Celestial Pony: Toyota’s First-Generation Celica

The first-generation Toyota Celica is one of those cars that used to be everywhere, only to fade into an undeserved obscurity. Often ignored or dismissed by English-language automotive histories, the original Celica was a popular and significant automobile with many interesting permutations, only a few of which ever made it to America and other export markets. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we take a look at the complicated saga of the original A20/A30 Celica, Japan’s first “pony car.”

1974 Toyota Celica hardtop (RA21) fender badge © 2011 dave_7 (with permission)
(Photo: “1974 Toyota Celica badge” © 2011 dave_7; used with permission)

CONSUMERISM COMES TO JAPAN

Introduced in December 1970, the first-generation A20 Toyota Celica was one of the first really successful Japanese specialty cars. Its arrival marked an important turning point in the development of the Japanese auto industry.

1974 Toyota Celica 1600ST hardtop (TA22L) front 3q © 2016 Rui Coelho (with permission)

The A20 Celica’s stylistic kinship with other contemporary pony cars is evident, although the production hardtop looks a good deal less like a Ford Capri than did some of Toyota’s early clays. This is a 1974 European Celica 1600ST hardtop. (Photo © 2016 Rui Coelho; used with permission)

First, some background: In the 1960s, with postwar reconstruction completed, Japan was beginning to follow the economic pattern of nations like West Germany, where rising incomes provided fuel for an emerging consumer economy — including a rapidly growing new car market. In the early fifties, passenger cars had accounted for only a small fraction of all new motor vehicles sold in Japan each year. By the mid-sixties, not only had annual motor vehicle production increased by more than an order of magnitude, passenger cars now accounted for almost 40% of those sales.

The expanding market led Japanese automakers to confront a central tenet of all consumer economies: that it’s not enough to simply fulfill an existing need; a successful producer must also work to create demand. The most obvious way to do that is to offer more choices, or at least the appearance of choice, in order to make each prospective buyer feel like your product line offers something tailored for his or her specific tastes.

In the American automotive scene of the mid-sixties, there was no richer expression of that principle than the specialty car. Over the previous eight or nine years, specialty cars — both personal luxury models and sporty cars — had emerged as important sources of prestige, publicity, and profit for Detroit automakers. Few of those cars were mechanically distinguished, but they demonstrated that the promise of individuality was a surefire way to make buyers open their wallets.

Japanese automakers had already toyed with the idea of specialty cars, albeit without much success. The earliest postwar example was probably Nissan’s 1952 Datsun Sports roadster, followed a few years later by the Bluebird-based Fairlady, the Honda S500/S600/S800 roadsters, Toyota’s peculiar-looking Sports 800 coupe, and several others. Home-market sales of these cars had been minimal. Japanese buyers of the mid-sixties were beginning to take interest in better-trimmed sedans or even hardtops, but few had the financial wherewithal for an impractical automotive toy.

1969 Toyota Corona hardtop (T50) front 3q © 2011 Aaron Severson

Although there wasn’t yet much market for specialty cars in Japan in the sixties, Japanese buyers were beginning to take interest in pillarless hardtops. A two-door hardtop version of the T40 Toyopet Corona arrived in Japanese dealerships in July 1965. (author photo)

By 1967, when Toyota began developing the car that would become the first-generation Celica, that was slowly beginning to change. Just as significantly, Ford Motor Company and its American rivals had offered a new formula for specialty car success.

SIDEBAR: Defining the Specialty Car
Since the term has become somewhat deprecated over the years, we should probably pause here to explain that a “specialty car,” in the automotive parlance of the sixties and seventies, is a model:

  1. Whose principal advertised purpose is something other than utilitarian transportation (e.g., a sporty roadster rather than a family sedan); and
  2. That has a unique or substantially unique body structure and styling, sufficient to justify marketing the model as a separate entity rather than a variation or sub-series of an existing product.

“Substantially unique” is of course a subjective judgment and there are many marginal or arguable cases. The point is that a specialty car is something distinct from — and often coexisting with — specially trimmed or equipped versions of existing utilitarian models. By this definition, the Ford Mustang, with its unique body shell, would qualify as a specialty car, but something like the Volkswagen Golf GTI or Datsun 510 Bluebird SSS would not.

