A skunkworks project is arguably never more exciting than when a manufacturer takes an ordinary everyday car and turns it into something outrageous. That's exactly what Toyota did with its humble Picnic people carrier. Sophie Williamson-Stothert gives us the lowdown.
Okay, so it might appear to be just an ordinary Toyota Picnic, but take a look under the skin and you'll find this is no normal Japanese MPV.
Under the bonnet of this unique and British-built Picnic people carrier is a Celica GT4 rally engine, which produces over 200bhp!
It's a one-off machine built by experts at Toyota GB's technical centre near Gatwick in 1998, using out-of-production GT4 parts.
"Since we put the already out-of-production GT4 bits into the Picnic, it was never intended to be a future concept," says Toyota's Scott Brownlee.
Although it's known as a sensible builder of everyday family cars, Toyota transformed its innocent people carrier into a full-blown experiment, one which no one knew exactly how it would turn out or what to expect.
"We liked the incongruity of a supposedly dull, functional, family MPV with the engine from a homologation special rally car – the Celica GT4," says Brownlee. "The mechanical work was done by our own technical team and the interior trimming was carried out by then renowned coach trimmers Connolly Leather."
It started its life as the company car for the team's press fleet manager, John Brooks, before Brownlee himself saved it from retail with a few more interesting plans for its future. In fact, later that year, Toyota used the Picnic GT4 as a crew support vehicle on the original Lexus IS 200 UK launch in Scotland.
"I enjoyed a very good blast from Wick to Fort William down the Loch Ness/Great Glen road," says Brownlee. "But the real fun came from out- dragging other cars, which technically should be faster – I recall one time when a very unhappy Porsche 944 owner couldn't fathom why he was eating the dust of this mere Toyota MPV."
The GT4 Picnic was eventually sold to an Irish dealer who used it as a workhorse on a number of local rallies to support his own rally cars. It inevitably suffered a bit of damage, including a broken piston from a turbo stuck on full boost.
But when it came up for sale again in 2012, Brownlee bought it back. "A few years ago, I mentioned my regret at selling it to my colleague who built it and he said he knew it was up for sale, so we bought it back and tidied it up. It was in surprisingly good condition and the only difference was the wheels.
"The original wheels came from a UK limited edition Camry and are long out of production – the only way to get those again would be to buy a Camry Sport and those were pretty rare when new, let alone now as a 15-year-old car."
Although the GT4 had hidden horsepower under the bonnet, it didn't attract quite as much attention as you would expect from a 200bhp Picnic, mainly because of its discreet appearance. "Because the look was quite subtle it was really only folk 'in the know' that paid it much attention – this was all part of the Q-car effect we wanted at the time," commented Brownlee.
"The body kit was a genuine Toyota Team Europe rally team accessory, but I've never seen another anywhere."
Even though the Picnic GT4 was essentially a one-hit-wonder, its ability to thrill and offer a package of wheel-spinning fun provided the brand with a sporty recognition it never had before. "It hopefully gave the message that although the company is big and serious, we can also have a bit of fun," said Brownlee.
Model: Toyota Picnic GT4
Price: £30,000 (est)
Engine: Celica GT4 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbo
Power: 210bhp, 305Nm
Max speed: 120mph (est)
0-60mph: 7.5 seconds (est)