Celestial Pony: Toyota’s First-Generation Celica

SUBDUED SPORTINESS

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.

1973 Toyota Celica 1600ST (TA22L) secondary gauges © 2011 Lino Manuel Araújo Pinheiro

Most first-generation Celicas had full instrumentation. A tachometer, an ammeter, and oil pressure and coolant temperature gauges were included with the S and SW packs on JDM cars and were standard on the GT and export ST models. (Photo © 2011 Lino Manuel Araújo Pinheiro; used with permission)

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.

1972 Toyota Celica ST (RA21L) wheel trim © 2011 Aaron Severson

If you’ll permit us a subjective judgment, wheel covers (or wheel trims, if you prefer) were not a strong point for Japanese designers of this era; the exposed steel wheels of 1974 and later cars (or the available alloy wheels) looked much better. The narrow standard tires also did nothing for the Celica’s cornering prowess. (author photo)

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.

1973 Toyota Celica 1600ST hardtop (TA22L) tail identification badge © 2011 Lino Manuel Araújo Pinheiro (with permission)

In some markets, Celica 1600ST export cars were offered only with the four-speed manual gearbox, but the five-speed (and in some markets automatic) became available by 1973. In the U.S. and Canada, the first-generation Celica ST was never offered with a five-speed, which was exclusive to the GT on Norm American cars. (Photo © 2011 Lino Manuel Araújo Pinheiro; used with permission)

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.

1974 Toyota Celica (RA21L) 18R-C engine © 2011 dave_7 (with permission)

All 1972–1974 North American Celicas had the 1,968 cc (120 cu. in.) 18R-C engine, rated at 110 hp (82 kW) and 118 lb-ft (160 N-m) SAE gross or 97 hp (72 kW) and 106 lb-ft (144 N-m) SAE net. Like the 1,858 cc (113 cu. in.) 8R-C engine it superseded, the OHC 18R-C was a rugged, dependable, economical engine. However, it wasn’t as racy as its twin-cam 18R-G cousin or as torquey as the later 20R and didn’t much like to be revved. (Photo: “1974 Toyota Celica engine” © 2011 dave_7; used with permission)

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.

1974 Toyota Celica 1600GT hardtop (TA22L) dashboard © 2015 Rui Coelho (with permission)

Although all first-generation North American Celicas had woodgrain interior trim, GT models in Japan and other markets had a more sober silver-gray dashboard treatment. (Photo © 2015 Rui Coelho; used with permission)

STAR PERFORMER

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.

1973 Toyota Celica 1600ST hardtop (TA22L) grille emblem © 2011 Lino Manuel Araújo Pinheiro (with permission)

The Celica emblem is not a swan (as some English-speaking observers seem to think), but rather a celestial dragon boat with stars in its wings/oars, signifying that it sails through the heavens rather than the seas. Racing dragon boats have been an annual tradition in some parts of Japan for more than 600 years and are associated with both speed and good fortune. (Photo © 2011 Lino Manuel Araújo Pinheiro; used with permission)

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.

1973 Toyota Celica 1600ST hardtop (TA22) front © 2011 Lino Manuel Araújo Pinheiro (with permission)

First-generation Celicas used several different grille designs, depending on grade and model year. Early models had their grille emblems and grade badges on the same side, one above the other, but from 1973 on, the emblem moved to the left side. These sport mirrors were specific to the ST and GT; JDM ET and LT models had more conventional rectangular mirrors. European Celica ST models generally had door-mounted mirrors like those of North American cars, although some owners prefer the JDM fender mirrors. Export LT models sometimes did without exterior mirrors unless they were specifically required by local regulations. (Photo © 2011 Lino Manuel Araújo Pinheiro; used with permission)

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.

1974 Toyota Celica 1600GT hardtop (TA22) front 3q © 2015 Rui Coelho (with permission)

Until the debut of the 2-liter Celica Liftback in overseas markets in 1976, most of the first-generation Celica’s racing exploits involved the TA22 1600GT, although the pushrod 1600ST saw some competition use as well. (Photo © 2015 Rui Coelho; used with permission)

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.

1974 Toyota Celica 1600GT hardtop (TA22L) 2T-G engine © 2015 Rui Coelho (with permission)

In unrestricted, high-compression form, the high-revving Toyota 2T-G engine had a respectable 108 PS (80 kW) DIN — gross ratings were 124 hp (93 kW) SAE or 115 PS (85 kW) JIS — and was capable of a good deal more. In Japan, the 2T-G’s thirst for high-octane premium gasoline prompted the later addition of a 2T-GR version with a compression ratio of 8.8:1 rather than the original 9.8:1, sacrificing 5 PS (3 kW) and 4 lb-ft (5 N-m) of torque for the ability to run on regular fuel. As far as we know, the 2T-GR wasn’t officially exported. (Photo © 2015 Rui Coelho; used with permission)

CELICA LIFTBACK

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.

