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The 1998 Toyota GT-One Is the Wildest ‘Road-Legal’ Toyota Ever

The Drive visited Toyota Motorsports' vault in Germany to check out this insane, GT1-class homologation special up close.

A great irony is that Toyota, the world’s foremost purveyor of such deeply regular cars as the Camry and RAV4, also birthed some of the wildest motorsport programs in history with a special focus on finding loopholes. Yet one project pushed the limits further than all others and as a result stands as the most insane “road-going” Toyota ever made: its 1998 GT1-class homologation special, codenamed the TS020 and badged as the Toyota GT-One. 

Toyota keeps the vehicular proof of its freaky fast side in a vault under the wind tunnel at its motorsport division’s Cologne, Germany headquarters, and The Drive stopped by for a quick tour this summer. And there are many lessons to be learned when you’re standing face-to-face with the craziest impulses of a multinational, hundred-billion-dollar company.

At the time, GT1 class rules mandated that there had to be a road-going version of any competing car—but the book was extremely vague on how many, nor was the homologation deadline very strict. The muddled situation was the result of a large-scale reorganization underway in the 1990s in international endurance racing that saw the GT1 class briefly transform from a competition between race versions of capable sports cars to purpose-built prototypes with a few wink-wink “road” versions, things like the Porsche 911 GT1 and the Mercedes CLK GTR. Toyota wanted in.

During this very small window in history, GT1 was a last gasp of the idea that a top-class racing car should also have a functional street counterpart. There weren’t just certain components that had to be shared with a road car. The entire thing had to have a street-legal version, complete with things like blinkers, a second seat, a license plate and a horn. The road car was supposed to be offered for sale to the public, though according to Speedhunters the homologation deadline was eventually pushed until months after Le Mans. 

While the anachronistic rules birthed some legendarily cool machines like the Porsche 911 GT1 Straßenversion (literally: Street Version), it also led to some gloriously kludged-together vehicles that were never really meant to go on sale. In 1997, Toyota followed the lead of its European competition and set about building a track-first machine with a “We’ll figure it out later” attitude toward compliance. The rule-bending result was both deeply strange and deeply awesome for both the race and road TS020s.

One of the strangest requirements for GT1 cars was the inclusion of a trunk on both its road and race versions. You had to be able to fit a standard suitcase in a GT1 car’s trunk as weird vestigial proof that there is a connection to the street. On the Toyota GT-One, there’s no hatch for the trunk, a trick pioneered by Mercedes to save weight and improve aerodynamics. But Toyota took it once step further by completely eliminating the trunk and arguing that the empty fuel tank could theoretically hold a suitcase. Amazingly, regulators bought it. Nothing in the rules said that you actually had to be able to place a suitcase in the “trunk,” just that it needed to fit.

The “qualifying wiper” for dry weather, as spotted on the 1999 GT-One race car., Stef Schrader

Toyota pulled a similar stunt with the GT1 race car’s windshield wiper. The rules only stated that the wiper must wipe the windshield, so the team used a tiny, lightweight wiper when it was dry that barely cleared the bottom of the screen. This time, officials let it fly for 1999, but eventually ruled that the modification clearly went against the spirit of the rules and told Toyota not to do that again when they reentered Le Mans racing in 2012, even though it was legal per the letter of the law.

To their credit, Toyota used a full-size wiper on their GT1 road car. But that’s about the only concession to reality there. Only two GT-Ones were made for the street; both were assembled out of spare parts, as Toyota never actually intended to sell them and still owns both copies. That’s good, because they’re entirely impractical even by supercar standards.

A brighter photo of the GT-One’s interior taken by Toyota. Note how you can barely see the shifter behind the steering wheel. , Toyota

The right-hand-drive interior is an ergonomic nightmare straight out of the Toyota parts bin. The windows don’t open, a whole button panel is stuck behind the proportionally giant road-car steering wheel and the six-speed transmission’s shifter is by the driver’s right knee per tradition. There’s a cigarette lighter but no ashtray, which doesn’t make sense for a car build before the present-day ubiquity of smartphones. Yet there’s still something captivating about the fully-upholstered, brown leather interior in a car that looks like it just rolled off the Mulsanne Straight.

Stef Schrader

That’s all on top of the fact that the lift-up Le Mans doors didn’t change at all. You have a bit of a climb to get into the car itself over the wide side of its carbon fiber tub, but at least you can admire the gigantic air channel on your way in. 

One of the massive air scoops on this “road car.”, Stef Schrader

The Toyota GT-One road cars featured the same twin-turbo 3.6-liter V8 engine from the racer, which was an updated version of the engine Toyota ran in Group C racing in the early 1990s. The engine bay—if you can call the complex mass of machinery behind the driver an engine bay—didn’t look all that different from the race car’s accordingly. There isn’t a spec sheet for a car that never went on sale, but Speedhunters lists the race car as making over 600 horsepower—and that’s in race trim, with air restrictors mandated for competition.

One cozy-enough beige interior, complete with dashboard controls from a regular mass-market Toyota., Stef Schrader

The two road-going GT-Ones were assembled by Toyota Motorsport in Germany, and the Toyota rep who accompanied me to the storage room didn’t think this particular car had ever left the facility’s driveway. That’d be a real shame if it didn’t appear to be mostly undriveable on regular roads. Forget the interior ergonomics—the Toyota GT-One is so low to the ground that only half of my women’s size 6.5 foot could fit underneath. If you ever took the GT-One out into the world, it would high-center itself or other wise ruin the lower bodywork in short order.

The other road car went with the Toyota team to Le Mans to seek FIA approval, which it earned, and currently lives in a museum in Japan. Incredible as it was, the whole project ended rather unceremoniously—though it was hellaciously fast, the three racing versions stumbled in their debut at the 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans with a single ninth place finish after a crash and mechanical failure. After the race, the FIA completely changed the rulebook for 1999 to eliminate a lot of these weird road-car requirements and push these track-first machines into their own prototype class—hence the reason you do see a few street-legal Mercedes CLK GTRs and Porsche 911 GT1 Straßenversions running around, cars that were developed well before the switch, and not a single Toyota GT-One.

Toyota dutifully adapted the car and scored a second-overall finish at Le Mans 1999, but the company decided to focus on Formula 1 in the new millennium and folded the sports car racing program in 2000 and the GT-One along with it. The race car ran in one last melancholy contest, the short-lived 1999 Le Mans Fuji 1000 km, before being mothballed.

While the current series over Le Mans has since returned to the idea that its top class should be based on road-going hypercars, the rules as to just how similar are a lot more relaxed. Only the powertrain really has to be used in a road car now, it’s cobbled-together stars like the Toyota GT-One that ruined the idea of a complete homologation special once and for all by simply being too good. How’s that for a legacy?