On paper, the A20 Celica was a pony car triumph: It had the right stance, the right look, good seats, an appropriately sporty driving position, a comprehensive array of gauges, and an enticing price.
How well the Celica lived up to its appealing image depended somewhat on your expectations. Compared to most contemporary Japanese or American sedans, the Celica didn’t handle badly, but cornering grip was a meager 0.63–0.64g, not helped by narrow 4½Jx13 wheels and modest rubber: 6.45-13 bias-plies on most JDM Celicas, 165SR13 radials on most early export cars. The stiffer GT suspension was better-damped, but offered little real handling benefit. Power steering wasn’t available and the unassisted recirculating ball steering was heavy, rather slow, and numb on center.
Admittedly, a lot of early U.S. pony cars didn’t handle especially well either, but the A20 Celica was not especially agile compared to contemporary European sporty cars or even a properly equipped Chevrolet Vega. In partial compensation, the Celica had a surprisingly good ride, particularly considering its short wheelbase and limited suspension travel. The Toyota was substantially more compliant than the stiff-legged Ford Capri or Galant GTO, suggesting that the A-platform’s coil-sprung five-link rear suspension had been money well spent.
As for straight-line performance, that depended heavily on where you were and which powertrain options you had chosen. Since only a few of the available engine/transmission combinations were exported, the only performance data we have for the rest are the factory figures, most of which strike us as wildly optimistic. By those figures, the slowest early Celica variants were 1600s with automatic and the four-speed 1400, although Toyota claimed even those could hit 100 mph (160 km/h) and run the quarter mile (400m) in 18.1 seconds.
In independent road tests, export Celicas with the single-carburetor 2T engine could complete the 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) sprint in a bit less than 13 seconds. The dual-carburetor 2T-B engine cut about a second from that time and brought top speed to around 105–106 mph (170 km/h) — a bit shy of Toyota’s claimed 109 mph (175 km/h), but very respectable for a 1.6-liter car of this era. According to the factory, selecting the five-speed gearbox increased top speed by 3 mph (5 km/h) and trimmed 0.2 seconds from quarter-mile (400m) times, thanks mostly to a shorter axle ratio than was normally specified with four-speed cars.
The performance star was the twin-cam Celica 1600GT, which could reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in the low 9-second range. We’ve found no independent road test that came within a half second of Toyota’s 16.5-second quarter-mile (400m) times, and the 115 mph (185 km/h) top speed quoted by the British importer seems nearer the mark than the factory’s 118 mph (190 km/h) claim. Nonetheless, the real-world figures were no cause for shame. Mitsubishi claimed that the rare, pricey twin-cam Galant GTO-MR was faster, quoting a top speed of 124 mph (200 km/h), but we strongly doubt the GTO-MR was quicker than the TA22 Celica 1600GT, which had the same torque output and weighed less.
Predictably, North America got the short end of the performance stick. Toyota advertising claimed the 1.9-liter Celica ST could run the quarter mile (400m) in 17.5 seconds and reach 109 mph (175 km/h), but with the 8R-C engine’s primitive emissions controls and North American cars’ taller 3.70 axle ratio, that was wishful thinking. Early independent test results were curiously varied, but averaging the figures yields 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times of about 12.5 seconds, quarter mile (400m) elapsed times in the mid-18s, and a top speed of about 103 mph (165 km/h) — in other words, about the same as non-U.S. Celicas with the smaller 2T engine. These figures were about a match for the U.S.-market Opel 1900 Rallye, but slower than a Capri 2000 and not necessarily any quicker than the lighter Corolla 1600.
While it didn’t set any new performance records, the A20 Celica had a lot to recommend it as an inexpensive, sporty-looking commuter car. Build quality was generally very good, ergonomics were mostly excellent, and the body structure was reassuringly solid. Experience would prove the Celica reliable as well, though sadly not terribly rustproof. American buyers would undoubtedly have appreciated the option of automatic transmission (belated introduced to North America in 1973), but manual gearboxes were a Toyota strong point in this era. Better still, all of the available engines returned fine fuel economy. Even the smog-controlled 8R-C and 18R-C could return up to 23–24 mpg (about 10 L/100 km) overall, at least 10% better than most contemporary rivals.
