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Levin La Mala Vida – TE37 Corolla Levin

15 March 2024

Have you ever stepped back and considered what ‘cool’ really is? One look at this sublime TE37 Corolla Levin will realign your parameters. Its rich build story owes as much to its owner’s vision as it does to the bond of a solid group of mates

Words and photos: Richard Opie

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As a holistic ‘car scene’, we’ve become so wrapped up in slapping labels on everything: it’s a sleeper; it’s a restomod; it’s stanced; and so on it goes. There’s a box to fit every taste, every style.

There is one train of thought, however, that transcends any tag clipped onto a build in an attempt to explain it. Coolness. It’s inexplicable, totally subjective, and invites further scrutiny, with an endgame aimed at enriching one’s own automotive experience. ‘Coolness’ encourages, it inspires, and it’s the fuel that keeps what we do, as a car community, ticking.

Cars like Marcus Lord’s 1978 TE37 Corolla Levin replica epitomize coolness in its absolute form. This is a build that bellows subtlety from the outside, but oozes careful consideration and dedication to a task. Inwardly, it exudes an eye for pinpoint detail and thoroughness. To simply put it in a box and stroll on would be doing both the car and an onlooker a disservice. The Corolla not only warrants further inspection, it also demands it.

This Corolla’s story begins off the back of a string of ’90s Japan’s greatest hits. Marcus hit the streets spinning all four, hunkered down in the driver’s bucket of an E39A Galant VR-4, eventually graduating to an FD RX7, before a silhouette a little more sedate caught his eye, by chance more than anything else.

“I just thought it looked cool,” Marcus says, echoing the sentiment of so many before him who’d been wooed by the ’70s curves of classic Japanese metal.

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Seduced by the prospect of what he could do with a ’78 Corolla SR coupe, Marcus duly swapped a wad of folding for what he describes as “a very Christchurch-spec” car. A deep purple paint job, bolt-on flares dropped over 13×7-inch wheels, and a grumpy little 4K. A bright green sticker on the front screen provided the cherry on the top.

“I got the sticker off and drove it for 18 months or so,” Marcus explains, “even using it as a daily every so often.”

The Corolla possessed a certain sort of character. Not long into Marcus’s ownership, though, the Internet and its vast resources would come along and crash the party, namely the Club K community. At this point, the forums were in full swing, Facebook hadn’t yet taken hold, and the build thread was still the medium of choice for showcasing the automotive grind. Marcus didn’t hang about in growing his knowledge of the chassis, discovering the Japanese market coupe bearing the chassis code ‘TE37’.

At this point, we need to diverge a little into a history lesson. Japan in the ’70s was an exciting place for automotive development, paving the way for the turbo era of the later decades. It seemed as if every manufacturer had a hero model in its midst, not least Toyota. These halo models would feature small-capacity twin-cam screamers, tech that would come to encapsulate the architecture of Japanese automotive development.

For the Corolla, Toyota would choose the 2T-G engine, with cylinder head development and casting by Yamaha. The TE37 followed the previous generation TE27, itself a prominent motorsport competitor and desirable collector car, but the TE37 just never seemed to garner the same popularity, much less the cachet of earlier models.

There’s not a huge wealth of information out there in cyberspace about the third-gen coupe, despite its achingly good looks thanks to the pillarless design. Nonetheless it existed, it looked damn cool, and Marcus made the call to create a replica — not a concours restoration, mind. This TE37 was gonna be spicy.

The catalyst for such an extensive build might come as a surprise. It manifested in the form of a station wagon — or rather, the bonnet from a wagon. That all-knowing resource, Club K, turned up an unusual classified listing: a US-spec TE38 wagon. These US cars ran T-series engines, and curiously were also endowed with styling similar to their JDM contemporaries.

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“I bought the wagon with the intention of restoring,” Marcus quips, “but she was pretty rusty. I thought I’d chuck the bonnet on the coupe, and here we are now.”

Deciding to progress with a full TE37 replica build was a bold move, considering the scarcity of the real deal — even in its home country.