1974 Toyota Celica 2000GT Liftback (RA25) front 3q © 2012 mmqmmq (used with permission)

The earliest first-generation Celica Liftback, sold only in the Japanese domestic market, was 165.9 inches (4,215mm) long on the same 95.5-inch (2,425mm) wheelbase as the contemporary Celica hardtop. The Liftback was 63.8 inches (1,620mm) wide and, in GT form, stood 50.4 inches (1,280mm) high, making it 0.8 inches (20mm) wider and 1.2 inches (30mm) lower than an equivalent hardtop. (Photo: “TOYOTA CELICA LIFTBACK 2000GT” © 2012 mmqmmq @ Flickr; used with permission)

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.

1973 Toyota Celica 1600ST (TA22L) taillights © 2011 Lino Manuel Araújo Pinheiro (with permission)

In August 1972, the Celica hardtop got revised taillights of the design pictured here. They were prompted by new Japanese safety regulations requiring the separation of the turn signal and brake lamps. (Photo © 2011 Lino Manuel Araújo Pinheiro; used with permission)

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.

1974 Toyota Celica 1600GTV © 2015 Wil Hata (with permission)

All JDM Celica hardtops built between January 1974 and October 1975 had this new nose (stretched from the wheel arch forward), increasing overall length to 166.7 inches (4,235mm) and overall width to 63.4 inches (1,610mm). This 1974 TA22 hardtop is the racy GTV (“GT Victory”) grade, which had the 1600GT powertrain, a lowered suspension (which reduces overall height to 51.2 inches/1,300mm), standard radial tires, and an oil temperature gauge, but not the GT’s AM/FM radio, power windows, or OK Monitor. (Photo: “Toyota Celica GTV” © 2015 Wil Hata; used with permission)

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.

1974 Toyota Celica 1600ST (TA22L) fuel filler © 2016 Rui Coelho (with permission)

A useful spotter’s tip for first-generation Celica hardtops is to note the location of the fuel filler, which moved to the left sail panel in August 1972. (Photo © 2016 Rui Coelho; used with permission)

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.)

1974 Toyota Celica 1600ST sail panel trim Rui Coelho (with permission)

Although export Celica hardtops didn’t get the new nose of 1974–1975 JDM cars, one common new feature was the revised sail panel trim, which was now divided into four rectangular shapes. (Photo © 2016 Rui Coelho; used with permission)

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.

1973 Toyota Celica 2000GT Liftback (RA25) hood vents © 2014 Iwao (CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic)

Early JDM Celica Liftbacks (chassis codes TA27 and RA25) had a new hood vent design, which JDM hardtops adopted in January 1974. They were not used on export models and were replaced in November 1975 by the simpler slot design shared by 1976–1977 export Celicas. (Photo: “Toyota Celica Liftback, 1973” © 2014 Iwao; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

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.

1975 Toyota Celica 2000GT Liftback (RA25) rear © 2015 Ross.K (with permission)

With its twin-cam 1,968 cc (120 cu. in.) 18R-G engine and 140–145 PS (103–107 kW) JIS gross, the Celica 2000GT was the fastest first-generation Celica. Early Liftbacks used this a five-light taillight design and concealed the fuel filler behind the center panel on which the “2000GT” emblem is mounted. 1976–1977 (RA28/RA29/RA35L) Liftbacks, including all export Liftbacks, relocated the fuel filler to the rear fender and had a simpler three-light taillight design. (Photo: “1975 Toyota Celica GT 2000” © 2015 Ross.K; used with permission)

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.)

1974 Toyota Carina 2000 EFI (RA15) 18R-E engine © 2014 TTTNIS (PD - CC0 1.0)

The 18R-E was still a SOHC engine with inline valves, sharing the carbureted 18R’s 1,968 cc (120 cu. in.) displacement, but featured electronic fuel injection, developed by Toyota in partnership with Nippondenso. Surprisingly, this system didn’t survive Japan’s mid-seventies emissions standards, perhaps because Toyota and Denso had already opted to license the newer Bosch L-Jetronic system for use on future emissions-controlled engines. Both the twin-cam 2T-G and 18R-G engines later adopted Denso-built L-Jetronic injection, creating the 2T-GEU and 18R-GEU engines offered on second-generation Celicas and some other JDM Toyota models. (Photo: “Toyota 18R-E engine.jpg” © 2013 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)

BUMPER BATTLES

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.)

