Celestial Pony: Toyota’s First-Generation Celica

The first-generation Toyota Celica is one of those cars that used to be everywhere, only to fade into an undeserved obscurity. Often ignored or dismissed by English-language automotive histories, the original Celica was a popular and significant automobile with many interesting permutations, only a few of which ever made it to America and other export markets. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we take a look at the complicated saga of the original A20/A30 Celica, Japan’s first “pony car.”

1974 Toyota Celica hardtop (RA21) fender badge © 2011 dave_7 (with permission)
(Photo: “1974 Toyota Celica badge” © 2011 dave_7; used with permission)

CONSUMERISM COMES TO JAPAN

Introduced in December 1970, the first-generation A20 Toyota Celica was one of the first really successful Japanese specialty cars. Its arrival marked an important turning point in the development of the Japanese auto industry.

1974 Toyota Celica 1600ST hardtop (TA22L) front 3q © 2016 Rui Coelho (with permission)

The A20 Celica’s stylistic kinship with other contemporary pony cars is evident, although the production hardtop looks a good deal less like a Ford Capri than did some of Toyota’s early clays. This is a 1974 European Celica 1600ST hardtop. (Photo © 2016 Rui Coelho; used with permission)

First, some background: In the 1960s, with postwar reconstruction completed, Japan was beginning to follow the economic pattern of nations like West Germany, where rising incomes provided fuel for an emerging consumer economy — including a rapidly growing new car market. In the early fifties, passenger cars had accounted for only a small fraction of all new motor vehicles sold in Japan each year. By the mid-sixties, not only had annual motor vehicle production increased by more than an order of magnitude, passenger cars now accounted for almost 40% of those sales.

The expanding market led Japanese automakers to confront a central tenet of all consumer economies: that it’s not enough to simply fulfill an existing need; a successful producer must also work to create demand. The most obvious way to do that is to offer more choices, or at least the appearance of choice, in order to make each prospective buyer feel like your product line offers something tailored for his or her specific tastes.

In the American automotive scene of the mid-sixties, there was no richer expression of that principle than the specialty car. Over the previous eight or nine years, specialty cars — both personal luxury models and sporty cars — had emerged as important sources of prestige, publicity, and profit for Detroit automakers. Few of those cars were mechanically distinguished, but they demonstrated that the promise of individuality was a surefire way to make buyers open their wallets.

Japanese automakers had already toyed with the idea of specialty cars, albeit without much success. The earliest postwar example was probably Nissan’s 1952 Datsun Sports roadster, followed a few years later by the Bluebird-based Fairlady, the Honda S500/S600/S800 roadsters, Toyota’s peculiar-looking Sports 800 coupe, and several others. Home-market sales of these cars had been minimal. Japanese buyers of the mid-sixties were beginning to take interest in better-trimmed sedans or even hardtops, but few had the financial wherewithal for an impractical automotive toy.

1969 Toyota Corona hardtop (T50) front 3q © 2011 Aaron Severson

Although there wasn’t yet much market for specialty cars in Japan in the sixties, Japanese buyers were beginning to take interest in pillarless hardtops. A two-door hardtop version of the T40 Toyopet Corona arrived in Japanese dealerships in July 1965. (author photo)

By 1967, when Toyota began developing the car that would become the first-generation Celica, that was slowly beginning to change. Just as significantly, Ford Motor Company and its American rivals had offered a new formula for specialty car success.

SIDEBAR: Defining the Specialty Car
Since the term has become somewhat deprecated over the years, we should probably pause here to explain that a “specialty car,” in the automotive parlance of the sixties and seventies, is a model:

  1. Whose principal advertised purpose is something other than utilitarian transportation (e.g., a sporty roadster rather than a family sedan); and
  2. That has a unique or substantially unique body structure and styling, sufficient to justify marketing the model as a separate entity rather than a variation or sub-series of an existing product.

“Substantially unique” is of course a subjective judgment and there are many marginal or arguable cases. The point is that a specialty car is something distinct from — and often coexisting with — specially trimmed or equipped versions of existing utilitarian models. By this definition, the Ford Mustang, with its unique body shell, would qualify as a specialty car, but something like the Volkswagen Golf GTI or Datsun 510 Bluebird SSS would not.

