Wednesday’s Flashback : TOYOTA’S First Le Mans

Mikhail Gorbachev is just a few weeks into life as premier of the Soviet Union, anti-war anthem 19 by Paul Hardcastle is number one in the chart, Back to the Future is about to hit cinemas for the first time – and TOYOTA is making its first entry into the Le Mans 24 Hours. Welcome to 1985…

The first sight of the TOYOTA name at La Sarthe actually came in 1975, when a 2.3litre, four-cylinder turbo TOYOTA engine powered an entry by Sigma Automotive Co. Ltd. That first foray into the Le Mans legend ended early with an oil pump problem after 37 laps.

La Sarthe saw its first full TOYOTA car in action in 1980, when a TOYOTA Celica LB Turbo, originally developed to race in the German DRM series, was entered by TOM’S boss Nobuhide Tachi. But, even though the car was a race winner in Europe in the late 1970s, it failed to qualify.

So 1985 marked the first time an official TOYOTA car lined up on the grid to take on the world’s best. By this time TOYOTA already had two years experience of Group C racing in the All-Japan Endurance Championship with TOYOTA Team TOM’S and Le Mans was the natural next step.

Two TOYOTA 85Cs were entered by different teams – Team TOM’S entering the #36 with Dome Motorsport in charge of the #38. However the two teams worked closely together, with Dome designing the 85C and TOM’S building it.
Fitted with a small 2.1-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine, TOYOTA knew it had only a very slim chance to beat the dominant Porsches and Lancias, but that was not the aim: just finishing Le Mans at the first attempt would be a great achievement.

In qualifying, the #38 car driven by Briton Geoff Lees was the lead TOYOTA in 22nd after a best lap of 3min 43.77s. A certain Satoru Nakajima – father of current TOYOTA Racing driver Kazuki – was behind the wheel of the #36 car and qualified 29th in 3m 48.67s.

For the race, Lees was partnered by Sweden’s Eje Elgh and Japanese racing legend Toshio Suzuki. But things went awry early in the race when the 85C’s gearbox bearings needed replacement, costing an hour in the pits. More troubles followed and at 2.44am on Sunday a clutch problem ended the #38 car’s challenge, having completed 141 laps.

It was a different story for the all-Japanese sister car, with Nakajima, Masanori Sekiya and Kaoru Hoshino enjoying a near-trouble-free race to 12th overall after 330 laps – the first time a Japanese car had finished at La Sarthe.

TOYOTA had a taste for Le Mans and a passion for endurance. This story would continue…