BUILDING THE PARTS BIN
Although the early Carina shared some exterior sheet metal with the contemporary T80 Corona, the first-generation Carina/Celica platform was mechanically quite different. Toyota assigned the Carina/Celica a different chassis code, signified by the letter “A” (A10 for the first Carina, A20 for the first Celica) rather than “T” for the Corona.
Since the first-generation A-platform cars were developed more or less concurrently with the second-generation (E20) Corolla and Sprinter, their engineering teams compared notes and looked for opportunities for mechanical commonality between those platforms. (It’s worth noting that even in the sixties, Toyota was already using a platform team model for product development. The chief engineer of the original Celica and Carina was Tatsuo Hasegawa, who had also been chief engineer for the first-generation Corolla project; Shiro Sasaki, who had been Hasegawa’s assistant on the E10 Corolla, was chief engineer for the E20 Corolla/Sprinter.)
While the contemporary Corona had double wishbones in front, the A10 Carina, A20 Celica, and E20 Corolla and Sprinter all shared a new MacPherson strut front suspension. Unlike the early E10 Corolla, which had used struts with an auxiliary transverse leaf spring affixed to the lower wishbones, the new setup was a fairly conventional coil-over strut layout, located by transverse control arms, radius rods, and an anti-roll bar. This layout was shared across all four cars, although springs and shock absorbers varied by application.
The Carina and Celica did not share the E20 Corolla/Sprinter’s rear leaf springs, instead introducing a new five-link layout on coil springs. Although the Datsun 510 Bluebird and Nissan’s Fairlady Z, launched in late 1969, both had fully independent suspension, Toyota was not yet willing to embrace the additional cost of independent rear suspension for mass-market cars. However, the five-link suspension did provide a better compromise between ride and axle location than did Hotchkiss drive. Toyota would eventually apply variations of this five-link layout to most of its RWD cars, including later versions of the Mark II and eventually the Corona and Corolla/Sprinter.
Another major Carina/Celica component shared with the Corolla and Sprinter was the new T-system four-cylinder engine family. While the engine bay of the Carina and Celica could accommodate the physically larger, somewhat heavier R-system fours found in the Corona and Mark II, the T-system engine would be the major focus for JDM cars, accompanied by a new gearbox that would be offered in both four- and five-speed versions.
The T-system four represented a series of interesting compromises. Where the R-system engines at that point were all-iron, with a single overhead camshaft and inline valves, the T engines had aluminum heads, a block-mounted cam with pushrods, hemispherical combustion chambers, and inclined valves with an included angle of 90°. In effect, the T engines traded some extra reciprocating mass for better volumetric efficiency.
Initially, the new engine would be built in two sizes: the 1,407 cc (86 cu. in.) T, shared with the Corolla and Sprinter, and the 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) 2T, shared with some export Corollas. (There would later be a 1,770 cc/108 cu. in. 3T version, but it wasn’t available at launch and was never offered in the first-generation Celica.) As was becoming the JDM norm, the T-system engine would be offered in several states of tune, including high-compression, dual-carburetor variants and a high-performance iteration with a DOHC head, designed for Toyota by Yamaha.
What’s noteworthy here is not that any of this was technically groundbreaking, which it clearly was not, but that surprisingly little of it was pre-existing equipment. Of course, Toyota intended to use the new hardware as widely as possible, but the company was effectively creating a mostly new parts bin to build a parts-bin pony car.
THE FULL-CHOICE CELICA
Any realistic analysis of the early American pony cars makes clear that their success was as much a matter of effective merchandising as any stylistic or technical merit. Toyota’s marketing approach for the A20 Celica demonstrated how diligently the Japanese product planners had done their homework in that area.
Initially, the A20 Celica was offered in only one body style: the obligatory notchback hardtop, sharing some design themes with the considerably more radical EX-1 concept car Toyota had exhibited at the 1969 Tokyo Motor Show. Aesthetically, the production hardtop was a straightforward synthesis of pony car styling cues. The A20 Celica didn’t look exactly like a Mustang, or for that matter a Camaro or Firebird, but it was clearly of the same genre. A few details, like the quasi-functional pot-metal hood vents, were a trifle over the top (a charge that could also be levied against many contemporary American sporty cars), but in the main, the Celica hardtop was pleasant and tasteful.
