1975 and 1976 were challenging years for the auto industry for another reason: the enactment of considerably tougher emissions standards in Japan and Australia as well as the U.S. and Canada. While the U.S. Clean Air Act, passed in 1970, had set the initial emissions control targets, Japan approached them on a considerably more aggressive timetable — Japan’s late-seventies standards were actually tougher than California’s.
Toyota faced a bigger problem in North America, where stricter emissions standards coincided with the introduction of the heavier 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers. The solution was a new and larger engine for North American Celicas, Coronas, and Hilux pickups. Called 20R, it was a development of the R-system block with a 9mm (0.34-inch) longer stroke — bringing displacement to 2,189 cc (134 cu. in.) — and a new aluminum cylinder head with hemispherical combustion chambers and crossflow valves, operated by rockers from the single overhead camshaft.
Inevitably, there was also a plethora of additional emissions control equipment, which now included not only air injection, but also exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) and, on California cars, a catalytic converter. A heavy-duty radiator and fan helped to keep the emissions hardware short of meltdown on hot summer days. The bigger engine also brought with it a new chassis code: RA22.
The 20R had no more peak power than did the 18R-C; in fact, SAE net output actually dipped slightly from 97 to 96 hp (72 kW), or 90 hp (67 kW) in California. However, better breathing made the new engine more responsive and the fatter torque curve provided more power throughout the rev range. Peak torque climbed from 106 lb-ft (144 N-m) to 120 lb-ft (163 N-m; 122 lb-ft/165 N-m on 1976 California cars and 1977 49-state and Canadian Celicas). As a result, the latest North American Celica was somewhat quicker despite its extra weight and, on GTs, a taller final drive ratio. The downside was that the 20R engine was noisy and felt a tad agricultural when pressed.
In the home market, the Celica’s remaining premium-fuel engines were all dropped for 1975. In November of that year, Toyota made further powertrain changes to meet the next round of Japanese emissions standards, reducing the available JDM engine options to only three. All now had catalytic converters, air injection, and EGR, signified by a “U” suffix in their engine codes.
Base engine was now the 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) 2T-U, rated at 90 PS (66 kW) JIS gross. (Its net output was probably about 75 hp (56 kW), similar to the 2T-C engine in contemporary North American Corollas.) The midlevel choice, and the only one now available with automatic, was the SOHC 18R-U, rated at 100 PS (74 kW). Top of the line was the DOHC 18RG-U, making 130 PS (96 kW). It was now the only twin-cam offering; the 1.6-liter 2T-G would not return to the lineup until the debut of the second-generation Celica. With the revised engines came new chassis codes: TA23/RA23 for hardtops, TA28/RA28 for Liftbacks.
In 1976, Australia enacted ADR 27A, which imposed NOx limits similar to the 1975 U.S. federal level. Emissions controls had trimmed the output of Australian Celicas’ single-carburetor 2T-C engine to 75 net hp (56 kW), about the same as in Japan or the U.S. A detoxed 18R-C engine, similar to the now-discontinued U.S. version, arrived around the time ADR 27A went into effect, making a lackluster 85 net hp (63 kW).
These emissions-related changes did not, as yet, affect customers in other markets. Starting in 1975, the twin-cam 2T-G engine became available in the U.K. and certain other European markets where it hadn’t previously been offered. Beginning in 1976, European markets also got the 18R and DOHC 18R-G engines, generally in addition to the existing single-carburetor 2T and dual-carburetor 2T-B, which were now rated at 75 PS (55 kW) and 86 PS (63 kW) respectively.
A FINAL TOUCHUP
In November 1975, the Celica and Carina received what would be their last round of cosmetic and structural changes in this generation. Both cars got a wheelbase stretch of about 3 inches (70mm) ahead of the firewall, to 98.2 inches (2,495mm), and their track width was increased both front and rear. Front track was now 52.6–53.1 inches (1,335–1,350mm) depending on wheels and tires, up from only 50.4 inches (1,280mm) on the original 1971 Celica and Carina.
Why Toyota would go to this trouble with cars now very close to the end of their design lives is not altogether clear. The official explanation was that the longer wheelbase provided more room for emissions control equipment, but North American Celicas had been able to mount all that hardware within the original wheelbase, even with the longer 20R engine. Our suspicion is that the front-end changes were a means of streamlining production at the Tsutsumi Plant, which would shortly begin building Coronas and Carinas on a common assembly line. The longer wheelbase and wider front end put the dimensions of the Celica and Carina within fractions of an inch (5mm) of the T100 Corona, which probably made it easier for the three cars to share transfer equipment and production facilities.
Whatever the rationale, the changes had the ancillary benefit of transforming the Celica’s previously stodgy handling. The early A20 Celica’s principal dynamic flaw had been massive roll understeer. Early Celicas were almost as nose-heavy as a big-block American pony car, particularly with the heavier R-system engines and air conditioning. With such a narrow front track, tight turns would cause substantial body roll, which with the stock front suspension geometry promoted significant camber loss. The front anti-roll bar resisted the body lean at the cost of heavily loading the inside front tire, resulting in ponderous understeer.