It should come as no great shock that the A20 Celica sold pretty well. It took less than a year for production to top the 100,000-unit mark and annual production for the rest of the run was always comfortably in the six figures. Compared to the best years of the original Mustang, that wasn’t outstanding, but given that the market for cars like this in Japan was still not vast and Toyota was still building its reputation abroad, it was a very respectable total. In their first full model year, the JDM Celica outsold the Galant GTO by a margin of more than 2:1.
Global sales expanded further as the Celica arrived in additional export markets. The RA21 Celica ST was introduced in North America soon after the Japanese launch. TA22 1.6-liter cars became available in the U.K. about six months later and in Australia some six months after that. Total Celica production for the 1972 calendar year was more than 150,000 units and topped 175,000 for calendar 1973.
The Celica was also very successful on the track. As with the American pony cars it emulated, the A20 Celica’s stock suspension woes became largely irrelevant in racing tune and both the 2T-B and 2T-G engines were capable of producing considerably more power. Once the Celica was homologated, it began a brisk competition career, racking up a lengthy list of class and overall victories.
In 1972 alone, TA22 Celicas took first, second, and fourth places in the Japan Grand Prix and claimed outright victories in, among others, the Philippine Grand Prix, the Race de Nippon, the All-Japan Suzuka 1000km, and the Macau Grand Prix Touring Car Race. The following year, Swedish driver Ove Andersson drove a Celica 1600GT to class victories in two European Touring Car Championship (ETCC) events.
In rally competition, Celicas won the 1972 New Caledonia Safari and Ethiopia Highland Rallies outright, which spoke well of the stoutness of the basic structure. Ove Andersson then scored a class victory in the 1972 RAC Rally, a feat he and Geriant Phillips repeated in 1973. Andersson and Gunnar Haggbom also won their class in the 1973 Austrian Alpine Rally.
The A20 Celica continued to race throughout the model run — driver Win Percy used a 1600GT hardtop prepared by England’s Samuri Racing to claim class championships in the 1975 and 1976 British Touring Car Championship series — but the Celica’s World Rally Championship (WRC) duties were assumed for a time by the smaller and lighter TE27 Corolla Levin. Celicas finally returned to WRC in 1976.
Despite the Celica’s clear sales lead over the Colt Galant GTO, the appearance of the fastback GTO seems to have left the Celica development team fearing they might be missing a bet. A year after the public debut of the A20 Celica, Toyota’s exhibit at the 18th Tokyo Motor Show displayed a prototype fastback Celica, badged “SV-1.” A production version went on sale in early April 1973.
Although it dispensed with the SV-1’s exaggerated fender flares, the production fastback’s mostly new sheet metal made it longer, lower, and wider than the Celica hardtop despite an unchanged wheelbase. Fastback Celicas were probably more aerodynamic as well, but they were also about 155 lb (70 kg) heavier than a similarly equipped hardtop. Save for details like its five-light tail lamp treatment, the fastback Celica looked a great deal like the Galant GTO in profile or from the rear three-quarter view — enough so that a casual observer might mistake one for the other. Western observers almost uniformly remarked that the fastback Celica looked like the 1969–1970 Ford Mustang fastback, which was also true.
Toyota called the new body style a Liftback, signifying that it was a three-door hatchback rather than a two-door coupe. With its sloping fastback roofline, the Celica Liftback was, if anything, even less habitable for rear-seat passengers than was the hardtop, but the hatchback roof and folding rear seat made the Liftback more versatile for quotidian chores or the sort of “active lifestyle” pastimes that so fascinate advertising copywriters.
Celica hardtops, which had been updated in late 1972 with redesigned taillights and a relocated fuel filler on the left-hand C-pillar, retained their original front end design for about nine months after the Liftback debuted. In January 1974, Toyota communized both body styles, giving the hardtop the Liftback’s hitherto-unique front fenders, bumper, and hood. The goal was undoubtedly to simplify production, but the longer Liftback nose did arguably look better.
