Three intrepid Malaysians with a real spirit of adventure have just kicked off an epic overland journey by car to Germany, a 25,000 km route that will take them through no less than 24 countries in just 98 days. Their names are Engku Mohammed Hadri, Sharmila Sharer and Abdul Rahman. The first will marry the love of his life at the end of the trip. Those are the raw statistics of the ‘AE86 World Tour’ but they don't even begin to scratch at the surface of this story.
For starters, they have eschewed the traditional 'mounts' of explorer types who are motivated to traverse our planet the hard way – rough stuff icons such as the Toyota’s Landcruiser, Nissan’s Patrol or Land Rover’s Defender which are the usual go to first choices. Instead they have gone with their hearts and passions and chosen a 32-year-old Toyota AE86 for the trip.
The AE86 is every bit of a legend as the aforementioned off-roaders, but it's certainly not associated with gruelling long-distance slogs, in fact one assumes without checking the facts that this is maybe be the biggest journey an AE86 has ever made.
It’s an icon for sure although maybe it was less of a sales success. Built for just five years in the middle of the 80s the AE86 really fits that era with sharp and clean styling, period pop up headlights and a punchy 1.6-litre twin cam under the bonnet. Built in coupe and four-door format the former weighs in at under 1,000 kg which also made it ideal for racing.
And on the tracks the AE86 cemented its reputation by beating off a plethora of prestigious racing brands to win the manufacturers’ championships in the toughest two arenas for saloon cars of that era: the European and British Touring Car Championships. It also became a drift icon thanks to famous Japanese drifter Keiichi Tsuchiya who widely accredited with being key in popularising the sport in Japan. So much has the legend been built that when Toyota more recently decided to build a new small sportscar, reviving the AE86 name was a no brainer.
So, it’s time to ask Hadri how this AE86 came into the equation, what’s the back story? “I’ve had a car passion since I was small, and as I grew I start to love to know more about cars,” he says. “After I finished my secondary school I studied mechanics, and then I have the chance to join Asia Classic Car Challenge, to be part of the crew.”
The Asia Classic Car Challenge is a popular racing championship reserved for classic racecars which holds its rounds at Sepang Circuit. Hadri continues: “One of the drivers owned an AE86 so from there I start to know more about this car and I fall in love with this car and [I see that when] maintaining this car there aren’t a lot of issues. [It was] fighting with the minis and so on, and [the driver] won a couple of trophies even though the engine is stock and modifications are very mild.”
That ignited a desire in Hadri to acquire an AE86. “Then I saved my money until I can own this car,” he says. The puzzle grew bigger. “I love to travel, I love to know people, and now I’ve been in a relationship for ten years I decided to drive my car to Germany.”
All the team has a love and a lot of faith in this car and a surety in its abilities. “I don’t know a lot about cars but I’m actually confident with this car,” says Sharmila.
The AE86 that’s now chugging its way northwards has been owned by Hadri for six years and he’s also supremely confident in its abilities to tick all the boxes needed to get to Germany. “This car I bought [has] never given me any problems, of course I maintain it very well, check everything, follow the interval service so it doesn’t give me any problems,” he says. “I have full confidence in this 86 to go anywhere I want to go and it works so far, it’s very reliable.”
It’s strong faith too as the car is pretty much how it left the factory in Japan in 1987. “The engine is original, it’s [done] 200,000 km, no overhaul, I just do the major maintenance only,” says Hadri. “People ask if I overhaul the engine but I tell them it’s very healthy, why would I need to overhaul?”
The preparations have been meticulous and the AE86 has also been tested to the max. “Before I start the trip I planned for one and a half years and we do all the research and the most important is the testing,” Hadri explains. “I think we test five times in Sepang Circuit to make sure the car is in good condition and reliable to drive.
Exposing it to the demands of Sepang is certainly going to flush out any weaknesses. “I want push the car,” he says. “When you are on the road the car is obviously okay because the car doesn’t know any stress so I try to push the car to the maximum, I want to see what is the problem, will any problem appear or not.”
Modifications are limited. “The brakes I change to AP, suspension is custom made for touring as the car is very heavy due to the parts and tools, around 500 kg [including crew], so this is a very challenging weight for the car to drive all the way to Europe,” Hadri adds.
They’re taking a lot of spares with them, in fact the boot is packed with parts – and they’re completely prepared down to carrying spare engine gaskets, con rods, pistons and a crank! “70-80% of the load are spare parts and tools, more than 200 kg,” says Sharmila.”
Mechanic Abdul exudes a quiet confidence that anything can be fixed on the way, he’s well prepared.
It’s not too much of a squeeze either. “So far it’s okay as we put all our belongings in a roof rack,” says Sharmila. “We already tested four capacity, as in China we need to engage an agent, it’s compulsory, so that agent will travel with us so there’s going to be four in the car.”
