The Toyota 86 and the Champion of the World

“Papa, can we do more doughnuts?”

Uh-oh.

Ten kilometres north of Pemberton, I ride together with my youngest daughter, off on our first just-us road trip. I’ve got her bike in the trunk of the little red Toyota, some great roads planned out, a cooler full of goodies, and a surprise for her at our overnight stop. She’s up to her elbows in a back of cheesy snacks, spraying crumbs all over the floor, and laughing in the corners.

Our car is no longer a Toyota 86. My kid’s christened it the Baby Red Austin, for reasons I’ll make clear shortly.

First, though, the car. Released under the Scion badge after what was probably a bit too much fanfare, Toyota’s junior sportscar has been on sale for seven years. In that time, it’s picked up a refinement or two, but has retained a number of flaws, not least of which is its wonky engine.

Built by Subaru, and married to Toyota’s direct-injection system, the 86’s 2.0L flat-four engine suffers from a relative lack of torque, and a weird dip in the middle of the powerband. From the very first moment it arrived, critics (and fans) have been wishing for a turbo, something to add a little muscle. It hasn’t come.

Thus, the 86 is theoretically easy prey for the likes of an EcoBoost-equipped Mustang, turbo Camaro, or any number of hot hatchbacks. Heck, it’ll get stomped in a straight line by the Sienna minivan sitting next to it in the showroom. It’s also a far less polished and charming offering than the Mazda MX-5, and with the new Supra now arriving at Toyota dealers with either a turbocharged six or four-cylinder engine, the 86 is starting to look like an endangered species that hasn’t adapted to its environment.

But I love this thing. For all their issues, the 86 and its Subaru twin, the BRZ, offer a kind of driving experience that’s largely been missing since the Nissan 240SX. It’s a modestly powered sportscar that demands to have its neck wrung, a 2+2 that’s just about big enough for short-range kid-haulage, a nimble rear-drive hooligan that demands a bit of skill to get the most out of it. Good steering, great pedal placement, grippy seats. Small. Affordable. Fun.

This year Toyota’s put a set of decent Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires on the mid-range 86, which improves the grip dramatically. Given that the 86 requires keeping your momentum up, any favourite backroad now becomes a lot more fun, and the car doesn’t actually feel slow at all. It’s still a bit of a chore in traffic, or when passing an RV, but when you’re by yourself, it’s a charmer.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading Roald Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World to my youngest. It was my childhood favourite, and I’m pleased to report that it holds up remarkably well. There’s the purity of the relationship between Danny and his father, the villainous figure of Victor Hazel, the revelation that grownups are full of quirks and secret habits, unfairness and humour and nighttime adventures in the woods. I remember being captivated by Danny driving the ancient 1933 Austin Seven – the Baby Austin – out into the darkness to rescue his father.

So, when I found a gypsy-style caravan for rent, tucked away in a remote campsite, I started plotting this road trip. We’d head up along the Duffey Lake Road, one of my favourite pieces of tarmac, all the way out to Clinton, then loop back down towards Boston Bar for the evening. We’d see forests, canyons, rivers, high plains, and tunnels bored through the rock. Gravel roads too. It would be a proper adventure.

My co-adventurer loved every minute of it. We stopped often, for snacks and just having a general look around the scenery. We stayed away from people, being responsible, but we made sure to set up and have picnics in lonely spots, whenever we felt like it.

Did you ever find yourself in the midst of a moment, knowing it will become a memory? It’s a weird feeling, the kind of thing that keeps us reaching for our phones all the time to take a picture. Catch it, capture it, hold it in your hand – you can’t.

On a little gravel spur to nowhere, I pulled the bike out from the 86’s trunk. She rode ahead as I drove behind with the four-way flashers on, her own personal support crew. She kept glancing back and laughing, but soon looked only ahead, riding faster and faster.

Later, on another patch of unused tarmac, I sat her on my lap and let her steer the car around in lazy circles. I worked the clutch and she sat shotgun and shifted the gears. The sun was sinking towards the mountains, and we had distance yet to cover, but there was still a little time, a little golden moment to bask in.

We had a little “midnight feast” in our caravan, same as Danny and his Dad, hung up a lantern and read the last few chapters of the story. I went to pack a few things up in the car, and came back to find her asleep already. Twilight settled over the little red Toyota, now dusty and flecked with bugs.

Next morning found us on the highway back home, surrounded by fast-moving traffic. The 86 was buzzy, my daughter was a bit fidgety, and the adventure was drawing to a close. My thoughts were already on work, stuff needing done around the house, chores and drudgery.

But on the last page of Danny the Champion of the World, there is a message. “To Children Who Have Read This Book,” it says, “When you grow up and have children of your own do please remember something important. A stodgy parent is no fun at all. What a child wants and deserves is a parent who is SPARKY.”

This is what I know. I will be her hero for only a short time. She will find others, find herself, move to find her place in the world. I took the training wheels off her bike just a couple of months ago, and now she rides off without a backward glance. I’m not meant to hold on to her. That’s not my job as a parent.

Traffic slows as we near the city. I look back at my daughter in the rearview mirror. She is only looking forward, restless to be moving. But we have time yet, my little bird. I will always make time for you, my champion.

A winding road and a proper adventure 7/27/2020 8:00:00 AM