These changes prompted the deletion of the Celica hardtop’s previously optional elastomer bumper covers, which Toyota doesn’t appear to have adapted for the Liftback. The redesigned hardtop was now also slightly (0.8 inches/20mm) longer than the Liftback and nearly as heavy, model for model. (Contrary to some English-language accounts, both body styles retained the original 95.5-inch (4,525mm) wheelbase until November 1975.)
Facelifted hardtops also had a new optional gimmick: the OK Monitor, a bank of six roof-mounted warning lights signaling low fuel, bulb failure, and other maintenance items. Also found on the T100 Corona and some other contemporary Toyotas, the OK Monitor wasn’t offered on export Celicas until later in the model run.
THE TWIN-CAM 18R-G AND 18R-GR
Launching the Celica Liftback provided an opportune moment for the belated introduction of the bigger 1,968 cc (120 cu. in.) 18R engine to the JDM Celica lineup. This was a timely addition, since Mitsubishi had recently added its 1,995 cc (121 cu. in.) Astron engine as an option for the latest A57C Galant GTO.
Two versions of the big engine were available in home-market Celicas. The single-carburetor 18R, used in the cheaper Celica 2000ET, LT, and ST, had 105 PS (77 kW) JIS gross, increased to 110 PS (81 kW) by 1974. The new Celica 2000GT had the 18R-G engine, which had an aluminum DOHC head with hemispherical combustion chambers and twin Mikuni-Solex carburetors. With a 9.8:1 compression ratio, the 18R-G boasted 145 PS (107 kW) JIS gross, making it one of the hottest engines then available in Japan. (When this engine finally appeared in Europe in 1976, it was rated at 118 PS (87 kW) DIN.)
We note “high-compression” because Toyota now also offered regular fuel versions of most of its dual-carburetor engines as no-cost options. The low-compression engines, indicated by an “R” suffix in the engine code (e.g., 2T-BR), sacrificed 5 PS (3 kW) and a nominal 3 mph (5 km/h) in top speed.
They were signs of things to come: Japan was already beginning to phase out leaded gasoline and Japan’s Environmental Agency had recently issued a series of stringent new motor vehicle emissions standards. To meet the interim rules that took effect for fiscal 1973, JDM Celica engines now had evaporative emission canisters and some of the modifications already found on North American engines, like an annoying positioning device that held the throttle partially open on deceleration to reduce hydrocarbon emissions.
Hardtop and Liftback Celicas offered most of the same powertrain options, with some exceptions. It appears that at launch, the twin-cam 18R-G engines were exclusive to the Liftback, which couldn’t be ordered with the smaller 1.4-liter T engine. Also, you had to choose a hardtop if you wanted the dual-carburetor 2T-B with a four-speed or automatic. The existing 1.6-liter 2T-G and 2T-GR twin-cam engines remained available alongside the new 18R-G and 18R-GR; the twin-cam engines were offered only with five-speed manual gearboxes.
(For those keeping track, chassis codes for the Liftback were TA27 with the 1.6-liter engine and RA25 with either 18R. Hardtops with the 1.4- and 1.6-liter engines retained the earlier TA20/TA22 chassis codes, but the new 2-liter models were now coded RA21, like their North American counterparts.)
Both the 2000GT and the hardtop-only 1600GTV now had bigger 185/70HR13 tires on 5.0Jx13 wheels, which were optional on other models. The GTV also had a stiffer suspension and a dash-mounted oil temperature gauge/warning light. A limited-slip differential was newly optional with any DOHC engine.
Toyota claimed that either 2000GT with the high-compression 18R-G engine could run the quarter mile (400m) in 16.1 seconds and reach a top speed of 127 mph (205 km/h). Again, we don’t have independent road test data, but our guess is that the factory top speed was fanciful, a calculated figure rather than a measured one. Officially, the regular-fuel 18R-GR added 0.2 seconds to quarter-mile (400m) times as well as trimming claimed top speed to “only” 124 mph (200 km/h).
