1981 Toyota Starlet - Star Struck

Vintage charm and rare JDM goodies make this Starlet really stand out.

In any genre of the automotive tuner segment, people come and go. Harsh as that may sound, it’s a reality of our scene. In today’s, how shall we say, “less than ideal” economic climate, we’ve seen a significant drop off in the popularity of modifying cars. Some folks just don’t have the gusto to stick it out through hard times, whereas others were never really that into it in the first place. But for those of us who have been here and are still in to it, there’s a sense of camaraderie that remains among true enthusiasts, and there are very few groups of enthusiasts who are more die-hard than classic Toyota car guys.

As a youngster, Noriel Dela Cruz was introduced to Toyotas and other classic Japanese cars at an early age. Growing up in the Philippines where it’s very easy to import JDM cars, Noriel spent his early teen years surrounded by all of his family members’ cars.

“I remember back in the day when my dad had a 1980 Mitsubishi Lancer L-type,” Noriel tells us. “My eldest brother, Nick Jr., would race it on the streets with me on the back seat after school — I felt the adrenaline even at a young age!” I think a lot of us can relate to a similar sentiment. At Modified, we don’t condone street racing, but we’re realistic; it would be silly to deny that street racing plays a big role in getting many people into cars. Noriel tells us that in his native Philippines, street racing isn’t a crime that is enforced as strictly as in many other parts of the world. We can’t say that’s a good idea in our minds, but this fact has certainly shaped the car scene in that particular region.

“When I first got my driver’s license and it was finally my turn to drive, I would always borrow one of my brothers’ ’80 KP61 Toyota Starlet with a 18RG motor and twin side Webber 45’s carbs, or the other favorite: the TE71 Corolla with 16-valve 4AGE redtop,” Noriel says. “I knew instantly that when the time came that I could afford to build on myself, I would be going the Classic Toyota route, unlike most other kids my age who would have gone with something like a Honda Civic.” We can respect that. No one can argue with the choice to be different and stand out from the crowd. However, finding your dream car becomes a reality sooner for some than others. For Noriel, it took a few more years until the Starlet on these pages became his.

“Even though I had all the heart in the world for old school Toyotas, it took me a good five years before I was able to get the connections I needed to build one properly here in the United States,” Noriel recalls. “When I first got [to the U.S.] back in 2003, all I wanted to do was work and didn’t have time for a hobby or any sort of fun. Before having my Starlet, I had to settle for a few other cars: a ’91 Nissan Sentra, ’86 Toyota Celica, ’03 Toyota Corolla S and my unfinished ’89 BMW 325i project.

“It was shortly after I met my fraternity brother, Benjie Fernandez (who owns an orange AE71 Corolla), that I got psyched and back into the idea of getting a Starlet like I’d always wanted. I finally found a suitable donor car in February 2008, but at first I didn’t know what to do with the car — build it for show or for track, or both,” Noriel says.

What he ended up doing was a little bit from column A and a little from column B. Noriel’s Starlet isn’t what we would call a “track car” necessarily, as it retains many of the creature comforts of a street car. With eye-catching Porsche 911 GT3 RS green paint, the Starlet is certainly a sight to be seen. Noriel has stayed true to the JDM roots by sticking with mostly OEM optional parts for his exterior. A pair of JDM “skinny” bumpers provide a subtle touch along the front and rear of the car, pieces that would most likely go unnoticed by anyone but a real enthusiast. The fender-mounted mirrors and TRD rear wing add more subtle sweetness to the Starlet’s shape, while the über-rare TRD fender flares carve a perfect shape around the even more rare (practically unattainably rare, in fact) 13x8-inch TRD Tosco Classic wheels. Noriel claims there are only a handful of sets of these wheels floating around in the States, especially in this sizing. He also shares his woes about how difficult it is to find 13-inch tires these days. (Hint-hint, tire companies!)

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