New York Toyoteros elevate the ‘econobox’

In the weathered, heavily industrial South Bronx, about a dozen pristine Toyotas glint in the morning sunlight at the end of a dead-end street, bang against the Harlem River.

A group of men chat in the clipped Puerto Rican Spanish brought to this northernmost New York borough a half-century ago. Some wear vests with "New York Toyoteros" printed across the back in bold letters. The cars are spotless, many with miniature Puerto Rican flags dangling from their rear-view mirrors.

The Toyoteros are just what they sound like: an automobile club comprised of primarily Hispanic Toyota aficionados. But you won’t find a Prius on this block. The Toyoteros gravitate towards the classics, the cars they grew up with.

Insisting on anonymity, one member recalled in his youth watching drug dealers drive flashy cars around his neighbourhood. He couldn't afford to do the same, however. "But now, I'm making money, and I have a beautiful Toyota from that [era]," he said. "The drug dealer? He's got nothing now."

In the US, the car-collecting hobby has long been ruled by the likes of the 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air and first-generation Ford Mustang. But as the men and women who grew up driving and coveting those cars age, tail-finned cruisers and muscle machines are making room for an unlikely incoming class: Japanese economy cars.

These were the gas-sipping lightweights that, with North America reeling from OPEC-induced fuel shortages in the ‘70s, helped speed the deflation of the American auto industry. Despite organised-labour demonstrations that unfolded on the steps of the US Capitol during the late '70s, the fuel-efficient Japanese “econoboxes” sold in the millions of units.

As with most things, the passage of time has encouraged an appreciation for once-reviled Japanese sheet metal, giving rise to clubs like the New York Toyoteros.

Most of the club's members are men of Puerto Rican descent in their 30s or 40s, and almost all hail from the South Bronx. They meet periodically to swap parts, technical information and stories, participate in parades and, on occasion, use their cars to raise money for charity.

"When you're a teenager, you get these old Toyotas and you get attached to them," José Barrato, a 49-year-old building superintendent, said. "Now I'm old and I'm still attached."

Barrato wasn't the only one who had learned to love something that was once as common as, well, a Toyota.

"I grew up in the Bronx, where all you saw were Toyotas," Al Torres, 39, who works as a conductor on the No 4 subway train, said. ("I'm the guy making announcements people can't hear all day," he quipped.)

The cars reflected the depth of their owners’ affections, colours and chrome gleaming in the sun. Occasionally a member would fire up a car, shattering the morning’s stillness with the brash rumble of a performance exhaust system.

Indeed, while a few members have kept their cars in factory-original condition, many Toyoteros have added performance engines, loud exhaust plumbing, upgraded suspensions and special paint jobs.

One of the more unusual cars in the fleet was Torres' 1982 Toyota Starlet. He claims to have been something of a maverick growing up, just by dint of driving a 1984 Buick Regal rather than a Toyota. But he, too, eventually was won over.

"It was cheaper to go fast in a lighter car," he said, adding that he went a step further, combining two worlds by stuffing a Chevrolet V8 engine into the tiny hatchback. "A lot of people consider it sacrilege and say, 'Oh my God, how can you put a Chevy motor in a Toyota?' But I did it because it's fast."

How fast? “Fast,” he allows with a sly grin. The car is equipped with a parachute to facilitate quick stops at the end of a drag strip.

Tony Ortíz, 38, a network engineer who also administers the Toyoteros Facebook page, has a white 1982 Corolla wagon with upgrades that are perhaps more traditional. In addition to blacked-out headlamps and custom body-coloured wheels, the Corolla also has a 260-horsepower engine sourced from Lexus – Toyota’s luxury subsidiary – and a six-speed manual transmission.

But even traditional isn't traditional in this nascent corner of the collector hobby. For one, there is little factory support, unlike at General Motors, which does a brisk business selling engines and parts to Pop for his ’57 Bel-Air build.

"With these old Japanese cars, you can't just call Jegs and buy parts," Ortíz said, referencing a popular mail-order performance parts retailer. "We network to get what we need for these projects."

Wilfredo Esteves, 45, who works in building maintenance, put a 1984 Nissan 240SX’s motor in his 1979 Corolla wagon because an acquaintance had success doing such a transplant. The Corolla looks stock, but Esteves claims it will run in the 12-second range in the quarter mile – as quick as a $75,000 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.

"I did it to surprise all those kids in souped-up Hondas," he said, adding that he also has a '77 coupe and two other wagons from the late ‘70s. "I didn't build the car just for shows. It won't let me down."

Barrato has a 1981 Corolla wagon with a 1.3-litre Mazda rotary engine resting between its fenders.

Polo Morales, 39, and Félix Esteves, 43, went for sporty Corolla SR5 coupes, adding souped-up engines and colourful body and engine paint. Esteves' car wears matching Japanese rising sun battle flags, one on top of its turbocharged engine and another splashed across the roof. Conrad Beltrán, 42, and Alberto Acevedo, 46, have Supras, among Toyota's most cherished sports cars, modified to make them faster than when they left the factory floor.

Victor González, 40, said he intended to customise his 1975 Corolla, but he ultimately decided to keep it stock.

"Modified cars can be a headache, and I didn't want to deal with it," he said. "So I went all factory, which is an even bigger headache."

Headaches or no, the car looks flawless, as if it had just rolled out of a circa ’75 showroom.

Like many loosely structured car clubs, the New York Toyoteros exist because of the loyalty and dedication of its members.

"I love the guys," Esteves said. "They all have the same passion. We go to a lot of meets and shows together."

Their activities are in the name of fun, but other times they serve a bigger purpose. When the tsunami devastated communities on the northeast coast of Japan in March 2011, the Toyoteros held a meet to raise money for the Red Cross. This year, they're hosting another gathering to benefit autism research.

"You gotta find a way to give back," Esteves said.

The Toyoteros’ greatest contribution, however, may be to their home turf, where they impart a measure of colour and lived-in, workaday beauty. For these drivers, classic Toyotas aren't just cars; they're bonds in a shared history.