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Endangered species — 1985 Toyota Trueno (AE86)

1 January 2015

Just when you thought the 4AGE AE86 had vanished from competitive drifting, Joel Patterson shows up to keep the legacy alive 

If you have followed competitive drifting over its 10 years here in New Zealand, you will have noticed that the Toyota AE86 is in rapid decline, as it is in the rest of the world, and it would easily rank as number one on the endangered species list for competition drift cars. The combination of small-capacity 4AGE screaming, and plenty of all-or-nothing driving to keep the car on-song and sideways, made the AE86 a favourite for many. But as the sport evolved, so did power and grip levels, and the AE’s great decline began. 

So now, when someone throws up the middle finger and enters D1NZ in a 4AGE-powered AE86, we stand up and take note. And this is exactly what Joel Patterson did at the beginning of last season, entering Pro-Am for the first time. Like many, Joel had been following the sport since the early Pukekohe days and fell in love with the AE86, as he explains. “I started going to Pukekohe way back in 2004, I always wanted to compete, but being a student at the time I had to save up. I finally bought this AE86 in 2006 with the 4AGZE conversion already completed, and I drove it around until the supercharger stuffed out.” The little AE was then turboed, and continued life on the street until 2011, when Joel began hitting track days and learning the art of oversteer. Development on the car continued, with the AE now producing 150kW to the rear wheels, and the driveline beefed up with a Hilux 4.3 full-spool diff and W55 Supra five-speed gearbox, all done in the shed at Joel’s. 

It was in 2011, two years into his drifting career, that Joel decided to give D1NZ Pro-Am a go. One of the first jobs tackled was a roll cage, and like the majority of the build the boys did it themselves, the first of many cages they went on to construct. Knowing 150kW just wouldn’t cut it in competition, a new engine build was soon on the cards too, as Joel explains. “I had seen the combination Beau Yates was running in his AE86 and pretty much copied that, but went to E85 fuel. I’d always planned to run it on E85 as you get so many benefits with it, so everything was built around the fuel system. I just wanted to give the engine anything it needed to be healthy.” The old 4AGZE block was retained, and on top went a black-top Levin head with a set of uprated valve springs. Looking to extract maximum torque, Joel designed a low-mount intake manifold with the longest intake runners possible, then had Sinco Customs put it together with a 70mm Accufab throttle body.

The boost side of the combination is a Turbonetics T3/T4 turbo sitting on a custom MRP exhaust manifold, with a 38mm TiAL wastegate. Joel reckons the turbo is pretty big for the little 1600, but once it’s on song it’s fine, although that was not always the case. 

The combination was debuted last season, and like all new builds, there were a few teething issues to iron out. The cooling system was getting hot spots, warping the head, blowing the head gasket and just dumping all the coolant out of the overflow. Joel elaborates: “That happened four times last season. It’s what lead to one of highlights from the season for me, when I took the car to STM in Wellington for a tune ahead of the Christchurch round. From Taupo I knew something wasn’t quite right, but thought it might have been the rad cap. We put it on the dyno, and straight away the tuner Chris [Wall] said something was wrong, so we rolled it outside and did the head gasket in the alleyway next to the shop. STM was really impressed with that. We soon had it back on the dyno, but it only lasted 10 runs then blew again. We took the entire engine out and stripped it the next day.”

The drama was far from over, as the block needed a new skim, but it wasn’t that simple as the years of rebuilds had meant the block was little shorter than usual, and the piston-to-valve clearance was touch and go, as Joel explains. “We pulled the pistons out and went to a local machine shop, which dropped everything to pocket the pistons for us. While it was apart we upgraded to 7/16th ARP head studs so we could torque the head down to 80lb/ft instead of 60 [108Nm instead of 81]. We got the motor back together and then back on the dyno by 10.30 that night, only to have the clutch slip. We couldn’t believe what was happening, so we pulled it back off the dyno and dropped the gearbox, and called its quits. We were supposed to be in Christchurch two days earlier, and thought let’s just head down and watch. But when we got back to the motel we were like, you know what, let’s just stay back, miss practice and get it sorted. The following day a local clutch place dropped everything to rebuild it for us. It was crazy how much stuff went wrong, but amazing how everyone pulled together to help us get it sorted.”

Finally Chris was able to run the car up, and the result was 303kW (406hp) and 610Nm of torque at the rear wheels. But the real difference was felt through the mid range of the power. It was now a lot less laggy and easier to keep on song. It really changed the way the car felt, and marked the turning point for Joel’s rookie season. He showed up at Christchurch, his first time ever driving there, and after only a few short practice sessions went P1 in Pro-Am. Not a bad way to end a week from hell.

That entire first season was as much about getting the car dialled as it was about getting Joel on form, and he finished a creditable 12th for his rookie season, despite the rough start when he managed to put the car into the wall on his very first warm-up lap. From then on he qualified each round and made the top 16, although again his nerves let him down during battles, something that is getting much better the more he drives. “I had never really competed at anything in my life before, last year was a little nerve wracking, but once you get over the nerves and relax that’s when it all happens, at round one this year, it’s the best I have ever felt.” 

Over the off season the car was stripped back to a bare shell and Joel, in his own words, “went a little overboard for a drift car.” In went new Parts Shop Max coilovers, and the wheels were swapped from the 14s to 15s so he could step up to a bigger tyre, switching to a 195/45R15 Evergreen. 

The car was then stripped bare for a repaint, and the team poured hundreds of hours into prepping the shell inside and out. Looking at it now you’d be forgiven for thinking it had steel panels, but every panel apart from the roof is actually fibreglass. 

The one thing that didn’t change was the engine set-up. “It’s crazy, I have done five track days already this season and it’s just been solid. It’s more than enough power for the weight [950kg wet], at the end of the day I’m still not at my full potential with this much power so I’m going to stay with this motor for a while.” Once Joel is bored of the current power output, the plan is to step up the capacity by building a 9AGE, taking a 7AGE block and bolting on his current head, turbo and intake manifold, which will see capacity increase to 1900cc, offering a good increase in torque. We were happy to hear he wouldn’t shoehorn anything bigger in there, and that he believes his 4AGE-powered combination is still competitive. 

The rebuilt car debuted at round one of the Demon Energy D1NZ, Joel commenting that he has never felt more relaxed behind the wheel, something that clearly showed in his results, as he took his first-ever podium with a third place. “The goal this season is to try and keep it consistent, as I’m now third in the championship, so if I keep it up I will finish pretty well. I just need to focus on keeping it smooth at all costs, any corrects are bad so you need to keep it fluid, keep on that line the judges wanted.” 

We hope Joel can persist in his winning ways and continue to put his AE86 on the podium, as there are few cars in a drifting field as exciting to watch as a little AE as it violently switches from side to side, and as smoke peels off the rear tyres and the 1600 screams for all it’s worth. You know the driver is having to put in 110 per cent commitment, and that’s what makes it so exciting as you know there is nothing left, no half-hearted runs or half throttle, it’s pure balls to the wall, win-it-or-bin-it drifting. Good luck to Joel for the coming season, and long live the AE86, we say!