When Derek Smits started university, he wasn’t expecting he would earn a degree, meet his fiancée and be gifted a classic and rare Toyota Celica as an engagement present. But, that’s exactly what happened.
Derek was at university completing his post-graduate studies when he met Natalie. What he didn’t know was that Natalie owned a 1994 Toyota Celica GT-Four ST205, one of just 77 Australian-delivered examples from a worldwide batch of 2500, produced to meet the FIA’s homologation requirements that would allow Toyota to contest the World Rally Championship.
Natalie had owned the Celica GT-Four for about five years before she met Derek. But, as he explains, it had been garaged following a minor bingle.
“I didn't know, until we were into our relationship,” says Derek, “because it was actually off the road at the time.
"She was a bit of a Toyota fan, so she had another, I think, a Corolla she was driving. So then when it just came up one day that she had this GT-Four sitting in the car park in the apartment where she lived.
“I was absolutely stunned, and that was even before I realised it was one of the homologation vehicles, the original 77 brought into Australia.”
He recalls the first time he saw the car sitting in his future wife’s garage.
“One thing my wife did say when I first found out and I was going, ‘Wow, it's a homologation, blah, blah, blah’.
“And she was, ‘Oh, is that why everybody I ever pulled up alongside at lights, wanted to race me off from the lights?’
“She just thought it was quite strange behaviour. And I was like, ‘Yep, that'd be it’.”
That car, proudly wearing a plaque that confirms it is number 13 of 77 cars officially brought into Australia, became Derek’s when he and Natalie became engaged.
“She didn't buy it specifically as an engagement [present], but she donated it to me, I guess,” says Derek.
The GT-Four wasn’t in the greatest shape when Derek took over what would become a project during COVID-19 lockdown last year.
“Well, she'd done a little modification to the front left wing,” laughs Derek. “That was the reason that it ended up off the road.
“But also it's got quite high kilometres on it. The engine really was pretty tired and I don't think it had been serviced in the last few years of its life, the way it should have, with correct oils and all that kind of stuff.
“I think my wife's uncle was doing some maintenance on it back in the past and yeah, I'm not sure it was, as I said, treated with the correct attention. So that was another reason that, I think when she had the little prang and damaged the front wing and just broke one of the headlights, that was when it got put in the garage.
“When she gave it to me, I actually kept it in storage as well. I've only just done the restoration project through last year, through COVID. So had a full engine rebuild and got obviously the crash damage repaired and all of that. So it's looking pretty spic and span.”
The ST205 GT-Four was the most powerful Celica ever produced to that point, its turbocharged 2.0-litre inline four (internal code 3S-GTE) making 178kW and 302Nm. A five-speed manual transmission sent drive to all four wheels.
Other homologation items included a weight-saving aluminium bonnet, ABS, the plumbing necessary to activate the turbo’s anti-lag system, and a large rear spoiler.
Aussie-delivered models came with leather interior as standard while air conditioning and a glass sunroof were optional.
Derek’s GT-Four isn’t a daily driver, but he’s planning on doing more track days.
“I mean the big trigger point was that it turned 25 a year before last now,” he says. “So, that allowed me to get it on club registration… So yeah, I've got it on club plates. I'm with Phillip Island Automotive Racing Club.”
So far, Derek has only done one track day, but it left him grinning with delight.
“… it felt really, really good,” he says. “I've been driving at Phillip Island with a front-wheel drive before, so to have the all-wheel drive, it just felt so planted. It was quite amazing actually. Yeah. So really, really enjoyable. I'm looking forward to getting a few more days.”
Derek has even more ambitious plans for his classic Celica.
“My ultimate dream is Targa Tasmania,” he says. “That's something I'm trying to work towards.”
For now, though, Derek is content simply driving the GT-Four even if it is “a bit tricky” in traffic.
“It’s a firm ride. It's quite a bumpy, firm ride. But I don't mind that…”
Derek acknowledges his life has certainly changed since meeting Natalie at university all those years ago.
“I got a qualification and a wife and a car out of the deal!”
Photos by: Oli Coulthard