Written by Arlene Lanman for the old SOGI-TECH mailing list that used to be hosted here @ Supracentral.com back in the late 1990's early 2000's.
Many non-members have asked this question. Buying a Supra is much like any other used car, with a few exceptions. I have written a rather long dissertation in response, borrowing liberally from several sources:
Here are some things to look for when checking out a used Supra.
Items to bring along: flashlight, Phillips screwdriver, a ground cloth to lie on while peering at the underside of the car, something to clean your hands with and, if available, a car knowledgeable friend.
Inspecting the dirty side: Start with the front end and lie down on the ground on your back (use a floor mat or the ground cloth to keep clean), stick your head under the front bumper and look up at the structure behind the bumper. Use the flashlight to help you see under here. You are looking for bent metal, evidence of paint overspray in the wheel wells and coil springs, missing pieces, etc. All are evidence of serious accidents. Unless there is a severe shortage of used Supras in your area (which is normal, when only 100,000 or so were sold in the US), reject any that show damage. While under there, have a look around for evidence of oil leaks, shock absorber leaks and bent suspension. Ask if the car has been wrecked. Many people will lie about this until you point out evidence of the damage.
Repeat the above for the rear end of the car. Check the shocks, CV joint boots, differential, exhaust system and the metal forward of the rear bumper. Look forward at the driveshaft and transmission, looking for leaks and bent pieces. Check the rear suspension for bent pieces. Check the floor pan and rocker panels for large dents and for rust if you are in an area where rust is a problem.
Ask if the car has a salvage title. Stay away from any that do. Cars with salvage titles are hard to insure and finance and are worth about 50% of a non-salvage title car. Many are bought at auction and repaired by people who do a less than professional job. If you have any doubts about the car or its title, go elsewhere.
Using the flashlight, peer through the wheels into the brake calipers (this will be difficult if the Supra has stock wheels!). Try to determine how much pad is left. It is sometimes difficult to see just how thick the pads are. It helps to move the car a little to see around the spokes. Are the rotors scored? Replacements can be expensive. Ask when the brakes were replaced.
Inside the hatch area: Raise the wheel well cover and remove spare, if necessary, and look for evidence of water/rust. With the wheel well cover open, are the plastic utility trays and covers still in place? Close the wheel well cover and inspect the interior body covers for damage. Are all four (4) targa holders in place and function? Does the roller shade operate properly to cover the storage area? Remove the access panels at the tail-light assemblies and antenna, and look inside for evidence of water/rust and/or body work.
While the hatch is open, check the hatch seal for wear, openings, and evidence of water intrusion (rust).
Interior: Check for signs of unusual wear. Supra interiors are pretty rugged. The fabric seats will fade if left in the sun. Look for wear on the driver's seat bolsters where your backside rubs as you get in the car. Check the clutch and brake pedal pads. Do they look like the right amount of wear for the mileage on the speedo? Check driver's side body door post near the certification sticker for another sticker that tells of a replaced speedometer and check the owners manual and warranty manual for notations of a changed speedo. Sometimes this info is scratched into the paint near the certification sticker. Most states require the installer of a replacement speedometer to make notification in one or more of these places. Ask the seller if the speedo has been changed.
Ask the seller(s) if they have the security code for the radio (if it is the stock radio). Try all controls and check all lights. Check general appearance. After you have seen a few Supras, you will know what a good one looks like. If you are not familiar with the Supra, inspect several to establish a baseline.
The targa top: Inspect the interior carefully and look for signs of water intrusion. Targas are, for the most part, know for leakage. If in doubt, ask the Owner to remove the targa and inspect the neoprene seals. Also, note if there is an original targa removal wrench and pouch.
Inspecting the body panels: Are they smooth and do the seams match well? Sight down the sides of the car in bright light. Do you see any ripples, roughness or other signs of body repair? If possible, check the paint under fluorescent light. It will show sanding marks and other signs of body and paint work. Check the door sill areas and rocker panels for signs of rust. Look for little bubbles in the paint. If the car has metallic door sill plates, ask if you can remove them to look for rust. You will need the Phillips screwdriver for this. How good is the paint? Do some of the painted panels look fresher than the others? If they do, the car will be two shades of the color after a few years of fading. If you find some discrepancies, ask again about accidents. Inspect the door sills for overspray; check the black rubber parts next to the paint for overspray. All are signs of a repaint which likely means an accident. Look inside (from the exterior) the tail-light assemblies, the outer shell often becomes separated from the inner shell, resulting in moisture between the two shells.
Under the Hood: Check for general cleanliness, oil leaks, and missing parts and inspect the area around the radiator and headlights for signs of accident damage. Also look for leaking coolant. Ask if the timing belt has been changed. It is due at 60K mile intervals. Ask if the spark plug wires have been changed; many go bad at about 30K miles. Look to see if the injector cover is in place (the one that says Turbo on it) - this is one of the first cosmetic items to fail at the bolt corners.