The front-end changes mitigated this problem in two ways. First, widening the front track reduced the Celica’s tendency to deposit its weight on the inside front tire without also increasing understeer-promoting front roll stiffness. Second, extending the wheelbase shifted more of the Celica’s static weight toward the rear axle, so there was less weight on the front tires to begin with. Even with those changes, the Celica would still understeer at the limit, but long-wheelbase cars (especially the Liftback, which had more weight over the rear axle) could now sustain significantly higher cornering speeds than before. Newly available 5½Jx14 wheels and 185/70HR14 tires were a further boon to lateral acceleration.
Thus revised, the Celica Liftback was finally introduced to export markets for 1976, supplementing but not replacing the hardtop. Both JDM and export cars shared the longer wheelbase and wider track along with other minor revisions, including a tidied-up dashboard layout, a relocated OK Monitor system (now available on some export models under the name Electro Sensor Panel, or ESP), bigger front brakes, and a larger fuel tank. These updates were signified with new chassis codes: Outside North America, Celica hardtops were now coded TA23/RA23, Liftbacks TA28/RA28. Late North American hardtops had the chassis code RA24 while the new Liftback was RA29.
Japanese Celicas retained the same three-engine lineup as the previous year, but there were some gaps in engine availability during the 1976 calendar year as Toyota certified the various powertrain combinations for the tougher 51 Showa NOx standards. JDM Celicas meeting the 1976 standards had new chassis codes: TA35/RA35. This change wasn’t reflected in other markets.
Despite the inevitable complaints about its styling being derivative of the Mustang’s, the Celica Liftback got a surprisingly warm reception outside Japan, winning Motor Trend‘s 1976 Import Car of the Year Award.
Derivative or not, the Liftback body was sleek and sporty-looking even with the big North American bumpers. It was also a much-improved car in many respects. The Celica was still not as nimble as the new Volkswagen Scirocco, but the Toyota was a capable and reasonably economical highway cruiser that no longer lost its footing any time the road curved sharply. (A good rack-and-pinion steering setup would have iced the cake, but the Celica wouldn’t switch to rack-and-pinion steering until the third-generation A60.)
Straight-line performance was decent as well, at least with the bigger R-system engines. Even the lightest TA23/TA35 Celica 1600LT hardtop (the base 1600ET was dropped during 1976) was about 200 lb (90 kg) heavier than an early TA22, so cars with the latest single-carb 2T engine were rather sleepy, needing more than 15 seconds to reach 60 mph (97 km/h). Specifying the single-carburetor 18R, which was very mildly tuned even in European Celicas, trimmed 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times to the high 12-second range. We’ve yet to find independent test results for the late 2000GT or 2000GTV, but British ads claimed a top speed of 114 mph (184 km/h) and 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times in the high 9-second range, which for once sounds a bit too conservative. (Given the 2000GT’s weight and claimed output, we’d estimate 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in about 9 seconds flat and a top speed of 118 mph (190 km/h).)
Assessing the performance of the North American RA24/RA29 Celica is a bit more difficult. Celicas with the 20R engine were definitely quicker than cars with the earlier 18R-C, but several 1976 road tests of the new RA29 returned credibility-straining 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times of 10 seconds or less — more than a second quicker than any previous U.S. test. Given the Celica Liftback’s substantial curb weight and unchanged output, those results suggest a press car with more than its normal allotment of vitamins. Quarter-mile (400m) elapsed times were still in the low 18s, more plausible for the Celica’s weight and output, while top speed remained about 104 mph (167 km/h). Fuel economy was also little changed at around 23–24 mpg (10 L/100 km) overall, reaching perhaps 27 mpg (8.7 L/100 km) on the highway with the five-speed gearbox.
While these aren’t impressive numbers today, they were pretty good for the mid-seventies, particularly given the Celica’s price. Comparably priced V-8 rivals like the Ford Mustang II or H-body Chevrolet Monza were quicker, but not dramatically so, and neither could approach the Toyota’s fuel economy or assembly quality. The Ford Capri remained a strong rival, as did the Scirocco, but if you were shopping for a compact sports coupe in this era, the Celica was at least worth a close look.
In Europe, the Celica’s reputation got an additional boost thanks to its return to WRC competition. Toyota Team Europe’s new RA28 2000GT Liftbacks scored no overall victories in the 1976 or 1977 seasons, but earned two second-place and two third-place finishes, a respectable showing.
Consequently, what on the surface appeared to be a modest update of an aging platform proved to be a shot in the arm for global Celica sales. European sales rebounded after a lackluster showing in 1974–1975 while U.S. exports jumped more than 50% for 1976 and an additional 63% for 1977, accounting for a substantial percentage of all U.S. Toyota sales in those years.
In the home market, business remained steady — in Japan, the Liftback had been around for almost three years at that point and the only significant changes had been emissions-related — but that was no bad thing. Celica sales during the latter part of the run still averaged about 50,000 units a year, excellent for a JDM specialty model.
Combined with robust export business, worldwide Celica sales topped 220,000 units in 1976 and passed the quarter-million mark in calendar 1977, the final year of the first generation. The last A20/A35 Celicas were built that July, short after aggregate production topped 1 million units. The U.S.-designed second-generation Celica, coded A40, debuted in late August, along with the new A40 Carina.