to find 13-inch tires these days. (Hint-hint, tire companies!)
The authentic TRD bucket seats and Autopower rollbar are signs that this is more than a trailer queen show car; Noriel isn’t afraid to take the car out and thrash on it a little bit. He’s quick to point out that all of his parts are authentic JDM parts and that he has been approached several times (by an individual who shall remain nameless) with a proposition to use his parts as moulds for making fake parts. Noriel met these propositions with an enthusiastic, “hell no!” and we couldn’t be happier to hear it!
Under the hood, this Starlet is incredibly clean. It’s so clean you could quite literally eat off it, not that you’d want to get the custom Techno Toy Tuning gold velocity stack intake trumpets tarnished, but I think you get my point. Noriel took a moment to remind us that with classic cars, almost nothing is “easy” or “off the shelf.”
“One thing I’ve learned though building an old school Japanese car is that there are no shortcuts. You can’t put a timetable on your build at the beginning as to when it will be finished. All you can do is be inside the old school scene knee deep and hope another old schooler will get tired of the game and sell a part or two that you need,” Noriel says with a smile.
With a little bit of extra power coming in the form of a lightly built 4AGE swap, we have no doubt this car is fun to sling around the back roads. It also looks good enough to turn heads of even the most elitist of enthusiasts, which is no easy task. Noriel doesn’t plan to sell the Starlet anytime soon, not after all the blood, sweat and tears he has put into this car.
“Being a certified nursing assistant, it certainly wasn’t easy or cheap building an old school Toyota!” Noriel says with a laugh. “There were times that I just wanted to give up and get a Honda or something, but building this car taught me important things about not only how to build cars but how to handle life as well — don’t take short cuts, have patience and always keep your dedication to what matters.”
Those are words to live by, and we’re glad to see people still caring so much about their cars even in the slower and less ideal automotive scene of today. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for this immaculate green Toyota around the Southern California classic car show circuit. If you ever have the pleasure of seeing this car in person, you’ll know right away why we like it so much.
Specs & Details
'81 Toyota Starlet
Engine Toyota 4AGE 20-valve 1.6-liter inline-4
Engine Modifications Carbon-fiber valve covers; custom header & exhaust; Walbro fuel pump; Volkswagen Scirroco radiator; Techno Toy Tuning velocity stacks & splash guard; Edis trigger wheel; water pump & alternator pullies; wideband O2 sensor; relocated clutch master cylinder; stainless water overflow tank; battery relocation kit
Engine Management Megasquirt 2 ECU
Drivetrain T50 AE86 Corolla GTS transmission; custom driveshaft
Suspension Techno Toy Tuning KP61 coilovers & Eibach springs (f); Cusco camber plates; TRD springs & KYB short shocks (r)
Interior authentic TRD bucket seats; Takata harness; Autopower 4-point rollbar; Momo deep-dish steering wheel; custom carpeting & headliner by Ernie’s upholstery; Bride 5" tachometer; Pinas’ 3rd brake lights; reupholstered dash; reconditioned weather strips
Exterior TRD fender flares & rear wing; JDM skinny bumpers (f/r); fender mirrors; KP61 Starlet S grille; Hella H4 headlights; Porsche 911 GT3 green paint by MGM Autobody in Compton, CA
Thanks To My friends who helped me with this build: D. Feldman, Matt of Race-ready, Nick V., my IERC brothers, Ray of Racetoys, Jojo, JMP Auto (Marvin, Mon & Jeric), Ken of GT Faction, Gabe of Techno Toy Tuning; the guys at Modified; my family back home; & most importantly to my wife Jenn & my two little angels, Liam and Nia, for the inspiration & support they gave me throughout the build