Toyota Sera | Spotted

The car that inspired the McLaren F1's doors. And the Mercedes S-Class's air freshener…

By John Howell / Sunday, 24 July 2022 / Loading comments

Car geeks, on your marks, get set… Question: what is the link between the McLaren F1 and the Toyota Sera? Answer: reportedly, there was a Sera parked not far from Gordon Murray’s home that he would drive past most days. This led to him borrowing one and using it as the inspiration for the F1’s dihedral doors. Come on, that’s a good fact, isn’t it?

Question two: what’s a Toyota Sera? Answer: no idea. Well, I hadn’t until this car popped up on my computer screen, with its poppy-up doors. I know a lot more about it now, though. I know, for instance, that Sera means ‘evening’ in Italian. Although why you’d call a car after a time of the day is completely beyond me. What madness does that open the door to? The Toyota Elevenses? The Toyota Is It Too Early For A Tipple? Quite bizarre.

Another thing that’s bizarre, and something I was also unaware of, was the byzantine nature of Toyota’s Japanese dealerships. The Sera is a JDM car, and you could only buy it through Toyota Corolla Stores. Now, when you think of a dealership network, normally it’s a range of franchised operations all selling broadly the same products from a manufacturer’s catalogue. Makes sense – but that’s not how it worked for Toyota in Japan.

In the early days, post war, things started off normally, with outlets selling Toyota’s trucks and buses – the commercial stuff, basically, because the car market was tiny. But by the 1950s, the car market was growing fast, so Toyota set up an exclusive outlet to deal with them. It came to be called Toyota Store, and it was where you went to buy a Toyota Crown. Then Toyota made a smaller car, called the Corona. Another agency was set up to deal with that, and it became known as the Toyopet Store.

So it went on. Corolla Store was formed to deal with sales of the Starlet. Or was it the Corolla? No, I am sure it was the Corolla. And as more cars came along, these stores would add selected new models to their inventory. In the end there were four stores: the above three plus Netz Store, and that’s where you went for a Yaris or a C-HR. So in Japan, as prospective customer, you had to work out which make of car you wanted, and, if that was a Toyota, which Toyota it was. Then you had to work out which of the four stores sold it. How crazy is that? They did away with this stupidity in 2020, so all Toyota dealers now sell you all Toyota’s cars. 

Anyway, that little interlude was some background to the Sera story. You see, the Netz Store (which in 1990 was called the Vista Store) was selling the MR2, and Corolla Store wanted something similar. So they began selling the Sera as a rival. It came with a 1.5-litre E-Series petrol engine, with 12 valves and fuel injection. That was transversely mounted and drove the front wheels, and produced 106hp and 97lb ft of torque, so it wasn’t super powerful or very remarkable at all. In fact, underneath it was really just a Toyota Starlet, while the Toyota MR2 was mid-engined and bespoke and exciting.

However, while it was ordinary underneath the Sera was audacious up top. It had those eye-catching butterfly-wing doors and above the door line it was almost entirely made of glass. It was like sitting in an upturned goldfish bowl. This wasn’t entirely practical, though. To make it structurally safe, the B-pillar had to be beefed so much it was very fat, which created quite a blind spot next to the driver’s head. The amount of glass surrounding you also made things quite hot in the summer, so air conditioning was fitted as standard and there were removable panels that clipped on above your head to offer some shade.

Mind you, it wasn’t only the doors that marked the Sera out as something different. There was an option called Super Live Surround Sound or SLSS. It added a total of 10 speakers, a subwoofer and a something that looked a bit like a soundbar that went on the rear parcel shelf. Everything was connected to a digital sound processor that could alter the sound with different modes and also by rotating the rear speakers. You could point them into the car or up at the rear screen, reflecting the sound back again. Somehow, I doubt it’s going to outdo the Naim system in a Bentley, but apparently it’s a very sought-after option to have these days. There was also an optional air fragrance system, not unlike a Mercedes S-Class’s.

In the end they sold just under 16,000 examples in Japan, and I’ve never seen one in the UK before. If you’re after something a bit out there, that’s bound to have people coming up and asking what the hell it is, then how about it? For that kind of attention you usually have to spend a lot more than £5,500. And now you’ve got stuff to chat about, involving the McLaren F1, Japanese car dealerships and all sorts. You can have that for free. But if they ask you why the car’s blue on the outside and beige underneath, I’m afraid I can’t help you there.

Specification | Toyota Sera

Engine: 1,496cc, four cylinders, naturally aspirated
Transmission: 5-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 106
Torque (lb ft): 97
CO2: N/A
First registered: 1990
Recorded mileage: 144,000
Price new: N/A
Yours for: £5,495

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