PONY CAR PRINCIPLES

Considering the pace and ambition of Toyota’s product planning efforts in this era, it’s entirely possible that Toyota would have eventually come up with something recognizably Mustang-like even if Ford hadn’t gotten there first. However, there’s no question that Toyota closely studied the Ford Mustang and its array of “pony car” imitators, which by 1967 included the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird; two generations of Plymouth Barracuda; the Mercury Cougar; and, later that year, the new AMC Javelin. Collectively, those cars comprised a veritable graduate seminar in pony car best practices.

Most of those lessons are already well-known to readers familiar with American pony cars: sporty looks, parts-bin components, modest base prices, and lots of options. Four-place seating was mandatory — two seats greatly limited sales to buyers with children — and external luggage access was obviously desirable. Steel bodies were also preferable to aluminum or fiberglass for mass production.

U.S. experience also demonstrated that most of the volume business was in two-door notchback hardtops, which served to better showcase the indulgent long-hood/short-deck proportions to which buyers had responded so strongly. There was some market for fastbacks, at least if they were attractively executed, but they weren’t vital to sales. As for convertibles, buyer interest seemed to be shrinking even in affluent America, where roof crush standards would shortly put their future in jeopardy.

1965 Toyota Sports 800 (UP15) front 3q © 2014 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0)

Before the Celica was the 1965–1969 Toyota Sports 800, an aluminum-bodied two-seater on the UP10 Publica platform. The Sports 800 was a mere 141 inches (3,580mm) long on a 78.7-inch (2,000mm) wheelbase, powered by a 790 cc (48 cu. in.) two-cylinder engine with 45 PS (33 kW) JIS gross that gave a claimed top speed of about 96 mph (155 km/h). At its launch in April 1965, the Sports 800 listed for a modest ¥595,000 in Tokyo (about $1,650 at the contemporary exchange rate). Only 3,131 were built during its four-and-a-half-year production run, which ended about a year before the Celica went on sale. (Photo: “1965 Toyota Sports 800.jpg” © 2014 TTTNIS; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized 2017 by Aaron Severson)

The core principle, of course, was the need to share a platform with a family sedan in order to keep unit costs within reason. As Toyota’s experience with the Publica-based Sports 800 demonstrated, however, it had to be the right platform. Sharing running gear with the Publica made the “Yota-Hachi” relatively affordable — about half the price of the contemporary Nissan Silvia coupe — but with its diminutive size and short wheelbase, the Sports 800 was a strict two-seater whose tiny trunk was mostly filled by the spare tire. This was not a recipe for mass market success.

There were several other potential platform-donors, including the Toyota Corolla, Corona, and the forthcoming Corona Mark II. The latter would probably have been too costly for the Japanese market and Toyota already had elaborate plans for a coupe version of the Corolla, but the Corona was an obvious possibility.

1968 Toyota 2000GT (MF10) front 3q © 2011 Aaron Severson

Toyota’s most ambitious early specialty car was the 1967–1970 Toyota 2000GT. Developed with Yamaha, it had semi-exotic specifications — a DOHC inline six with three carburetors, a five-speed gearbox, double wishbone independent suspension front and rear, and disc brakes all around — and an exotic price tag. At launch, a new 2000GT listed for ¥2,380,000 (around $6,600) in Tokyo, enough to buy four Corona sedans. (author photo)

Instead, Toyota took the same course GM’s German subsidiary, Opel, was then taking with the new Ascona A and Manta A, developed around the same time: creating an all-new platform to be shared by both a sporty specialty coupe and a new compact sedan. Toyota even launched an additional factory, the Tsutsumi assembly plant, specifically to build the new models. The plant had the minor distinction of employing some of Japan’s first-ever assembly-line robots.

A10 CARINA AND A20 CELICA

In keeping with Toyota’s penchant for passenger car names beginning with “C,” the new specialty car would be dubbed Celica while the sedan was to be called Carina. The names were astronomical in origin: “Celica” is from “célica,” the feminine form of a Spanish or Portuguese word for “celestial” (and having the same Latin root). “Carina,” which means “keel,” is one of three southern constellations that make up an older one called Argo Navis, named for the Argo of Greek legend.