“I got lucky with the bonnet; it was really the foot in the door,”Marcus says. “It’s probably the most critical and difficult to find part, as they have a unique front end on them that never looks right with a Kiwi-spec ‘high rise’ bonnet.”

Sourcing the rare bits would take a couple of years. The Levin grille and tail lights were prised from the hands of another owner, who’d all but given up looking for the bonnet. With the help of fellow Club K Corolla whisperer, Frosty, the Levin badging was sourced from Japan, the roof console and bonnet chrome from a rare US-spec hardtop — but not until after a whole heap of patience.

“The badges were especially tough, but eventually delivered,” Marcus laughs.

It wouldn’t be an accurate replica without a twin-cam lump between the struts. Thankfully this proved simple, with a modified 2T-G unearthed locally, bolted to the T50 five-speed donated by the wagon.

It’s a car that quickly became built on the back of a great community, beginning of course with Club K but evolving with the introduction to the Riverside team in Christchurch.

“Around then I sorta became radicalized by Zeb, Andy Gal, Rovers, and Fresh,” Marcus mentions with a grin. He’s referring to the penchant of the Riverside lads for Shakotan-influenced, low-style builds.

“I like things clean, but I decided I needed a low height to pay homage to that style,” he explains.

Making it drive well low wasn’t a simple task, and Marcus struck up a yarn with Todd Curtis — another Club K stalwart — about how to improve things. Binning the original steering box proved key, and Todd engineered a Keto rack conversion and modified front subframe to work with AE86 struts converted to coilover. The rear is also Keto handiwork, with a C-notch and chassis notch to clear the diff at its slammed ride height, a mere 70mm off the tarmac.

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The more Marcus explains about the build, the more he highlights the connection with good mates who also live and breathe cars. Wes Cooksley’s first contribution — while he was across from Australia on holiday — were the wild headers, looping out and up from the 2T-G head. He returned to New Zealand shortly after and the friendship was cemented over bodywork. Wes’s panel skill was entrusted with getting the TE37 straight, with arches hand built from scratch to clear the 14×7.5-inch front and 14×8-inch rear SSR Jilba Racing three-piece wheels to millimetre perfection.

“I gotta admit, I was a bit scared when Wes chopped the rear arches right off,” Marcus reveals, “but when he was done we had a super-straight canvas, albeit after several hours and countless yarns.”

The final flourish on the bodywork came via Ryan at The Body Shop — again, a mate looking to make a killer contribution to the car. Ryan brought colleague Willie on board for his impeccable prep skills, before getting ready to splash on some colour.

“It came down to the wire, like lots of things,” Marcus recalls. “I was supposed to be away for an anniversary with my wife, but Ryan wanted to get the paint laid on the bay that same weekend. I ended up delaying the ferry trip to Waiheke, just to get the paint selection right!”

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Luckily for Marcus, wife Krysta had already jumped on the K-series bandwagon with a KE20 of her own, so was somewhat understanding. Even if not, the paint result could be grounds for forgiveness. The Woodcote Green hue originally belonged to a Land Rover Discovery, and pops like crazy in the sunlight. It dishes up hues from gold, to deep green, to murky black, all the while showcasing the perfect panel gaps and flawless flanks. It’s wild without being shouty, contrasting with the rare TE37-specific chrome trim.

Summarizing a 10-year build journey in a comparatively short story is tricky. Marcus’s parting comments, about the first drive of the car, may come as a surprise, though.

“I’d really wanted to get it going for my wedding, my best man — and long-time wrench-hand — Reg and I put in some serious shed time leading up to the date,” Marcus tells us.

In fact, the lads hadn’t even driven the car before trailering it all the way down to Te Anau for the wedding.

“I jumped in, turned the key, and drove it for the first time the night before I got married,” smiles Marcus.

If that doesn’t embody absolute coolness, it’s hard to envisage what does: walking down the aisle, then jumping into a pillarless Japanese hardtop built your way, with a bunch of solid mates along for the ride, with the girl of your dreams riding shotgun, all to the soundtrack of a barking 2T-G, evoking good times from the past, and serving up optimism for the future.

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This article originally appeared in NZ Performance Car issue No. 288