1974 Toyota Celica GT (RA21L) front 3q © 2010 dave_7 (with permission)

The addition of front and rear overriders to the bumpers of North American Celicas increased overall length to 168.2 inches (4,272mm) for 1973 and 169.2 inches (4,297mm) for 1974, bringing curb weight to around 2,400 lb (1,090 kg). U.S. and Canadian Celica GTs, like this Canadian RA21, had 185/70HR13 tires, firmer springs and shocks, and a five-speed gearbox, but no more power than lesser models. (Photo: “1974 Toyota Celica” © 2010 dave_7; used with permission)

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.

1975 Toyota Celica GT (RA22) front © 2015 Donald Christian (with permission)

For 1975, North American Celicas got bulky new 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers, a new 2,189 cc (134 cu. in.) 20R engine, a new hood with prominent power bulge (accentuated on this car by the accent stripe), and a new RA22 chassis code. Note the hood vent trim; 1973–1975 North American Celicas traded the more obtrusive vent trim of early STs for the simpler style used on low-end JDM models from 1971–1973. (Photo: “1975 Toyota Celica GT” © 2015 Donald Christian; used with permission)

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.

1976 or 1977 Toyota Celica GT hardtop (RA24) front 3q © 2016 Andrew Buc (with permission)

1976 and 1977 North American Celicas retained the 1975 bumpers, but had a new hood (now shared across all markets) with a flatter central bulge and plainer vents, now free of pot metal trim. Note the painted filler plate behind the bumper, a somewhat clumsy-looking detail that emphasizes how much of an afterthought the bigger bumpers were from a design standpoint. Surprisingly, Japanese buyers could order these bumpers on 1976–1977 JDM Liftbacks, although JDM cars omitted the center overriders used on North American Celicas. (Photo © 2016 Andrew Buc; used with permission)

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.

1976 or 1977 Toyota Celica GT hardtop (RA24) rear © 2016 Andrew Buc (with permission)

Beginning with the 1975 model year, the U.S. 5 mph (8 km/h) standard (which was also adopted in Canada) applied to the rear bumper even on compacts and sports cars. Consequently, all 1975–1977 North American Celicas had larger bumpers in back as well as up front. (Photo © 2016 Andrew Buc; used with permission)

30 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.

      1. Entirely different, unrelated cars. The Galant was made by Mitsubishi, the Capella by Toyo Kogyo.

  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.

  11. Hats off to an excellent new article by Aaron. It’s always worth the wait. I wish more writers would take the same care as Aaron towards any subject they cover, and be as tolerant and kind to everyone who comments. Please, keep up the great work.

  12. I own a 1st gen. orange 1977 Toyota Celica GT Hardtop Coupe. I was researching pricing to sell it, because I just bought a new car that is more practical for my lifestyle (unfortunately). I’ve owned my Celica for 18 years now and have driven it hundreds of thousands of miles. It was my first and only car until now. It’s been my constant companion for half of my life. Reliable, solid, and soooo much fun to drive!

    I first took it to college and it got me from my hometown of Seattle 225 miles south to Oregon and back regularly. It’s been my daily commuter car to work. I’ve even taken it car camping. My favorite thing is when I find the rare open road in Seattle on a balmy summer night at just the right time, and the perfect feeling of bliss I get as I accelerate, drop it into fourth, and the wind blows through my hair as I listen to the crackly old school radio blasting. Driving it is like entering a portal to the past when things were simpler, and it’s like a time capsule of my youth.

    I still love my Celica so much and selling it is particularly difficult for me. I know, people say it’s just a car but I have so many amazing memories of my youth wrapped up in this piece of metal and glass and vinyl.

    So when I came across this site I got all nostalgic and started reading through this article. As I scrolled by the first picture of the orange 1977 Celica I thought to myself, “Wow, what a nice looking Celica. I wonder where it’s located (since there aren’t many of them left in good condition). It looks really similar to mine.” Then imagine my surprise and delight as I scrolled past the other two photos of the same car, recognized my bumper sticker (I know, bad idea, but I was 18) and the surroundings as my neighborhood! It looks like my Celica because it is! Thanks for making me smile. I think I’ll cry when I sell it (hopefully to someone who will restore it and love it as much as I do!)

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