Getting your first car is a watershed moment for most automotive enthusiasts. If you’re at all like me, you dreamed of what your first car would be long before you had a license, tearing through Craigslist posts and old magazines and eBay Motors listings for the ride of your dreams as soon as you could conceptualize buying a car, imagining what platform you’d choose, what style you’d try to aim for, what modifications you’d perform to make it the perfect machine. When that dream car finally is sitting in your driveway, it represents not just a new stage of independence and adulthood, it’s a physical representation of years of aspirations.
When that happened for me, I found the perfect platform for my introduction to the culture. I somehow snagged a manual-transmission turbocharged third-generation Toyota Supra as my very first car. First and foremost, it was obscenely cheap and had no rust, a rarity in the Midwest where I lived. More importantly, it was beautiful. My decades-long yearning for a sports car had manifested in the most stunning form I could have imagined. A smooth-revving straight six with a capable five-speed manual routing all that power to the rear wheels, wrapped in some of the finest sheet metal Toyota offered in the 1980s; my classic car rapidly became my pride and joy. I named it Mikuru, for my favorite anime character.
I painfully and anxiously taught myself how to wrench on it, and every completed repair or modification was a point of pride. With bloody knuckles and grease-covered hands, I was remaking my Supra into something greater than it was before I owned it; my efforts were intertwined with the car and it became a personal expression of growth and resilience. I drove it to work daily, I detailed it, I went autocrossing, I learned to drift in it, and I moved across the country in it for the first woman I loved. It was there for me in my most important moments.
For my first car, I was moderately successful at teaching myself how to make repairs. I’d never so much as touched a bolt before, but nonetheless, I dove in, endlessly digging deeper into the car’s components. Brake pads, tie rods, control arms, dress-up parts, suspension. I worked my way inward on the Supra, delving further into learning the belly of Toyota’s engineering and learning new things each time. It became my goal to create the perfect MK3. This was — at first — rewarding, and it could have been enjoyable.
The only problem was that in this post-college, pre-found-self years of identity, when I worked software jobs I hated and had no other hobbies, my car rapidly filled the vacuum of self in my life. With nothing to identify with in those years, long before I’d picked up the interests, personality, or art that I have today, this 1988 Toyota Supra was the only place I found a definition of who I could be. I would forgo taking care of myself to work on the car; I spent my money on coilovers before I’d purchased myself a desk for my depressingly sparse apartment. I was simply The Supra Guy, and it came before all.
It became a personality trait to own this car and to have worked on it and sacrificed for it. I believed my suffering was noble because it was a Supra. This car wasn’t an attribute of who I was, it was an entirety of self.
These unhealthy tendencies reverberated well outside of my self-worth and budgeting. It took every setback from those days of wrenching and made it a letdown of not just my car, but who I was. Every broken bolt, every night out in the garage that didn’t resolve with the car better in some way – this was a betrayal of my core, of being the Supra Man. In these days before I had photography projects or wrote stories for myself and others, improving my car was the only way I could work on who I was, and it wasn’t going smoothly. I would find myself furious or distraught beyond all reason at this Supra, not because I was frustrated working on it, but because this totem for my soul continued to vex me. I couldn’t become better if I couldn’t fix it, and it stymied me continually because working on cars with no experience is hard!
And, somehow, it got worse once I had to defend my vehicular choice to others.
You see, I owned this car before the Bring a Trailer-Radwood Industrial Complex elevated ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia to absurd heights. I bought my Turbo for under $3,000, and it was a disappointment to most when I’d tell them I owned a Supra, but you know, not the Fast and Furious kind. And nowadays, with a variety of strange, unloved cars that have cycled through my garage, this would be a chance for me to wax poetic about what I own, and explain why it’s deserving of attention. Before I had this appreciation for weird automobiles, though, I simply wanted my car to bestow upon me the coolness I so sorely lacked myself. And when your car is your identity, dismissal of what it is feels like a dismissal of who you are.
And of course, the MK3 Supra deserves a little heat. It’s a gorgeous-looking car, but it’s a 3,400 lb Targa-top grand tourer with the body rigidity of soaking wet pasta and the understeer of a derailed freight locomotive. But to mention these truths to me when my car was still my identity was to put me on edge, ready to die for my beloved Mikuru’s honor. I became single-minded in my focus on improving my Supra until it was unimpeachably good, able to beat all comers at the autocross circuit or the mountain pass touges or a freeway pull. I needed it to vindicate my effort and more importantly, I needed it to vindicate me.
I did achieve some success, but I abandoned this life path—and this car—before I could complete my vision for it.
I would love at this point in the story to claim that I realized this was unhealthy on my own and corrected my behavior. I should be saying: I abandoned the Supra because I came to my senses, and stopped trying to define who I am by what car I’m driving.
But instead, it finally had some breakdown that I took it apart for—I forget what, but it was in a thousand pieces in my garage—and then my grandmother died, and I fell to pieces. My sense of self and ambition and desire to work on my car all shattered. The Supra collected dust while I struggled through every day.
Life continues, though, and I kept meeting people. I went to car meets just to get out of the house, either in my daily driver or with my girlfriend in her modified cars, and I still made friends. People didn’t even know I had a Supra, and they still wanted to talk to me. I could stand apart from this car and develop a personality that people still wanted to be around.
And that was when I realized it was time to separate myself from this car. I hadn’t enjoyed it in ages; the stress of everything had made owning it a miserable experience, and I fully wanted to move on to something with an entirely different ethos. The only reason I hadn’t sold it was purely out of fear that if I no longer owned it, I would be changing who I was. Finally, with it garaged and secret, still able to stand on my own two feet, I knew I could still be a fully-formed person without a Supra to arrive in.
My mistake today feels obvious. Our cars, ultimately, are for us and us alone. I’ve made plenty of other terrible mistakes, like trying to restore a flooded DC2 Integra that I yanked out of a field, or trying to autocross with a bunch of washers shoved behind my modified front brake calipers, or ripping down an interstate in a blizzard on 200TW summer tires, or daily-driving with a welded differential. But those were mistakes born of hubris and teenage stupidity and while some of them I wouldn’t recommend, I also know that every beginning enthusiast is going to make mistakes like these. Accidental chaos is the name of the game when you’re teaching yourself how to use a wrench.
This mistaken path I walked with my Supra, though, is one I hope no one else walks. Car enthusiasts can be fantastic people. Most of my closest friends I’ve met because of this amazing hobby and our mutual love for the automobile.
But no one worth keeping around will only care about you because you have a certain car or modified it a specific way. We are so much more than the photos of our rides we post on Instagram, or the cars we roll up to a show in — we are enthusiasts, and that’s what matters first. Your car is what you drive. It isn’t who you are.
More on Car Autance
- Watch Peter Nelson participate in Land Rover’s Trophy Competition driving all-new Defenders in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina.
- Don’t get rolled! If you want a MKIII Toyota Supra, check out Victoria’s comprehensive Car Autance guide.
- Speaking of Toyotas, here’s what we learned when we put a 2022 Toyota GR86 on a scale.
- Got scratches? Here’s how to buff ’em out.
- The best thing about an old Supra is you’ll never have to worry about downloadable upgrades.