Traversing China in fact threw up a few hurdles. Logistics planning for the trip started a year ago and a half ago and it's involved lot of work, many letters and phone calls. Handily though, of the 24 countries on the route map only two need visas to be obtained in advance, the other twenty-two offer visa on arrival.
However, for those two, China and Russia, paperwork preparations have proved arduous, the former in particular. For China it's not just visas but the car has had to be registered and they have had to hire an agent while in the country who will travel with them so that has limited the crew to three; it's going to get somewhat somewhat cramped when they get to China.
“For China there are lots more requirements,” explains Sharmila. “For example, we need to go through an MOT to check on the car, we need to get their licence plate number, and then get the Chinese driving licence as they don’t accept international driving licences. So that alone took us six months or so with the back and forth.”
They’ve had a lot of help to understand the scale of this trip and what it would involve. “Actually, we’re kind of blessed as there are lots of over landers in Malaysia and they have been really, really helpful, they have shared their experiences and given us tips,” she adds. “But when it comes to the setting up of the car we’re driving a different type of car to them.”
Hadri says that they also want to build a solid foundation from this adventure. “I want to meet AE86 and JDM owners all over the world, as many as I can as this is my passion. And I’m promoting Retro Havoc Motorsport as we have a yearly gathering. It’s already 6 years so we now have a different agenda and we want to invite people from all over the world to come when we have a car gathering.”
It’s more like an experimental journey and at the same time we’re connecting all the cars and getting a network,” adds Sharmila. “If everything is okay maybe we can also do an event [in the future] to drive from Malaysia to Europe in retro cars.”
Then we come to the part that has grabbed a lot of attention as there is a real romantic twist to this adventure. The tall and boyish Hadri plans to marry the woman he loves when they reach the end of the journey. He first met her 10 years ago, she’s now his fiancée, lives in Germany and when he arrives they will tie the knot.
Germany will also see the AE86 tick off a bucket list item for just about every car enthusiast in the world by lapping the Nürburgring Nordschleife as the very final task on the journey. Not one but two fitting chapters to conclude this tale in three months’ time.
But these are very early days, and just a handful into the trip they pull into Bangkok, having stopped overnight in Surat Thani and Hua Hin on the way up from Malaysia.
The AE86 provokes passion for many people steeped in car culture, it’s earned its place in motoring history and a group of AE86 owners from Bangkok braved the rain and gridlock synonymous with the Chaeng Wattana tollgate to meet up with the crew at the ‘Rest Area’ just beyond the tollbooths.
If you love classics Toyotas you’re going to be the kind of person that shrugs off a wet and miserable night, so there was a lot of interest in each other’s cars as well as tips and tales to be swapped.
Joining the crew and the AE86 owners at the services was a delegation from Tourism Malaysia’s offices in the capital – and that really demonstrates the interest and support the crew have had. “Visit Malaysia” decals adorn the car on all flanks and they’ve had invaluable input as well as an official flag off to start the journey in their home country.
“When we approached them with our proposal they said ‘this is actually a good initiative, we can help easing the journey contacting the embassies’ and after that we get more support,” says Sharmila. “The embassies have been informed and they update them where we are and when we’re coming.”
Braving the dismal weather is Mazreera Mohd Yusof, Acting Director, Tourism Malaysia – Bangkok. “This is an initiative to support a national campaign to visit Malaysia next year so we are strongly supporting initiatives, especially for the young generations, to let people know about Malaysia,” she says.
“Personally, and generally, I’m so happy to see this kind of very unique interest and to see the very special interest to go all over Asia from Malaysia and to Europe to bring the name of Malaysia,” she adds.
Mazreena believes that the desire for adventure and a ‘can do’ attitude is very much part of Malaysian culture. “To push your limits until the maximum you can, not to judge this is an old car but actually you can go and push the limits,” she says. “It brings the name of Malaysia and the spirit we want from Malaysia, especially from the young generation.”
That spirit of adventure has been infectious too and it looks like the repeating story of the trip will be the sharing of their passion for this model of car with other owners along the length of the route. In just a couple of days since they departed the journey has gone viral and their social media is buzzing.
Their primary platform is Instagram and interest’s snowballing. “We actually created this account right before the journey so we only had about 20 posts,” says Sharmila. “But with all this news we had about 1,000 followers when we left and within three days it’s up to 7,000. All the messages and support are giving us energy.” A day later and the tour’s official account is up to 9,000 followers.
At the same time an itinerary of ‘meet ups’ is snowballing. “We have had contacts and today is day four and a lot of owners and clubs have reached out to us,” she continues. “France and Hungary are very excited and they’ve sent us a lot of pretty pictures.” In Russia they plan a parade and in Germany Toyota have invited them to visit the museum.
Then it’s time to melt into the traffic of a dark and wet Bangkok evening, swiftly they’re just another set of red tail lights in a sea of slow-moving vehicles. Next up is a long drive northward. The road trip continues.