Toyota made up for the lack of body style choices with a copious array of appearance options. Japanese Celica buyers had their choice of four exterior trim levels (ET, LT, ST, or GT), offering ascending degrees of brightwork and stripes that you could further dress up with a vinyl top and, on ST and GT models, color-keyed elastomer bumper covers.
There were also four interior trim levels. The GT had its own specific decor package, but the ET, LT, and ST grades could be ordered with your choice of Basic, Deluxe, or Custom interior trim. Borrowing a page from the Ford Capri‘s merchandising book, these could then be combined with optional S and SW packs that added full instrumentation and other minor features, either with or without a heavy slathering of simulated woodgrain.
The A20 Celica’s engine lineup didn’t quite approach the convolutions of the European Capri, but even at launch, there were four JDM engine options. Cheapest and thriftiest was the base 1.4-liter T engine, with 86 PS (63 kW) JIS gross, followed by the 1.6-liter 2T in two states of tune: a low-compression, single-carburetor version, rated at 100 PS (74 kW) JIS gross or 102 hp (76 kW) SAE gross, and the high-compression 2T-B version, which used two Aisan downdraft carburetors rather than just one and had gross ratings of 105 PS (77 kW) JIS or 113 hp (84 kW) SAE.
Exclusive to the GT was the DOHC 2T-G engine, the Celica’s opening bid for performance credibility. Along with its high-compression aluminum head and chain-driven dual overhead camshafts, the 2T-G had twin Solex 40PHH side-draft carburetors, made under license by Mikuni, which brought gross output to 115 PS (85 kW) JIS or 124 hp (93 kW) SAE. (Its European net rating was 108 PS (79 kW) DIN).)
With the 2T and 2T-B engines, you had your choice of four- or five-speed manual transmission or a three-speed Toyoglide automatic (actually a Borg-Warner design built by Aisin). The five-speed was mandatory with the GT and wasn’t offered with the 1400 until the 1972 model year. All but 1.4-liter cars had standard front disc brakes with a vacuum booster. The GT also included a firmer suspension, H-rated tires, an AM/FM radio, power windows, and several other standard convenience features. (Not wanting to leave any bases uncovered, about two years after launch, Toyota added a new GTV grade for buyers who only wanted the performance equipment.)
Careful review of the sales catalog revealed certain limits to the possible combinations of trim and powertrain, but there were more than two dozen available permutations before even glancing at the extensive options list. To ensure that Japanese buyers could fully exploit those possibilities, Toyota instituted a new dealer order entry system that made it possible to take delivery of your personalized Celica within two weeks of specifying the exact combination of features you wanted. It was as close as the Japanese market had yet come to U.S.-style cafeteria ordering.
All of this was arguably overkill, but it’s clear Toyota was looking to make a point: The Celica was a new type of car for the domestic market, not simply another prosaic coupe or hardtop. It was the coming of the personal car, which over the next two decades Japan would embrace almost as enthusiastically as had the U.S.
PRICES AND RIVALS
None of this would have mattered if Toyota had fumbled on price. When the Celica and Carina went on sale in Japan in December 1970, the cheapest Celica 1400ET (chassis code TA20) had a list price of only ¥572,000, equivalent to about $1,600 at the soon-to-be-extinct Bretton Woods exchange rate. For context, that was ¥50,000–¥53,000 (about $140–$150) more than a basic Corona 1500 (RT80) or Carina 1400 (TA10) sedan, but actually ¥2,000 less than a second-generation Corolla 1200SL (KE25) coupe.
