Celestial Pony: Toyota’s First-Generation Celica

SUMMATION

Thanks largely to its extended model run, the first-generation Celica was the most successful of the nameplate’s seven generations, accounting for more than a quarter of all 1970–2007 Celica production. It was also the only version that was an unequivocal hit in Japan. After the A40 debuted, JDM sales pepped up briefly, returned to their previous level for 1979, and then dropped off markedly, leaving the Celica to become an increasing U.S.-focused product.

For those reasons, perhaps, the A20 Celica is well-remembered in Japan, where it’s nicknamed “Daruma,” after the popular wishing dolls. Elsewhere, the early Celica seems to have fallen into the same limbo of faint praise and half-ironic nostalgia as other once-popular mid-seventies sporty cars. It seldom achieves even the grudging respect and recognition now accorded the contemporary Datsun 240Z.

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

It’s not hard to understand why the Celica 1600GT didn’t make it to America — emissions controls would have made it no more powerful than the bigger 20R engine, with far less torque to cope with big bumpers and air conditioning. However, a federalized 18R-GU would probably have had around 15 hp (10 kW) more than the 20R and could have given the RA24/RA29 Celica GT more spring in its step. (Photo © 2015 Rui Coelho; used with permission)

At least as far as North America was concerned, it might have helped if Toyota had gone to the trouble of federalizing the twin-cam engines, if only for the sake of virtue-signaling. From a sales standpoint, it obviously didn’t matter; the first three Celica generations sold very well in the U.S. with only mild-mannered engines. However, a hotter 18R-G model (with some attention to the front suspension geometry on short-wheelbase cars) might have gotten a little more respect and attention from the English-speaking enthusiast crowd, which otherwise tends to dismiss the Celica as “Secretarial Transport.”

Misogynistic derision notwithstanding, the first-generation Celica was an extremely successful car by most objective standards. It sold well; it had a worthy competition history; and if not the most original design, it was handsome, particularly with its tidier non-U.S. bumpers. Sadly, it seems that so far as the notoriously chauvinistic automotive world is concerned, the A20 Celica was born on the wrong continent, in the wrong decade, and from the wrong company for true classic status.

# # #


AUTHOR’S NOTE

Special thanks go out to all the photographers who were kind enough to let me use their images for this story, and to Don Andreina, Rui Coelho, Scott McPherson, and George Neil for their help with research.


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NOTES ON SOURCES

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The online dictionary Jisho (jisho.org) was a big help in deciphering Japanese-language information.

Some historical exchange rate data for the dollar and the yen came from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies,” MeasuringWorth, www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission. Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate dollar equivalent of prices in non-U.S. currencies, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all equivalencies cited herein are approximate and are provided solely for the reader’s general reference — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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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