Getting nostalgic in Latvala’s rally museum over his legendary Toyota Corolla GT

Getting nostalgic in Latvala’s rally museum over his legendary Toyota Corolla GT

12.1.2021 18:00The favourite Corolla of the young, the Toyota Corolla GT, is a car that has a special place in the hearts of many – including the new Team Principal of Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT, Jari-Matti Latvala, and our rally reporter, Jussi “the Double Zero” Tiippana, who got together to talk, reminisce and take a closer look into the anatomy of that emotion-evoking “speedster”.

Prologue by Jussi “the Double Zero” Tiippana

“A Toyota Corolla GT. I knew years before my first ever competitions, that it was going to be exactly that kind of a car that I would start my driving career with in the youth class of the Finnish rally sprint series. And for that reason, I was keeping a close eye on this class for the under 18-year-olds for a long period of time. In 2001, a tall and lanky youngster from Tuuri, Western Finland, driving a sliver-grey Corolla GT and wearing a Mitsubishi race suit popped up in the youth class. And that guy was unbelievably fast. Experienced men who had been competing for years took a beating from this 16-year-old, losing by several seconds, and I was thinking in my head: Is that the speed one should be driving at? Is that what one should be able do with a car like that, for real?

Fortunately, that young guy with a Corolla grew up to become a rather successful rally driver – so it wasn’t just any Tom, Dick or Harry setting the bar way up high!”

Jari-Matti’s Toyota Corolla 1600 GT (AE86)

It is 22 November 2020 and I am standing in Jari-Matti Latvala’s car museum, with the owner of the place in the process of opening the doors of the Toyota Corolla gleaming next to us. The car is exactly the same with which Latvala kick-started his driving career on the Finnish rally sprint scene back in 2001. It is time to hear the story behind the car from the man himself:

- This Corolla arrived in Finland in 2000, and it was modified from a road car into a rally car by Jukka Karjalainen. The so-called base for the car was a production vehicle imported from Germany, so after all the modifications were done it was practically a new rally car. The asking price was 240,000 Marks, which at the time was pretty steep. However, we had decided to go all-in in this sport, and trying to get good results with a not-so-good car would have been pointless. A Toyota Corolla GT was the best possible car to have in the youth class, as it had a powerful, under 1600cc regulation engine in a light-weight body.

In Finnish rally sprint, you don’t have co-drivers, the stage that is from two to four kilometres long is driven twice, and the fastest time counts. The sport also allows slightly more modification possibilities for the cars compared to the rally classes, and these possibilities were taken advantage of in Jari-Matti’s Toyota Corolla too:

- The car was stripped from all possible excess weight, so the bonnet was fiberglass, the side windows were polycarbonate and both doors had been completely gutted. Weighing equipment was pretty scarce at the time, but I would estimate that the car weighed somewhere around just over 900 kilos. 

High revs & high torque

The king of the Toyota Corolla engine room is the 16-valve four-cylinder engine, type 4A-GE. This high-revving power plant has literally been “music to the ears” of Finnish rally fans for several decades now.

- The engine is one of the best aspects of the GT Corolla, and our engine was built exclusively for competition purposes. The standard pistons and connecting rods had been replaced with high performance ones, and the cylinder head was also fitted with high performance valves and camshafts. Our car has the peak power of 215 hp and torque of 203 Nm with a wide power band.

And the sound of the engine has indeed been providing great experiences for the most experienced driver in the history of the FIA World Rally Championship history too:

- When I was competing with this car, we set the rev limiter to 9300 RPM. There is this huge tachometer on the dashboard, where an orange “shift-light” would flash a couple of hundred revs before the rev limiter is reached, indicating that you should shift to a bigger gear. It’s an amazing feeling when you pull the final revs out of the engine before the light starts flashing. You can actually hear the sound of the engine, even through the helmet, and it is a great sound indeed. The character of the GT engine comes closest to the character of the legendary Ford BDA.