PONY CAR PRINCIPLES

Considering the pace and ambition of Toyota’s product planning efforts in this era, it’s entirely possible that Toyota would have eventually come up with something recognizably Mustang-like even if Ford hadn’t gotten there first. However, there’s no question that Toyota closely studied the Ford Mustang and its array of “pony car” imitators, which by 1967 included the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird; two generations of Plymouth Barracuda; the Mercury Cougar; and, later that year, the new AMC Javelin. Collectively, those cars comprised a veritable graduate seminar in pony car best practices.

Most of those lessons are already well-known to readers familiar with American pony cars: sporty looks, parts-bin components, modest base prices, and lots of options. Four-place seating was mandatory — two seats greatly limited sales to buyers with children — and external luggage access was obviously desirable. Steel bodies were also preferable to aluminum or fiberglass for mass production.

U.S. experience also demonstrated that most of the volume business was in two-door notchback hardtops, which served to better showcase the indulgent long-hood/short-deck proportions to which buyers had responded so strongly. There was some market for fastbacks, at least if they were attractively executed, but they weren’t vital to sales. As for convertibles, buyer interest seemed to be shrinking even in affluent America, where roof crush standards would shortly put their future in jeopardy.

1965 Toyota Sports 800 (UP15) front 3q © 2014 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0)

Before the Celica was the 1965–1969 Toyota Sports 800, an aluminum-bodied two-seater on the UP10 Publica platform. The Sports 800 was a mere 141 inches (3,580mm) long on a 78.7-inch (2,000mm) wheelbase, powered by a 790 cc (48 cu. in.) two-cylinder engine with 45 PS (33 kW) JIS gross that gave a claimed top speed of about 96 mph (155 km/h). At its launch in April 1965, the Sports 800 listed for a modest ¥595,000 in Tokyo (about $1,650 at the contemporary exchange rate). Only 3,131 were built during its four-and-a-half-year production run, which ended about a year before the Celica went on sale. (Photo: “1965 Toyota Sports 800.jpg” © 2014 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)

The core principle, of course, was the need to share a platform with a family sedan in order to keep unit costs within reason. As Toyota’s experience with the Publica-based Sports 800 demonstrated, however, it had to be the right platform. Sharing running gear with the Publica made the “Yota-Hachi” relatively affordable — about half the price of the contemporary Nissan Silvia coupe — but with its diminutive size and short wheelbase, the Sports 800 was a strict two-seater whose tiny trunk was mostly filled by the spare tire. This was not a recipe for mass market success.

There were several other potential platform-donors, including the Toyota Corolla, Corona, and the forthcoming Corona Mark II. The latter would probably have been too costly for the Japanese market and Toyota already had elaborate plans for a coupe version of the Corolla, but the Corona was an obvious possibility.

1968 Toyota 2000GT (MF10) front 3q © 2011 Aaron Severson

Toyota’s most ambitious early specialty car was the 1967–1970 Toyota 2000GT. Developed with Yamaha, it had semi-exotic specifications — a DOHC inline six with three carburetors, a five-speed gearbox, double wishbone independent suspension front and rear, and disc brakes all around — and an exotic price tag. At launch, a new 2000GT listed for ¥2,380,000 (around $6,600) in Tokyo, enough to buy four Corona sedans. (author photo)

Instead, Toyota took the same course GM’s German subsidiary, Opel, was then taking with the new Ascona A and Manta A, developed around the same time: creating an all-new platform to be shared by both a sporty specialty coupe and a new compact sedan. Toyota even launched an additional factory, the Tsutsumi assembly plant, specifically to build the new models. The plant had the minor distinction of employing some of Japan’s first-ever assembly-line robots.

A10 CARINA AND A20 CELICA

In keeping with Toyota’s penchant for passenger car names beginning with “C,” the new specialty car would be dubbed Celica while the sedan was to be called Carina. The names were astronomical in origin: “Celica” is from “célica,” the feminine form of a Spanish or Portuguese word for “celestial” (and having the same Latin root). “Carina,” which means “keel,” is one of three southern constellations that make up an older one called Argo Navis, named for the Argo of Greek legend.

