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 |  Dec 14 2011, 12:45 PM

The Scion FR-S might be the most exciting sports car in years and it might also be the most important project Toyota has ever launched, helping change perceptions about an automaker that has become known for building appliances. But the back-to-basics enthusiast sports car almost never happened, according to Chief Engineer Tetsuya Tada, speaking at the car’s launch last week in Japan.

The concept for the car, originally the brain child of then Toyota VP Akio Toyoda (the man currently at the helm of the world’s largest automaker), was initially rejected by Subaru, which eventually went on to donate the engine to the project and even handle the lion’s share of the sports car’s development, resulting in both the Scion FR-S (also known as the Toyota GT 86 in Europe or just the 86 in Japan) and Subaru BRZ.

Shortly after Toyoda took the helm, Tada san was assigned to a planning division set up for the project. After studying what everyone else was doing, (seeing the use of turbochargers, all-wheel drive and high grip tires), Toyota decided to move in the opposite direction, instead opting to build a sports car that harkens back to the roots of machines like the AE86 – from which the GT86 gets its name. It occurred to Tada san that an ideal powerplant would be a boxer engine, due to its low center of gravity. Toyota had an historical precedent for the use of a boxer engine in the Sports 800, built from 1965 to 1969. Toyota also just so happened to have access to such engines through a recent purchase of shares in Subaru parent company Fuji Heavy Industries, and a shared project could help foster relations between the two rival automakers.

A proposal was penned, for a rear-drive, boxer powered sports car and presented to Subaru, which immediately axed it. Subaru executives had two major concerns says Tada san, the first being that a rear-drive machine doesn’t fit with Subaru’s all-wheel drive brand message. The second reservation, and one that speaks to Toyota’s newfound attitude of taking ownership of its beige-to-drive past, is the admission that Subaru didn’t think Toyota could build a sports car. And while harsh, it’s not entirely surprising, after all, the last sporty Toyota was a Celica GTS in 2006 and the last rear-drive Toyota car to roll off an assembly line (at least for US consumption) was in 2005.

The project was then suspended for six months but eventually the team involved at Toyota helped convince the powers that be at Subaru. Exactly how that happened remains a mystery, although one possible conclusion can be drawn from a graph Toyota revealed to AutoGuide and a group of journalists gathered to drive the car at Sodegaura Forest Raceway, just outside Tokyo. On it is a breakdown of who handled what in bringing the GT86/BRZ to market. In the end, teams at Toyota were responsible for planning and design while manufacturing and development were handed over to Subaru. The concept may have been Toyota’s, but Subaru, a company with plenty of recent and current enthusiast-targeted models, was tasked with ensuring the FR-S/BRZ was a fun-to-drive, dynamic handling machine. Toyota representatives steered clear of confirming as much, but it would seem a compromise was struck, with Subaru bending on the rear-drive architecture. In exchange, Toyota handed over development of its sports car to Subaru.

As a result, the first prototype was build back in 2008, and was what one Toyota exec referred to as “proof of concept”, prompting both automakers for forge ahead with development and design, leading first to the FT86 concept at the Tokyo Motor Show in November of 2009, through numerous concept cars, all the way to the official reveal at the same show two years later, our recent gushing test-drive, and a planned on-sale date of this Spring.

Discuss this story at FR-SForum and read out review of the Scion FR-S here.

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