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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.)
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.