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The Full Story Behind the CHP’s Turbo Toyota Camry Cop Car With Celica WRC Parts

And we talked to the man that built it.
California Highway Patrol Toyota Camry, believed to possibly be the turbocharged car
California Highway Patrol

Not long ago, you might’ve seen a picture online of a 1980s Toyota Camry in a California Highway Patrol livery. Supposedly it had the guts of the turbo, all-wheel-drive Celica GT-Four, which would make it one of the nastiest sleepers of the decade. Well, I’m pleased to tell you that every last bit of that is true. Not only did the CHP really have such a Camry, but it actually shared parts with the World Rally Championship Celica.

This I learned from speaking to Joel Luz, one of the first people outside Japan to explore the performance potential of Toyotas. Originally from the Philippines, Luz wound up in the United States where he founded Toysport, the nation’s original TRD distributor. Toyota often entrusted prep of show cars and special vehicles to Toysport, which meant it had unparalleled access to Toyota’s parts network. So, when Toyota decided it wanted in on the business of selling police cars, it called on Luz’s expertise.

California Highway Patrol Toyota Camry next to a Celica GT-Four

Toyota centered its efforts on the CHP, which became the country’s first police force to trial a foreign car make according to a 1989 story by The Los Angeles Times. Though state law reportedly prohibited using foreign-made cars on the force, Toyota was building Camrys in Georgetown, Kentucky by that time. It didn’t hurt that Toyota sweetened the deal by selling the CHP seven Camrys for $1, on the condition that it could repurchase them after testing.

The idea was that the CHP would give front-wheel-drive cars a try for their stability in snow, as it’d save troopers the effort of installing and removing tire chains when patrolling the mountain foothills. Specifically, the CHP thought the mountains northeast of Los Angeles would be the perfect place to test them, per a Facebook post by Toysport.

I gather that most of the test cars were naturally aspirated four-cylinders, with one or more V6 models thrown in (LA Times reports multiple, Luz remembers just one). They accounted for only one of the two higher-performing versions tested, the other being the black sheep of the bunch: The turbo car.

Prototype Toyota Camry (V20) with all-wheel drive and the turbo engine from the Celica All-Trac Turbo/GT-Four.
Prototype Toyota Camry (V20) with all-wheel drive and the turbo engine from the Celica All-Trac Turbo/GT-Four. California Highway Patrol

The CHP’s turbo Camry used the drivetrain from the second-gen (or ST185) Celica All-Trac Turbo, also known as the GT-Four. At its heart was the 2.0-liter, turbocharged 3S-GTE four-cylinder, which was also used in the MR2 and the WRC Celica. Luz said the Camry and Celica practically shared a chassis, so installing it was a piece of cake.

So was getting more power out: He added some HKS bolt-ons, bored out the CT26 turbo (an early twin-scroll) to fit the biggest compressor wheel he could, and turned boost up by three to five psi with an electronic boost controller. Four-wheel-drive chassis dynamometers didn’t exist then, so Luz doesn’t know for certain how much power it made. But he estimated “easily 280 to 300” horsepower and “a little more torque.”

That engine was backed by a five-speed manual shared between the All-Trac Camry and Celica, and split power between the front and rear axles. Luz added limited-slip differentials front and rear, and shortened the final drive ratio to account for larger-diameter 15-inch steel wheels and special Goodyear police tires.

1989 Toyota Celica GT-Four (ST185), donor for the CHP Camry's drivetrain.
1989 Toyota Celica GT-Four (ST185), donor for the CHP Camry’s drivetrain. Toyota via

Luz remembers the CHP having strict standards for its fleet, from requiring cars to idle for at least an hour with all their electronics running, to having a seat that could fit an officer’s duty belt. (This was done with wide, low-bolstered Recaro seats bought specifically for these Camrys.) The most extreme requirement was to hop an eight-inch curb 20 times without damage, which necessitated serious upgrades to the chassis and suspension. That’s where Luz’s connections came in handy.

Much of the suspension was “TRD-supplied,” with some coming straight from Toyota Team Europe. He didn’t like the coilovers he got from them though, so he stuck with stock-style struts to keep things simple. But he filled them with TRD shocks for the Celica, and springs based on those used in the WRC cars—but with two inches of extra ride height to offset the Camry’s weight. And to tie it all together, he “double-stitched everything in front” of the chassis, stiffening it while retaining some flex.

Luz doesn’t know what the turbo Camry weighed, but it’s not likely it far exceeded 3,000 pounds. That’d give it a power-to-weight ratio well beyond the contemporary Mitsubishi Galant VR-4, and about what the first Subaru Impreza WRX STI would have more than a decade on. To nobody’s surprise, Luz summed it up simply: “It was sweet!”

But after the build, the car’s history gets murky. Luz heard it was trialed for a year or two with the rest of the Camrys, but he doesn’t know how they did in testing. (Toyota and the CHP initially responded to my request for further information, but neither followed through.) He wasn’t even sure that the bull bar-equipped Camry in our photos is the turbo car—but it’s the only possible picture of the car. What he does remember, though, is that this all went down around the time Toyota started cracking down on its wild, almost unchecked prototype program.

“That was about the time Toyota got really strict on monitoring all the modified vehicles,” Luz said. “There was a time they couldn’t account for more than 100 cars, and half of those were supposedly prototypes.”

And if you know anything about the auto industry, you know what happens to prototypes.

“It was probably crushed with all the good parts in it,” Luz said. “Those were the fun times. We could get away with almost anything.”

While the CHP’s turbo Camry was almost certainly destroyed decades ago, it was only the first of many such cars like it. Many examples of similar builds can be found online, and Luz said it wouldn’t be hard to put together one as sorted as the one he built. The cars and the parts are still out there, and a rally-ready Camry GT-Four can still be yours if you have the know-how to build it yourself.

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