This Supercharged MR2 is a high school sweetheart

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Everyone has a story about the one that got away—the car they regret passing on, or, worse, regret selling. To often we just live with the tinge of regret, wondering what if. Esteban Di Masi decided to turn “what if” into “why not.”

His story starts 14 years ago with a gray 1988 MR2 Supercharged, the two-year-only pinnacle of Toyota’s first-generation mid-engined wedge. He loved that car dearly but sold it in 2008, a practical decision he always lamented. Over time he thought about it less and less, until a few weeks ago, when he was flipping through the latest issue of Hagerty and came across the 2019 Bull Market List of the 10 best enthusiast cars to buy. He did a double-take.

“I couldn’t believe the 1988 Toyota MR2 Supercharged was featured,” Di Masi, who is 29 and lives in Santa Monica, California, said. “That was my first car, bought in 2005 when I was 15. Same year and model.”

Di Masi played a lot of golf when he was a kid, and noticed that a lot of the older, wealthier patrons of the club favored exotic cars with the engine out back. He understood the dynamics of such cars but also knew he couldn’t afford a Porsche or a Ferrari. So he tracked down a clean MR2, handed the owner $1500, and set about learning how to drive a stick.

1988 Toyota MR2 3/4 rear
1988 Toyota MR2

Being just 15 and possessing only a learner’s permit, which in California requires driving with a parent or other adult, Di Masi would sneak out of the house and head for Southern California’s famed Mulholland Canyon. “There were never any cops up there,” he said. Di Masi would spend as long as he dared hammering the little car, getting a feel for the engine, the gearbox, learning how to understand what the steering and tires were telling him. Then he’d refill the tank, return the car to its spot in the driveway, and sneak back into the house.

Di Masi drove the car through high school and loved the fact his golf clubs fit perfectly in the trunk. In 2008, with high school behind him and Marquette University just ahead, Di Masi figured it was time to sell the car. It needed about a grand in exhaust work, and he’d never planned to subject the car to the salt and slush of a Wisconsin winter anyway. He put it on Craigslist, sold it to a guy in Sacramento, and walked away with a small profit.

Yet it never sat right with him. “I regretted that decision for many, many years,” Di Masi said. “Probably the biggest regret of my life.”

Di Masi returned to SoCal after college and went to work an entertainment agency. He bought a BMW 5 Series and then an Audi A4. “Both so boring and neutered, neither one of them special.”

Still, he never did anything about his lost MR2 until last month. His parents, who always gave him a hard time about selling the car, saw him reading the Bull Market List and chimed in. “They said, ‘Oh, look, they’re collector cars now. You really shouldn’t have sold yours.’ And I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to right this mistake.’”

1988 Toyota MR2 front end barn
1988 Toyota MR2
1988 Toyota MR2 forklift
1988 Toyota MR2

Di Masi started wondering about that car. Was it still around? Did it still run? Or had someone taken it into a turn a bit too hot, lifted, and spun into a tree? “I had to know,” he said.

The next day, Di Masi went through the arduous process of resurrecting the Yahoo email account he’d used as a teenager, then started digging through entirely too many old emails to find the thread with the fellow who bought the car. Di Masi pinged him, and the two got on the phone. Turns out that not only did the guy still have the MR2, he never registered it, never addressed the exhaust issue, and had put just 1500 miles on it before his son lost the one and only key. Rather than deal with it, he just parked the car in his barn. He’d need to replace the gas and battery to get it running, but he agreed to sell it back to Di Masi.

“He forgot what I sold it to him for, but said, ‘Let’s just say that plus the cost of a battery,’” Di Masi said. “I’m like, Done!

Di Masi and his fiancé drove north to Sacramento that weekend with a one-day permit issued by a DMV clerk who, skeptical the car would run, left it undated “just in case it takes you a few extra days to get it home.” They needn’t have worried. They arrived to find the MR2 filthy but running, and sitting on 17-inch wheels. Di Masi chatted with the guy for awhile then handed him $6200—for the car, the new battery, and what Di Masi calls “a storage fee.” Then he got behind the wheel.

“Everything just came to me immediately,” Di Masi said. “At 4000, 5000 rpm, the car was just buzzing, everything was kind of rattling, and the little green supercharger light on the tach was glowing. I was like ‘Holy shit, I’m back!’” After years spent driving modern German machines, Di Masi admits that 60 mph in the MR2 felt like 100 in his Audi.

In recent weeks, he has slowly been setting things right, fixing the exhaust and dealing with the myriad little things you always deal with in an old car. Once it’s properly sorted, he plans to make it his daily driver, just as he did in high school. Fitting, given that the car is just as he left it.

1988 Toyota MR2 storage barn
1988 Toyota MR2

“It’s unbelievable. My ‘Skateboarding is Life’ license plate frame is still there. The sound system I installed is still there. On the drive home, I hit the brakes and a Top Flite golf ball with my initials on it came shooting out from under the seat. The whole thing gives me goosebumps.”

He’s yet to hammer the MR2 like he did all those years ago, but he’s already found that it has renewed his passion for driving. “When I’m in the Audi, my left hand is on the steering wheel, and my right hand is often holding my phone. Now,” he says, “it’s like Whoa! I’m actively driving again. My left hand is on the wheel, my right hand is on the stick, and both my feet are dancing on the floor.”

The one that got away—he got it back. It won’t be long before he’s back in Mulholland Canyon, carving it up all over again.

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