Driving the secret cars of Toyota’s heritage collection

Cast your mind back, if you’re able, to the year 1994. May, to be precise. Manchester United have smashed Chelsea 4-0 in the FA Cup final, the Channel Tunnel has opened to great international fanfare and, of importance to car fans worldwide, Toyota has launched one of its boldest models in living memory: the RAV4.

A curvy, quirky 4×4 designed more with surfers than soldiers in mind? Sacrilege to fans of the straight-edged, utilitarian Jeep Wrangler, Land Rover Defender and even Toyota’s own Land Cruiser. But the RAV4 wasn’t designed for them; it was made for young people who liked surfing, hiking and climbing, and it laid the foundations for the modern crossover – a vehicle class that’s at once the most popular and most polarising on the market.

All of which goes some way to explaining why a blue short-wheelbase example, specified in lowly GS trim, currently takes pride of place in Toyota UK’s heritage fleet, when prices for even the most immaculate, top-rung RAV4s are some way south of the £6000 barrier. Fresh from a thorough and by all accounts arduous restoration, this example’s pristine exterior belies its 135,000-mile odometer reading.

The first time Autocar drove the RAV4 on UK soil was in a 1994 twin test alongside a Ford Escort RS2000 hot hatchback. A curious choice of contender, it seems, but here were two compact family runarounds, each with four-wheel drive and sporting aspirations. And where the Escort had the edge in outright power, the RAV4 pipped it in the lightweight stakes by around 65kg. And crucially, let’s not forget, when the RAV4 arrived, there was no Nissan Juke, Ford Puma or Skoda Karoq to benchmark it against.

Despite the odd pairing, this was a highly anticipated face-off; hot hatchbacks in the vein of the RS2000 had become almost impossible to insure for the average driver, while conventional off-roaders such as the Wrangler and Land Rover Discovery were simply too cumbersome and thirsty for everyday road usage.

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Should we have to justify the ‘classic’ status of some of these cars? Certainly there will be dissenters who argue that budget runarounds are disposable, and let’s not pretend a base-spec city car could hold its own at a concours d’élégance. But these cars have done far more for mass mobility than the Aston Martin DB6, Ferrari 250 GTO or McLaren F1 ever did and are therefore surely deserving of some sort of commemoration.

Croft sums it up pretty concisely in describing how new members of the fleet are selected. “The criteria are: very good condition, low mileage or something that’s a bit rare,” he says. “If you can get all of that, perfect.”

With hypercars, track toys and even the hilarious one-off Hilux Bruiser pick-up truck on its roster, this heritage fleet is living proof that automotive history is worth not only preserving but driving as well.

Meeting a hero: the original MR2

Squat, compact, angular and resplendent as this example is in Super Red, it’s easy to see why the Mk1 Toyota MR2 is nicknamed the baby Ferrari. Back away and squint and it could almost be an F40.

Mounted amidships is a naturally aspirated 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine borrowed from the contemporary Corolla, which calls upon 127bhp and 97lb ft to send this 1030kg two-seat coupé from 0-62mph in 8.5sec – competitive for its time (1984 to 1989).

Crashes and corrosion have diminished the MR2’s number over the past three decades, so it cuts a somewhat unfamiliar figure out on public roads. That’s fortunate, because if it weren’t for other road users staring, there’s every chance it could vanish under the wheels of a passing lorry. Vulnerability somewhat overrides the sense of fun around town, so sweeping B-roads provide the best opportunity for seeing if this car has stood the test of time.

Affordable sports cars have come a long way since 1987, so a factory-spec MR2 is unlikely to be your track-day weapon of choice. Nor will it show many of today’s normal cars a clean pair of heels out on the road.

But, that being said, its low ride height, point-and-shoot handling and the throaty growl of its twin-cam motor, not to mention its near-7000rpm redline, offer enjoyment on a different level. This is no longer a competitive sports car, so it doesn’t need to be driven like one. On most roads in the UK, at least, you’re guaranteed to have more fun than in any Lamborghini or Pagani, and without attracting quite so much unwanted attention from the authorities. Or crashing.

However, the non-assisted steering is shockingly heavy for a car with such a light front end, your rearward visibility is sub-par at best and the luggage capacity is poor. But at around £7000 for a clean example, the Mk1 MR2 would be an enviable Sunday afternoon casual cruiser indeed.