1971 Toyota Carina 1600 four-door sedan (TA12) front 3q © 2008 Charles01 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

The original A10 Carina, introduced for the 1971 model year, was 162.8 inches (4,135mm) long and 61.8 inches (1,570mm) wide, 1.2 inches (30mm) shorter and 1.2 inches (30mm) narrower than the A20 Celica on an identical 95.5-inch (2,425mm) wheelbase. Export versions of the Carina, like this British four-door sedan, generally used the 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) 2T engine, but the early JDM models could also have the 1,407 cc (86 cu. in.) T engine, shared with the Corolla 1400 and Celica 1400. (Photo: “Toyota Carina Bj ca 1971 photo 2008 Castle Hedingham.JPG” © 2008 Charles01; resized 2017 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

(Alluding to both etymologies while adding a bit of local color, the early Celica emblem depicts a celestial dragon boat with stars in the “wings” that represent the boat’s oars. In Japanese, the constellation Carina is called 竜骨座, read Ryūkotsu-za, which means “The Keel,” just as in English. However, the kanji 竜 can also mean “dragon,” which is probably how the celestial Argo became a dragon boat. This was perhaps a stretch, mythologically speaking, but it was not inapt considering that the Carina provided the Celica’s running gear and floorpan, just as the constellation Carina formed the “oars” and “keel” of the Argo Navis.)

The Carina’s market position is less easy to explain than its name. As with Mitsubishi’s Colt Galant, which bowed a year before the Carina and was probably its most direct rival, Toyota originally hoped to position the Carina between the Corolla and Corona in size and price. However, the growth of the second-generation Corolla, launched in May 1970, didn’t really leave enough space between those models to constitute a coherent niche. The Carina emerged instead as a slightly smaller Corona alternative.

1971 or 1972 Toyota Corona De Luxe (RT81) sedan side © 2014, 2017 Aaron Severson

Introduced about 10 months before the first Carina, the T80 Corona (still badged as a Toyopet in Japan) was slightly bigger than the A10 Carina and shared some sheet metal with it, but rode a completely differently platform. North American Celicas borrowed the Corona’s powertrain, probably to simplify emissions certification. (author photo)

While that might seem a pointless exercise, the Carina was part of an ambitious program to diversify the offerings of Toyota’s Japanese dealer networks. As we discussed in the first part of our history of the Toyota Corolla coupes, Toyota Motor Sales had established several distinct sales channels in the Japanese domestic market (JDM), each with its own dealerships. By 1967, there were four of these channels: Toyota, Toyopet, Publica (renamed Corolla in 1969), and Diesel (which focused, not very successfully, on commercial vehicles). A fifth channel, Toyota Auto, would launch later that year.

Toyota’s original rationale for the separate channels was to expand its dealer base, but by the late sixties, Toyota was also looking at these sales networks as a means of greatly expanding its product range. In 1967, Toyota had four basic passenger cars — the Publica, Corolla, Corona, and Crown — along with a number of limited-production specialty models like the aforementioned Sports 800 and the rare and pricey 2000GT. The Publica and Corolla were marketed through Publica and Diesel stores (and shortly Auto stores) while Toyota and Toyopet dealers sold the Corona, Crown, and specialty cars.

1974 or 1975 Toyota Carina 1600DX four-door sedan (TA12) front 3q © 2010 Mischa Lohr (with permission)

A minor change for 1974 deleted the earliest A10 Carina’s eccentric-looking body-color headlight surrounds, making the Carina sedan look even more like the T80 Corona, at least from the front. Although the subsequent T100 Corona was somewhat bigger than the Carina, the two cars repeatedly converged in size, price, and model lineup. We assume that which one a Japanese Toyota buyer chose was as likely to depend on dealer proximity as anything else. In the mid-eighties, Toyota finally consolidated the Carina, Corona, and Celica on a single FWD platform. (Photo: “Toyota Carina A10” © 2010 Mischa Lohr; used with permission)

Over the next five years, Toyota would strive to give each of its principal JDM sales channels something closer to a unique product lineup, consisting of some all-new models and some reskinned variations of existing products. The first of these was the Sprinter, a Corolla-based coupe (later expanded into a full model line) that would be exclusive to the new Toyota Auto channel. Next up was the bigger Corona Mark II, which would be positioned between the Corona and Crown and would displace the latter as the flagship of the Toyopet channel. When the Carina debuted in late 1970, it would supersede the Corona as Toyota stores’ smaller car offering, allowing the Corona to become a Toyopet exclusive.