Back to the museum, finer than ever

The Latvala’s sold their Corolla in 2002, but by no means did the car leave the Finnish rally sprint stages behind. Timo Luomanen competed with that very same Toyota Corolla for two seasons, until in 2004, the car returned into the Latvala garage. It was used frequently in corporate events etc., but at the same time, Jari-Matti was constantly on the hunt for necessary parts needed for a full restoration of the car:

- When I started looking for parts for the restoration project, I remembered that the rear corner on the co-driver’s side had never really been properly finished. It had had polycarbonate as a side window for a long time. But then, along came this guy from Lappeenranta, I think he was called Jussi Tiippana, who fixed the whole right rear for me!

[At this point of the interview, we pause the recorder and I pay Jari-Matti the pre-agreed sum for that comment.]  

In the end, Latvala’s Toyota Corolla ended up getting a totally new roof, and a significant portion of the parts in the front end were replaced too, as the restoration project finally came to completion during 2012. The car was painted by Jari Lamminsivu, who is a well-known figure in the Finnish rally sprint community. The finished result can now be admired in Jari-Matti’s rally car museum, which is located in his hometown of Tuuri. The Toyota Corolla has done its service and is now enjoying a well-deserved retirement resting on the marble floor of the museum.

- I was doing corporate events with the car as late as in 2018, and with one group I actually happened to drive the Corolla into a deep drainage ditch. I think there is even a photo of the situation, with people standing on the road and the car sitting so deep in the ditch that only the roof is visible. That was a bit embarrassing, I must admit, Latvala says with a grin.

The guy from Jämsä who wouldn’t give up

The rally sprint career was not just a breeze for Jari-Matti, especially not the second year (2002), when Joonas Lindroos – who later went on to become a household name on the Finnish national rally scene – gave Latvala a good run for his money with his VW Golf Mk 1:

- Oh yes, we had some pretty tough battles with Joonas, pushing each other right to the limit. It must have been in the rally sprint driven in Ruovesi, where Joonas shot off the road in the final bend and I followed right behind him. I didn’t brake hard enough and our cars came really close to crashing into one another. The stewards were not terribly happy about, it and both Joonas and I were called in in front of them.

During that season, the young duo spread terror among the more experienced competitors, and on several occasions these top two youth class drivers could have been found in the top spots of the junior class overall results too.

- This one rally sprint in particular, driven in Ähtäri, has stuck in my mind for good. At the start, there was this hard sideways jump, and it was made even more challenging by the fact that a guy I knew from my hometown had rolled his GT Corolla in that same jump. I went around the stage on my bicycle before the start, thinking about my lines and planning really carefully how I would drive. In the actual race I hit that jump outrageously hard, almost flat out, on the second run. I overshot the landing with the shocks bottoming out.

- But that gave me this really unbelievable feeling, and I drove like a bat out of hell to the finish. After a short wait, I got my time for that second run, and it was good enough for the overall win in both the youth and the junior classes. This is one of the absolute highlights of my Corolla era and I won’t be forgetting it any time soon.

Epilogue by “the Double Zero”

“What a trip down the memory lane. Jari-Matti with his Corolla was kind of a trailblazer, as thanks to him, the Toyota Corolla GT was somewhat of a favourite car of the drivers in the Finnish rally sprint youth class for about half a decade. With his example, Jari-Matti inspired me to take a plunge even deeper into the world of rallying, and it was absolutely fantastic to get to meet both the man and the car in his own rally museum. After the interview itself, we got all the Toyota Corolla GTs in the world built and there was no youth class rally sprint left undriven!”


Who is “the Double Zero” (in Finnish “Tuplanolla”)?

Jussi Tiippana is a former rally driver, now a husband and salesman, who used to compete at the Finnish national championship level. The son of a garage / car repair shop owner, baptised with gearbox oil and fed with racing fuel, he has tackled the gravel roads of Central Finland, both uphill and downhill.