The Toyota Celica, Pt. 1 – The Making of a Modern Day Classic

October 17th, 2017 by

A few weeks ago we published a post about Toyota sports cars past and present, in which we rather glossed over a certain model, with the promise that we would take a closer look at it in the future. Well, that time has come folks – so join with us now as we take a trip from the dawn of the 70’s, to a time when greed was good and gas was cheap, and beyond into the new millennium – as the Bob Richards Blog celebrates the story and successes of the seven Toyota Celicas.

While they certainly had done so before with cars like the Sports 800, the first Celica was Toyota’s first concerted effort to make a ‘driver’s car’ – something with performance that made road feel like racetrack and turned the trip to the grocery store into a grand prix – but still had the practicality to bring those groceries home again afterwards. By 1970 British and European Automakers – the ancestral homes of performance – had split production genres almost completely, turning out some amazing sports cars and performance models for those that could afford them, and dreary ‘boxes on wheels’ for the masses. That led Toyota to leave behind the continent that had been the source of inspiration for sports cars like the 2000GT, instead taking a leaf out of America’s playbook and using the same formula that had worked so well for Ford in the previous decade.

The first Celica mated the chassis from Toyota’s Carina sedan to a 2-door coupe body (as Ford did with the Falcon’s chassis to create the Mustang), offering room for both cargo and people, along with style and a sporty stance. The styling is an homage to American muscle too – personally we see quite a bit of Plymouth ‘Cuda in there – and this idea is only reinforced when looking at the post-1972 model, which has distinctive ‘4-slot’ brake lights similar to those seen on the Mustang. First on sale in America in 1971, the Celica was originally only available in the ‘ST’ trim level, and had a 1.9L inline-4 engine, soon uprated to a 2-liter and then a 2.2 for the last few years of the first-generation car. Similarities to muscle cars and the Mustang in particular grew stronger with the introduction of a fastback body style for the 1974 model year, along with ‘GT’ and ‘LT’ trim levels in America and an optional automatic transmission. By the time the first-generation Celica was replaced in 1978 it had certainly accomplished its mission, and as a ‘Japanese muscle car’ that really made the most of what it had, carved out its own place in the automotive world.

By 1978 though, the now 8-year old first-generation car was starting to show its age, and so a new model designed by David Stollery at the Calty design facility in California was put into production. Stollery’s design is a definite step forward, as the Celica becomes it’s own car, moving away from the obvious ‘Japanese muscle car’ comparison to become more understated, while still retaining the stylish 2-door look and a performance-led, driver-oriented focus. If you look closely you can also see some of the styling cues and characteristics that we’d see on Celicas to come – the second generation car provides the first appearance of a liftback body, the first availability of a convertible version, and the first intersection with the world of motorsport and ‘special’ or ‘limited edition’ models. The “US Grand Prix” edition was produced in 1980 to celebrate the holding of the US Grand Prix West at Long Beach and Toyota’s sponsorship of the race (which continues to this day as the ‘Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach’ Indycar event), and there was also the ‘GTA’, released to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Celica with a special two-tone paint scheme, ‘10th Anniversary’ decals and an uprated interior. Originally, second generation Celicas retained the 2.2-liter inline-4 motor from the previous generation car and from 1981 the Toyota Pickup’s 2.4-liter became available, but throughout this time there was one undisputed ruler of the second-generation stable – The Celica Supra. Boasting anywhere from 12 to 20 extra horsepower thanks to the fuel-injected inline-6 under the hood (which Toyota had to lengthen by 5 inches to get the engine to fit) – this is the car that would spawn an entirely new line of Toyota performance vehicles that would be known simply as the Supra, and go on to find success on the race tracks of Japan as well as in the tuning scene. The Celica’s more direct descendants would have their time in the racing spotlight too, and hints at what lay ahead would soon be coming.

The third generation Celica is an unmistakable product of the 80’s. In keeping with the style of the time it looks as if it was designed using only a ruler, and while steps forward would be taken as the generation went on, the third generation appeared at first to be little more than a cosmetic update. On launch in 1981 the new car used the same 2.4-liter Pickup-sourced engine as seen during the previous generation, as well as the same transmissions, but let’s not forget that both were only added to the second-generation car in its final year of production, and therefore this is better seen as early introduction of third-generation components rather than a refusal to take a step forward with the new car. In any case, further progress was made in 1982 with the introduction of fuel injection, which improved power to 105, and then 114 horsepower in later models. This 114hp version set a new record for power in a Celica, but incredibly, the engine it took that record from was the 108hp 1.9L inline-4 used in early first-generation cars built for the American market. As time went on the Celica had become a victim of tightening emissions controls and had put on quite a bit of weight that hadn’t been offset with the addition of more power – as a result it was getting away from its ‘driver’s car’ ethos somewhat. Toyota also put that right in 1982 with the introduction of the GT-S, which upgraded the suspension and had bigger tires for more grip and better performance – once again allowing the driver to make the most of what the car had at a time when this was more important than ever for automakers. The now traditional mid-generation facelift freshened up the Celica’s looks, notably adding retractable headlights, a feature that would remain a part of the Celicas styling for years to come. The third-generation is also the genesis for the thing the Celica might be best known for worldwide and something that would guide the cars development to a not-inconsiderable amount moving forward – rallying. In what some would consider the sports heyday, the ‘Group B’ era of the early 80’s, Toyota entered third-generation race-bred Celicas in each of the 1983-86 World Rally Championship seasons, notching six victories – each with either Bjorn Waldegard or Juha Kankkunen behind the wheel. These were the Celica’s first rally victories, but as we’ll see next week, they were far from its last – so check back then as we continue our tale, and if you’re looking for a new vehicle that comes with great service and no games on pricing, be sure to check out, or come see our team in person at 5512 Jefferson Davis Highway in North Augusta!

Posted in History