This strategy served several ends: increasing market penetration, maximizing the utilization of each platform, offering Japanese buyers a wider selection, and giving franchise-holders with overlapping sales territories at least superficially different products to sell. Toyota made no secret of the similarity between some of those products, but it doesn’t appear to have presented a meaningful commercial handicap in the home market. (In fact, in 1980, Toyota introduced a third Corona-size car for the domestic market: a RWD Carina clone called Celica Camry, sold through Corolla stores and later succeeded by the familiar FWD Camry.)

1974 or 1975 Toyota Carina 1600DX four-door sedan (TA12) © 2010 Mischa Lohr (with permission)

Toyota pitched the first-generation Carina as a stylish, sporty sedan, later adding twin-cam 1600GT and 2000GT grades, but there wasn’t anything especially sporty about the workaday 1400DX and 1600DX sedans. Unusual wrapover taillights were probably the A10 Carina sedan’s most distinctive design feature. (Photo: “Toyota Carina A10” © 2010 Mischa Lohr; used with permission)

In some export markets, the Carina and Celica would be sold side by side, but in Japan, Toyota opted to separate them and distribute the Celica through Corolla stores. This was a canny marketing decision: As Toyota’s least-expensive models, the Publica and Corolla had obvious appeal to the same young buyers who would be drawn to a stylish sporty coupe, allowing the Celica to serve as a showroom draw for the channel’s higher-volume products.

27 Comments

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  1. As ever, once a subject is covered by Aaron it becomes the primary go-to source. I’m surrounded by Celicas here in oz, and even then have never noticed the minute changes in these first gens that are explained so completely within this article. That spacer below the grille and turning lights on US examples is an absolute disgrace.

    Superb Aaron!

    1. Thanks, Don. Yeah, the bumper filler is aesthetically egregious. I’m not all that fond of the second-generation Celica, but if had one advantage over the first-gen car, it was that the 5 mph bumpers were integrated into the design rather being hastily tacked on.

  2. Aaron;

    Once again – well worth the wait. I remember being in the Navy in the early ’70s and my fellow sailors were saving their meager pay to buy a Celica. I already had a “competitor”: A 1971 Mazda RX-2. The body was basically a Dodge Colt with different trimwork. It even said “Body by Mitsubishi” on the door sills. If I hadn’t had that Mazda , I would have definitely wanted a Celica. Thanks for the hard work – you and James May should be collaborators!

    1. Thanks!

      I don’t think the Mazda RX-2/Capella was related to the Colt Galant. They do look similar, especially in profile, but that’s not uncommon for mass-market sedans in the same category. (The Capella and Galant were direct competitors in Japan.) Their dimensions aren’t the same and the Capella was mechanically quite a bit different even if you exclude the rotary engine; the early Capella had a five-link rear suspension while the Galant had Hotchkiss drive, for instance.

  3. The four-door Carinas shown don’t have American or Canadian license plates, but I think North America got the Carina only in two-door form.

    1. I believe that’s right, although it’s hard to say for sure since the Carina was such a short-lived footnote in North America. In Japan, there were two- and four-door sedans from the start, followed in 1971 by a two-door hardtop. My assumption is that British and European markets generally got only the four-door sedan and we got only the two-door, probably in a vain attempt to differentiate the Carina from the Corona.

      1. Europe had 2 and 4 doors Carina sedans. I can’t remember seeing a coupe though.

        1. I’m not sure the hardtop was exported, at least not during the ’70s. Given Toyota’s fairly limited European market penetration, the Carina hardtop would have competed with the Celica in a way that wouldn’t have made much commercial sense. It was pretty clearly intended for the home market, since the rival Colt Galant had a hardtop and Toyota stores didn’t have anything else very sporty to sell. And of course Toyopet dealers had a Corona hardtop, which I imagine was the real point.