Consider doing a compression check, especially if the engine is running unevenly. You can do it yourself if you have the tools and a compression gauge or you can pay a shop to do it for you. In fact, you can also pay a shop to go over the whole car and give you a report. The cost for this varies greatly; make sure you have an understanding with the shop about what will be done and what it will cost.
Consider doing a vacuum test. 18-21 psi vacuum at idle is normal. Pulsating or less vacuum is an indication of sevral things going bad - I have much more on vacuum "results," if someone wants to know. Check idle speed, it should be close to 650 rpm at idle (warm engine) - if not, the idle speed sensor may need to be reset or there are other "problems."
Pull the oil dipstick. Check the oil for visible contaminants. It should be clean but it will darken as the miles add up since the last change. If you see metallic particles sparkling in the oil, stop now and leave. Ask when the oil was last changed. Ask to see maintenance records, especially of oil changes. 3K intervals are great; up to 4.5K intervals are OK (per sticker in engine compartment).. Longer intervals or no records, not so good. If they claim frequent oil changes but have no records, you will have to decide whether to believe them or not. Ask the seller what brand and grade of oil they were using. You will need this information if you purchase the car.
If the car has an automatic transmission, pull the dipstick and check the cleanliness of the oil. Smell the oil when the transmission is hot. If it smells at all burnt, walk away and find another.
If you see sparkling metallic particles, walk away.
Check the fan belts for cracks and obvious wear. Grab the water pump pulley with both hands and rock it back and forth to see if there is excessive wear (unlikely on most Supras). Be careful; it might be hot. Inspect the brake and clutch fluid reservoirs for proper level and color of fluid. If it is very dark and dirty looking, plan on some $$s for repairs in the future and get the fluids changed as soon as you buy the car. Check the power steering fluid reservoir for level and leaks. Check the air conditioner compressor for oil leaks. Check for evidence that the radiator's overflow bottle has not overlowed (rust, etc. on body parts below the reservoir) - this may be a sign of a blown head gasket.
Start the car and listen for gurgling sound from behind the dash, in the area of the heater. If there is a gurgling sound, it indicates that air is in the cooling system. The gurgling could be caused by something as simple as a weak radiator cap or loose hose clamp, or as serious as a BHG (blown head gasket). If gurgling is heard, tell the seller that you want a block test completed to confirm that it is not a BHG. If he refuses, walk away. After listening for gurgling, watch the exhaust pipe. Look for smoke. In general, a white cloud indicates water in the cylinders from a leaking head gasket or cracked block. If it pumps out great clouds of smoke, thank the owner politely and leave.
Go back to the front and listen to the engine. Listen for knocks and any unusual sounds. If you are not familiar with the noises engines make, bring along your favorite gearhead friend to help. Turn on the A/C and check to see that both electric fans behind the radiator come on. Listen to the sounds that start when the A/C compressor comes on. Loud knocking probably means replacement of the compressor. Squealing sounds generally mean the belt is too loose. Some Supra A/Cs whistle a little, and that is generally not a problem. Check to see if the A/C blows cold air. On a hot day, you should feel cold air at the vents within 30 seconds. If it takes much longer, there may be a refrigerant leak to fix and a recharge of R12/R134a. Check the A/C controls, do all fan speeds work? Does function change with each button?
Once the engine is warmed up, grab the throttle valve and rev the engine slowly up, listening for knocking sounds that come on at a certain rpm levels and fade away. Early signs of main bearing wear will show up here. Does the engine idle smoothly without shaking from side to side?
The test drive: Start with the targa on, windows closed and the radio off. This minimizes the wind noise and allows you to better hear the mechanical noises. Again, if you are not familiar with these sounds, bring along your gearhead friend. The Supra is a fairly quiet car (for most of its years, it was Toyota's flagship car). You will hear whirring sounds from the rear which are usually tire noise. Listen for the sound of dry bearings grinding away. If it changes with road speed, but not with engine RPM as you change gears, it is probably the rear wheel bearings or the differential. Listen to the sounds of the transmission as you go through the gears. High- pitched whining noises in one or more gears are indicative of bad bearings in the transmission. Be sure you try out the reverse gear as well.
For an automatic transmission: The shifts should be ultra smooth. Place the shifter lever in "L- Range", the transmissin should stay in 1st gear. Place the shifter in "Range 2", the transmission shoud shift from 1st to 2nd andd then stay in 2nd (downshifting only at a stop), place the shifter in drive... The transmission should shift from 1st to 2nd and stay there. Place the shifter in "Drive," shifting from 1st through 4th should be smooth. Disengage the "O/D" switch; transmission should not shift into 4th. Push in the "PWR" button; the transmission should stay in each gear for a longer period of time than when the "PWR" switch is in the "NORM" position.
