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1981 Toyota Corolla | Recycling Refined

Like a tree-hugger’s apartment, Joel Lago’s ’81 Corolla has been freshened up with all sorts of secondhand goods

David Pratte
Apr 22, 2013
Photographer: Nate Hassler
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As the classic Japanese car scene continues to grow in popularity, the demand for old-school wheels and all sorts of other rare or out-of-production OE and aftermarket parts has grown with it. If you've ever taken on a nostalgic project of your own, then you've no doubt run into this classic supply and demand problem, and as result probably ended up paying big bucks for a dinged-up set of vintage racing wheels or a matching pair of Euro-spec or JDM bumpers.

For some this may sound like madness, but for true classic car lovers, it's both a passion and one hell of a fun way to recycle. SoCal native Joel Lago knows all about the parts-hunting challenges associated with building a 30-year-old Japanese project car, having owned three KP61 Starlets before acquiring this '81 Corolla DX from his friend Bong Rumbaoa's brother Jojo. When Joel took ownership of it back in January 2007, this TE72 was a bright-yellow drag car with a 350-whp, turbocharged 2T-G motor. So it was far from the typical faded and rusted junkyard find, but Joel still found plenty of ways to make this Corolla his own while giving it a little extra old-school flare.

After enjoying the boosted 2T-G for a few months, Joel discovered the smoke screen out the tailpipe was a blown turbo. Rather than replacing the turbo and continuing to play with this little 1.6L precursor to the beloved 4A-GE, Joel decided to go in a bit of an unexpected direction by sourcing a second-generation JDM 3S-GE engine and transmission. As Joel explained, "I bought the swap from a friend of mine, Ramon de la Cruz, who had it sitting in his garage. He offered me a great deal on it, plus I really liked that it's not a common swap, so it would make my Corolla different. The powerband is very good on this engine, being a 2.0L. It's more than enough to spin the tires and drift it without too much effort."

The tricky part was retrofitting a 20-year-old 3S-GE into an engine bay 10 years its senior. For this, Joel turned to his friend Chris Celiz, who custom-fabricated engine mounts and brackets as well as a crossmember for the transmission. In the process, Chris also converted the old-fashioned gearbox-style steering rack to a more modern rack-and-pinion setup, at which point Ramon (the one who sold Joel the 3S-GE) fabricated the high-rise header that lets you know there's something special going on when you pop the hood. Add to that a custom intake system using 4A-GE 20V individual throttle-bodies, HKS cam gears, and a custom 21/4-inch exhaust system, all controlled by an Electromotive ECU that Ramon wired up, and you've got 175 naturally aspirated ponies at the rear wheels in a machine that weighs just 1,700 pounds.

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With Joel having tackled the engine swap, the Corolla sat for a while, both because he was too busy to work on it and because he was having trouble finding the parts he wanted for it. The fact that he's also building an '05 Evo VIII with a full C-West body kit on it may have something to do with it, but eventually Joel found the 14-inch RS Watanabe R-Type wheels featured on it now, their -19 offset and 9-inch width necessitating custom flared fenders. The fenders needed paint, and so did the rest of the car, so Joel headed for R. Rabe Paint & Body for this appealing shade of blue. As he explained, "I went with this color because it's very simple and clean looking, plus I just love blue."

And so do the judges at many of the biggest West Coast car shows, given how many trophies Joel's Corolla has collected recently, including First Place in the Old School category at Wekfest and Third Place for Corollas at the Japanese Classic Car Show. Not that it's just about a fresh coat of paint and a badass set of rims, because Joel's Toyota has a lot of other carefully selected secondhand parts on it, including JDM chrome bumpers, front fender mirrors, Cibie headlights, classic Recaro LX seats, and a ridiculously cool vintage Pioneer car stereo with digital player.

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And, of course, having the right stance is a big deal these days, even when setting up something as timeless as this TE72. Not that Joel's Corolla is a cambered-out street sweeper, because he's actually set it up to have a street-friendly ride height while still looking aggressive and delivering real grip for those Sunday morning cruises down SoCal's famous canyon roads. To achieve this type of balance, he's used Technotoy coilover sleeves, KYB short-stroke front strut cartridges, and AGX short-stroke shocks out back, along with 7K front springs and 8K rear springs.

The truth is that nostalgic Japanese cars like this TE72 are built because their owners have a life-long passion for J-tin from this era. In Joel Lago's case, he fell in love with old Toyotas as an 8-year-old kid back in the Philippines, but as an added bonus, his hobby comes with some genuine eco-friendliness. Because no matter what the hybrid/electric carmakers and the Prius-driving tree-huggers of the world would have you believe, nothing has a smaller carbon footprint than an old car that's been rejuvenated with a newer engine and a collection of secondhand parts. The fact that some people (the smartest ones!) also think this timeless Toyota and all its old-school mods is cool enough to warrant a magazine feature is really just an added bonus.

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Specs & Details

'81 Toyota Corolla DX

Engine 2nd-gen JDM 3S-GE 2.0L inline-4

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Engine Modifications custom stainless steel high-rise 4-1 header; custom intake manifold; 20V ITBs (40mm); HKS adjustable cam gears; 2.25'' aluminized exhaust system; stainless steel oval muffler; Griffin aluminum radiator; dual electric fans; relocated oil filter; Earl's oil cooler; stainless steel coolant reservoir; Malpassi FPR; Summit fuel pressure gauge

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Engine Management Electromotive TEC GT

Drivetrain W58 5-speed transmission; 1-piece driveshaft; Aisin clutch; GTS rear differential

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Wheels, Tires & Brakes RS Watanabe R-Type 14x9'' -19 offset wheels; Falken Ziex 912 195/60R14 tires; GTS rear disc brakes and brake pads; SS braided brake lines (f/r); Lockheed remote brake booster; Tilton clutch and brake pedal assembly; Tilton 75 series brake master cylinder

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Suspension Technotoy Tuning front coilovers w/ 7 kg/mm springs and adjustable lateral bar; adjustable camber plates; RCA blocks; KYB short-stroke strut cartridges (f) and AGX short-stroke 8-way adjustable shocks (r); TRD 8 kg/mm rear springs; Energy Suspension urethane bushings

Exterior JDM chrome bumpers (f/r); fender sideview mirrors; CIBIE headlights; custom blue paint and bodywork by R. Rabe Paint & Body

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Interior Recaro LX seats; Schroth 4-point harnesses; MOMO Monte Carlo steering wheel; Auto Meter Phantom gauges; PLX wide-band a/f gauge; Hella battery kill switch; vintage pioneer car stereo with digital player; all black upholstery panels, headliner ,and carpet

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Special Thanks to my wife, Dessie, my mama and papa, mama Nora, and Agnes for their support. Ramon de la Cruz (dadstoy), Chris Celiz, Gabe at Technotoy Tuning, Richard Clewett (ECU tuning), Richard at R. Rabe Paint & Body, Bryan Rodriguez, Renz, Bill, Harold at Grupo Toyota, Herb at Cabe Toyota, Carrie Calkins, and everyone else who helped get my Toyota built. God bless.

By David Pratte
216 Articles



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