          I would be very interested to hear from someone who lived in Japan and was of car-buying age and means in the ’70s or ’80s as to how the different sales channels — and their thinly disguised variants, in particular, like the Corolla and Sprinter — were perceived by buyers. I understand the business rationale, but consumer perception is harder to judge, coming as I do from a very different national perspective.

  4. Another outstanding job. I was transported back to my teen years (I got my driver’s license in 1975) and remembered being alternately in love with the Celica and the Scirocco, which I was pleased to see make a cameo appearance on your excellent piece.

  5. Excellent article. Just a quick reply in regards to the 18R-E EFI engine. Cars so fitted were actually not a separate trim grade. In the case of the Hardtop models, this engine was available in either LT or ST trim lines. In Liftback models, this was only possible in ST trim (LT trim was not introduced for the liftback until 1976, by which time the 18R-E had been dropped from the engine lineup).

    1. Could I ask for your source(s) on that? I have been wrestling with this particular point because the only 1974 or 1975 JDM brochure I was able to find is specific to the GT and doesn’t list the EFI at all. I did, however, find a brochure for the updated Carina hardtop introduced January 1974, which lists the 2000EFI as a separate mode, and the price list in World Cars 1975 (presumably taken from Toyota sources, since their JDM price lists usually match up exactly with Toyota’s Tokyo figures) indicates the same for the Celica. Brian Long notes the introduction of the 18R-E engine, but not anything about associated trim levels.

      What you’re describing certainly sounds plausible, since that’s essentially what Toyota with the second-generation 1800ST, which came in both carbureted and injected (ST-EFI) forms. If you have a 1974 or 1975 JDM brochure that spells this out, I’ll certainly bow to that; this came down to a gap in the information I was able to find.

      Looking at this again led me to make one other significant correction in the text: When the 2000GT first appeared in April 1973, it appears that it was exclusive to the Liftback through the end of the year. A 2000GT hardtop became available later, but on double-checking the initial press release and the brochures, it looks like it didn’t come along until the facelifted hardtop in January 1974. (The carbureted 18R was available in hardtops from April 1973, so I’m assuming Toyota was looking to emphasize the Liftback’s performance bona fides by letting it have the bigger twin-cam to itself for a while.) I’ve amended the text to so indicate.

      1. No problem at all; I have both the 1974 and 1975 full Celica line JDM brochures I could send photos of to back up that fact. I also can confirm you are correct regarding the 2000GT to be Liftback only originally for 1973.

        1. Ahh, okay, thanks! I’m not being argumentative, mind, just envious — I tried to find full-line 1974 or 1975 brochures without any success. Are the EFI versions described as 2000ST-EFI, the way Toyota did with the A40 cars? Also, do the brochures list a different chassis code for EFI cars? (RA26, perhaps, since that’s the only number skipped out of the A20–A29 sequence?)

          1. To be honest, the hardest JDM Celica brochures to find for my collection were the full model line 1974 and 1975 years, so no doubt I feel your frustration (and the 1975 catalog has AMAZING photos to boot). No distinction is made in either brochure for the EFI models other than being listed as an option for the above subseries mentioned on their corresponding page within an engine/transmission graph. Further details of the engine are listed under the powertrain pages. The 18R-G models listed have the chassis code RA21-ME for the Hardtops and RA25-ME for the Liftback.

          2. Thanks! I would be very interested in seeing those, or at least just the specs/options charts. In the meantime, I’ve amended the text. Regarding the chassis codes, the “M” signifies the five-speed, which as far as I can tell was mandatory with the 18R-E, and the “E” presumably signifies “EFI.” (A “Z” in that position indicated a dual-carburetor engine, a “Q” indicated DOHC, so a 2000GT Liftback was RA25-MQ.)