For a standard transmission: Is the clutch smooth on engagement? Any slippage? Go up and down the gears several times. Any sound or feel of bad synchronizers? Is the acceleration about right (you will have to drive several to get a baseline for this comparison)?
Warning Lights: Turn the ignition to on, but not start, and verify that all of the warning lights work (comparing the lit warning lights against the diagram in the Owner's Manual); then, after starting, do any of the warning lights flash? - if car has burnt-out warning lights or if one of the lights is flashing (especially the "bird-cage" radiator overflow light, engine light, or O/D ON automatic transmission light) then complete a diagnostic test to find out what the anomaly could be (post a note to the List with a question as to how to perform a diagnostic test for the warning light that is flashing). BTW: a warning buzzer should sound if a warning light is burnt-out; but the buzzer could have been disabled.
Road Test: At about 15 mph in 1st gear, get on and off the gas quickly several times. Do you feel or hear any slack in the driveline? Drive about 45 mph in 5th. Disengage the clutch, rev the engine about 2K above what it was doing and pop the clutch. If the engine immediately drops back to the original rpm area, the clutch is probably good. If it comes back slowly and the car sounds like it is slipping, you have the first signs of clutch slippage. Be gentle--it's not your car yet and it is easy to cook the flywheel doing this!
Drive at 60, 65, 70 mph and whatever speeds you can safely do under the conditions. Supras are infamous for the 65 mph shimmy. Check for this. Does the car wander or follow the longitudinal grooves in the road? Does it feel controlled over bumps, or does it wallow like an old Buick?
Try the brakes. Do they have a solid feel? Does the car stop straight? Do you feel pulsations in the brake pedal? On a deserted road or large parking lot, make some quick left and right turns. Does the car feel solid or does it wallow back and forth?
While you are driving in stop and go traffic, does the engine stutter, misfire, bog down after a shift? All are signs that the plug wires need replacing, or worse (bad sensors, etc.).
With the car stopped, set the handbrake. Does it feel solid? It should go up about 3 inches. If you feel it hit a solid stop at the top, it is either maladjusted or the rear pads are worn out. Gently try to move the car with the brake applied. Does it seem to hold?
Check the various VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) locations for consistency; variations could well indicate that the Supra has been in a major accident. The VIN is either a riveted plate or in the form of a sticker. Here's what I came up with without checking the Owner's Manual:
Front of driver's side dash, at juncture between dash and windshield
Door jamb next to strike plate (both sides, sticker)
Fire wall (1/4" tall stamped letters on welded plate)
Inside front bumper, passenger side, just under turn signal
Consult Owners Manual for other locations.
Ask if the car has been used in autocross. Ask if it has ever been on a 1/4-mile track. Ask if the Supra had ever had any performance modifications (they are often removed and stock items reinstalled prior to sale). Two observations here, if the answer is "yes"and "often," then this may have affected the total life of the Supra - you be the judge.
Summary: All in all, the Supra is a well built, tough car with an excellent maintenance record. If the car has had good care and maintenance, it will give you good service. If you suspect the car has not had good care, pass on it and find another. If you have been following the list for a while, you are aware of the few problems that Supras have. The above is not overkill for many people, especially if you are looking at high mileage cars. I'm sure there are some areas I've overlooked. If you are not mechanically inclined, bring along that gearhead friend to help out (if he/she really knows what he/she is talking about).
After the purchase: After you have found and bought that perfect (for you) used Supra, and unless you got receipts from the previous owner(s) for recent maintenance, do the following:
Change the engine oil now and at 3k intervals. I Castro GTX, others prefer synthetics, either is OK.If the previous owner had not used synthetic oil, then it is probably not advisable to start using synthetic oil since synthetic oil will "clean" out deposits and will seep into the smallest of holes - too much of a "good deal" can lead to revealing worn rings and worn valve guides (that is, an engine rebuild may be in your future." you decide. Synthetics are better for the turbo since they are resistant to ash deposits forming when the turbo/engine is not run for a couple of minutes after a "hard run." Check and replace the air and fuel filters (fuel filter is above differential), if needed.
If the antifreeze has not been changed recently, change it and use a 50-50 mix of a good quality antifreeze and distilled water.
If the car has high mileage, consider changing the transmission and differential fluids. It would also be a good idea to change the brake and clutch fluids as well, especially if they are dark and dirty. Do any other maintenance per the owners manual. If the timing belt has not been changed and is near a 60K interval, do it now. Clean and detail it (the previous owner probably didn't keep it as clean as you want your new baby to be), and then give it a coat of wax.
Then, enjoy the Supra experience.
Author: Arlene Lanman
88T automatic, Stage 4 and wanting more!!