Availing yourself of the many options naturally pushed the price considerably higher. A four-speed Celica 1600ST (chassis code TA22) with Custom SW trim — similar to early European export models — listed for ¥783,500 (around $2,175) in Tokyo. The twin-cam 1600GT started at ¥875,000 (about $2,430). However, even that was quite reasonable considering what you got for the money. The cheapest Nissan Fairlady Z started at ¥930,000 (about $2,580), and that was for a basic 2-liter model.
The first-generation Celica’s most obvious competitor was the equally new Mitsubishi Colt Galant GTO, which debuted about five weeks earlier. Since the Colt Galant sedan was a direct rival for the Carina, it was natural that the Galant GTO coupe would go head to head with the Celica. The Mitsubishi was a fastback rather than a notchback, but the dimensions of the early GTO and A20 Celica were almost identical and their specifications were very similar. The biggest mechanical difference between the two was the Celica’s five-link rear suspension; the Galant GTO had leaf springs in back, supplemented on the top-spec GTO-MR with radius rods.
Although the early A53C Galant GTO was a close match for the TA22 Celica in performance, the Mitsubishi couldn’t equal the Toyota for selection or price. You couldn’t get a 1.4-liter engine in the GTO — Mitsubishi was reserving that for the cut-down Galant FTO that arrived a year later — and there were fewer variations of trim and features. The GTO also cost more than a comparably equipped Celica, particularly the hot GTO-MR, which, like the Celica GT, had a twin-cam engine and five-speed gearbox. The GTO-MR’s Saturn AIII engine claimed a 10 PS (7 kW) advantage over the Celica’s optional 2T-G, but the twin-cam GTO listed for ¥1,145,000, a substantial ¥270,000 ($750) more than its Toyota rival.
As for other rivals, like the new Mazda Capella RE (a.k.a. RX-2), none had the Celica’s image — or Toyota’s marketing budget and JDM dealer base. There just wasn’t much else like the Celica in Japan in 1970–1971.
There were quite a few cars like the Toyota Celica in other markets, but the A20 Celica made a good showing as an export model, thanks in large part to aggressive pricing and generous specification. In the U.S., for example, an early Celica listed for $2,598, undercutting a comparably equipped Opel 1900 Rallye (the federalized Manta A) or Mazda RX-2 by more than $200.
For obvious practical reasons, the JDM Celica’s “Full Choice System” was not available abroad. Early export Celicas were offered in only a few discrete trim levels with very few extra-cost options beyond the dealer-installed variety. Some markets got the Celica 1600LT as a base model, usually offered exclusively with the single-carburetor 2T engine, but many early export cars were the 1600ST, usually fitted with the dual-carburetor 2T-B. By late 1972, the twin-cam 1600GT had become available in at least some overseas markets, as had the five-speed manual and automatic transmission. So far as we’ve been able to determine, neither the ET nor the base Celica 1400 was ever officially exported.
Early North American Celicas (chassis code RA20) were sold only in ST form with the equivalent of Custom SW trim: fabric/vinyl upholstery, woodgrain appliqué, and gauge package. Instead of the pushrod T-system engines, the RA20 used the 1,858 cc (113 cu. in.) SOHC 8R-C four from the contemporary U.S.-market Corona, Mark II, and Toyota Hilux, offered only with the Corona’s W40 four-speed gearbox. In September 1971, all those models switched to the bigger 1,968 cc (120 cu. in.) 18R-C engine, a change indicated on Celicas by a new RA21 chassis code. Output was about the same for both engines: The 8R-C had 108 hp (81 kW) SAE gross while the 18R-C had 110 hp (82 kW) SAE gross, or 97 hp (72 kW) on the new SAE net scale.
Although Toyota didn’t offer a 1.6-liter Celica in the U.S. or Canada, the TA12 Carina 1600 did make a brief appearance in North America, beginning in 1972. The federalized Carina used the same single-carburetor 2T-C engine as the Corolla 1600, now rated at 88 hp (66 kW) SAE net, along with the T40 four-speed gearbox. The Carina got generally good reviews in the U.S., but buyers didn’t see the point and the model was dropped around the time the T100 Corona debuted for 1974. (The Carina remained available in Japan and some other markets through the end of the century.)