          3. Regarding the EFI, one possibility that occurs to me is that both of these accounts may be correct. The 18R-E became available in January 1974 and the earlier of your brochures is from November of that year, so it’s conceivable that Toyota initially introduced the EFI as a distinct grade, as they had with the Carina, and then decided some months after launch to extend it to the LT hardtop as well, at which point listing it as an option for LT and ST grades would have made more sense.

            My impression is that the EFI engine wasn’t terribly popular among Japanese Celica buyers. The price lists I have indicate that it was almost as expensive as a 1600GT, but it didn’t have the racy image of the twin-cam/dual-carb cars. If you just wanted a cruiser with more torque than the 1.6-liter cars, the carbureted 18R was cheaper and less complicated — and was available with automatic, which the EFI wasn’t. So, Toyota might have tried to introduce a cheaper version after launch in an effort to pep up sales.

            That’s completely speculative, but it seems plausible. (If we had a January 1974 full-line brochure, we’d have a better idea, but you know the old saying about how you could always have won the war with that one weapon you didn’t have…!)

          4. Send me an email address and I can shoot photos of the catalogs via i-phone for you no problem tonight. Ive got the 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1977 full lineup catalogs (plus nearly every single one after that except 1980 thru the run of the series, if you are interested in something specific.

  6. Yesterday, March 7, 2017, was the 79th birthday of retired professional race car driver, Janet Guthrie. Back in the 1970s (more than 40 years ago) she drove a first generation Celica in SCCA races and spoke very highly of the car saying that it was the equal of the much more expensive Alfa Romeo Giulia GTV in terms of handling and performance.

    1. The first-generation Celica could be made to handle (and the long-wheelbase cars weren’t bad for the era) with some work, assuming race rules would permit it. People interested in a more in-depth examination of what does and doesn’t work with the short-wheelbase cars, so far as handling goes, should look for an article by Don Sherman in the November 1974 issue of Car and Driver, which tested a variety of common strategies for improving the Celica’s handling to see which did and did not work. (Spoiler alert: many did not.)

  7. Interesting, I always thought Celica taillight design cues aped those of early Mustangs, but looking at that 2000 GT rear shots, it would seem that today’s Mustangs borrow from the 2000 GT’s.

    Somehow if you stare at them bumper and below look like old mustang, and above look like new mustang.

    1. True. The three-light taillight design for 1976 really pushed the Mustang resemblance, though — I have to wonder why they did that.

  8. Another great article! Thanks for transporting me back to 1975 and my first ever new car. I remember it as a sporty and stylish car for the time, and a big step up from what I has been driving. Probably my biggest automotive mistake was trading it in on a Triumph Spitfire that was as big a headache as the Celica was reliable.

    1. Thanks, Frank! I appreciate the kind words.

  9. After scanning My JDM catalog collection again today, I’d like to point out the color keyed elastometer bumpers were actually an option on all Japanese trim lines up to at least February 1972 (per catalog 30105-4702). The option appears to have been changed to ST/GT hardops only by March 1973 (catalog 141016-4803), and was gone completely by November 1974 (catalog 141048-4911).

    1. Interesting — at launch, both the earliest JDM brochure and the initial press release indicate that the elastomer bumper option was available only on the ST and GT. The ’72 models added certain option/model/powertrain combinations that hadn’t been available at launch, so it appears they expanded availability and then rolled it back in 1973. The elastomer covers were gone by January 1974, so far as I can tell, and I’ve found no indication that they were offered on the Liftback at all. All this suggests to me that take-up for the option was not very good and that Toyota finally decided it wasn’t worth the hassles.

  10. I own a 1974 Celica RA25 2 litre EFI liftback can anyone tell me if this motor will run on unleaded fuel I have been told many JDM cars did in the 1970’s

    1. That’s a good question. Toyota advertised the injected 18R-E as a regular-fuel engine (although at 9.1:1, its compression ratio was a little higher than most of Toyota’s ’70s regular-fuel engines), so I wouldn’t assume unleaded fuel would be a concern so far as octane rating goes. However, I’m not a mechanic, so I’d advise that you seek out a 1974 or 1975 JDM owner’s manual (or shop manual) for the Celica, Carina, or Corona, which all offered the 18R-E in identical specification, to see if there are any specific caveats about unleaded or low-lead fuel.

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