In January 1974, the twin-cam, dual-carburetor 18R-G became available on JDM hardtops as well as Liftbacks and a third 2-liter engine option joined the options list: the 18R-E, also newly available on the Carina. Previously introduced on the Corona and Mark II, the 18R-E didn’t have the 18R-G’s racy twin-cam head, but featured Toyota’s first electronic fuel injection system and boasted a JIS gross output of 130 PS (96 kW). The 18R-E was available in 2000ST-EFI form in both body styles or as a cheaper 2000LT-EFI hardtop, both offered only with a five-speed gearbox. (Coronas with that engine were also available with the W40 four-speed or with automatic.)
Sadly most of these intriguing options were again denied to Celica export customers. North American buyers still had the 18R-C, but the bigger engine wouldn’t be offered in other markets for several more years, nor would the Liftback body. Even the hardtop’s facelift was slow to show up outside Japan.
North American Celica buyers did get some significant changes during this period, the most visible of which were cumbersome front and rear bumper overriders for all 1973 models, enlarged even further for 1974. They were Toyota’s initial means of complying with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 215, which for 1973 required bumpers that could withstand a 5 mph (8 km/h) pendulum impact in front and a 2.5 mph (4 km/h) rear impact, rising to 5 mph (8 km/h) both front and rear for 1974. (After intensive industry lobbying, smaller cars like the Celica got an extra year to meet the tougher rear bumper standard.)
The overriders were only an interim solution, since they were not capable of handling the corner impact tests that FMVSS 215 would require beginning August 31, 1975. For the 1975 model year, therefore, Toyota gave North American Celicas completely new bumpers: thick horizontal beams rather than the slim U-shaped integrated units used elsewhere. The big bumpers’ added protection was valuable in urban traffic — Toyota actually offered U.S.-style bumpers as an extra-cost option on late JDM Celica Liftbacks and some other home-market models — but it was painfully obvious that the A20 Celica hadn’t been designed with them in mind. They were also heavier, which was the last thing most North American cars of this era needed.
There was some good news for American and Canadian customers: the arrival for 1974 of the RA21 Celica GT. It did not, alas, feature the DOHC 18R-G engine or even the injected 18R-E, neither of which would ever be officially imported to the U.S. or Canada. However, the North American Celica GT did have the GT suspension; the five-speed W50 gearbox from the JDM RA21/RA25 cars, linked to a shorter 3.91 axle ratio; and, perhaps most importantly, the 185/70HR13 tires and wider wheels from the Japanese Celica 2000GT. The GT’s $200 premium over the ST also bought you different upholstery and an AM/FM radio, but not the JDM car’s power windows or soberer dashboard trim.
Although the North American Celica GT wasn’t any quicker than the ST, it did handle better. Contrary to some reports, the improvement was not due to the firmer GT suspension, but rather the fatter tires, which could hold on longer before succumbing to understeer. Lateral acceleration with the bigger tires was around 0.70g, which was passable though not exceptional for the time.
Prices had also increased, reflecting both inflation and the rising value of the Japanese yen following the demise of the Bretton-Woods fixed exchange rate system. In the U.S., a 1974 Celica ST started at $3,249, up 25% from the earliest American models. It was still cheaper than rivals like the federalized Opel Manta or Ford Capri, but price was becoming enough of a concern that Toyota added a cheaper RA21 Celica LT for the Canadian market. (We’ve found no indications that the LT was offered in the U.S., but if it was, it was very rare.)
Even with the higher prices, North American Celica sales actually climbed a bit for 1974 despite the effects of the OPEC oil embargo. The embargo hit sales hard in other markets, but the RA21 Celica was an economical small car by American standards, so it remained a reasonable choice for buyers nervous about the fuel crisis. 1974 was the first year that the U.S.-market Celica outsold its JDM counterpart; it would continue to do so for the next 25 years.