1971 Toyota Carina 1600 four-door sedan (TA12) front 3q © 2008 Charles01 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

The original A10 Carina, introduced for the 1971 model year, was 162.8 inches (4,135mm) long and 61.8 inches (1,570mm) wide, 1.2 inches (30mm) shorter and 1.2 inches (30mm) narrower than the A20 Celica on an identical 95.5-inch (2,425mm) wheelbase. Export versions of the Carina, like this British four-door sedan, generally used the 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) 2T engine, but the early JDM models could also have the 1,407 cc (86 cu. in.) T engine, shared with the Corolla 1400 and Celica 1400. (Photo: “Toyota Carina Bj ca 1971 photo 2008 Castle Hedingham.JPG” © 2008 Charles01; resized 2017 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

(Alluding to both etymologies while adding a bit of local color, the early Celica emblem depicts a celestial dragon boat with stars in the “wings” that represent the boat’s oars. In Japanese, the constellation Carina is called 竜骨座, read Ryūkotsu-za, which means “The Keel,” just as in English. However, the kanji 竜 can also mean “dragon,” which is probably how the celestial Argo became a dragon boat. This was perhaps a stretch, mythologically speaking, but it was not inapt considering that the Carina provided the Celica’s running gear and floorpan, just as the constellation Carina formed the “oars” and “keel” of the Argo Navis.)

The Carina’s market position is less easy to explain than its name. As with Mitsubishi’s Colt Galant, which bowed a year before the Carina and was probably its most direct rival, Toyota originally hoped to position the Carina between the Corolla and Corona in size and price. However, the growth of the second-generation Corolla, launched in May 1970, didn’t really leave enough space between those models to constitute a coherent niche. The Carina emerged instead as a slightly smaller Corona alternative.

1971 or 1972 Toyota Corona De Luxe (RT81) sedan side © 2014, 2017 Aaron Severson

Introduced about 10 months before the first Carina, the T80 Corona (still badged as a Toyopet in Japan) was slightly bigger than the A10 Carina and shared some sheet metal with it, but rode a completely differently platform. North American Celicas borrowed the Corona’s powertrain, probably to simplify emissions certification. (author photo)

While that might seem a pointless exercise, the Carina was part of an ambitious program to diversify the offerings of Toyota’s Japanese dealer networks. As we discussed in the first part of our history of the Toyota Corolla coupes, Toyota Motor Sales had established several distinct sales channels in the Japanese domestic market (JDM), each with its own dealerships. By 1967, there were four of these channels: Toyota, Toyopet, Publica (renamed Corolla in 1969), and Diesel (which focused, not very successfully, on commercial vehicles). A fifth channel, Toyota Auto, would launch later that year.

Toyota’s original rationale for the separate channels was to expand its dealer base, but by the late sixties, Toyota was also looking at these sales networks as a means of greatly expanding its product range. In 1967, Toyota had four basic passenger cars — the Publica, Corolla, Corona, and Crown — along with a number of limited-production specialty models like the aforementioned Sports 800 and the rare and pricey 2000GT. The Publica and Corolla were marketed through Publica and Diesel stores (and shortly Auto stores) while Toyota and Toyopet dealers sold the Corona, Crown, and specialty cars.

1974 or 1975 Toyota Carina 1600DX four-door sedan (TA12) front 3q © 2010 Mischa Lohr (with permission)

A minor change for 1974 deleted the earliest A10 Carina’s eccentric-looking body-color headlight surrounds, making the Carina sedan look even more like the T80 Corona, at least from the front. Although the subsequent T100 Corona was somewhat bigger than the Carina, the two cars repeatedly converged in size, price, and model lineup. We assume that which one a Japanese Toyota buyer chose was as likely to depend on dealer proximity as anything else. In the mid-eighties, Toyota finally consolidated the Carina, Corona, and Celica on a single FWD platform. (Photo: “Toyota Carina A10” © 2010 Mischa Lohr; used with permission)

Over the next five years, Toyota would strive to give each of its principal JDM sales channels something closer to a unique product lineup, consisting of some all-new models and some reskinned variations of existing products. The first of these was the Sprinter, a Corolla-based coupe (later expanded into a full model line) that would be exclusive to the new Toyota Auto channel. Next up was the bigger Corona Mark II, which would be positioned between the Corona and Crown and would displace the latter as the flagship of the Toyopet channel. When the Carina debuted in late 1970, it would supersede the Corona as Toyota stores’ smaller car offering, allowing the Corona to become a Toyopet exclusive.

This strategy served several ends: increasing market penetration, maximizing the utilization of each platform, offering Japanese buyers a wider selection, and giving franchise-holders with overlapping sales territories at least superficially different products to sell. Toyota made no secret of the similarity between some of those products, but it doesn’t appear to have presented a meaningful commercial handicap in the home market. (In fact, in 1980, Toyota introduced a third Corona-size car for the domestic market: a RWD Carina clone called Celica Camry, sold through Corolla stores and later succeeded by the familiar FWD Camry.)

1974 or 1975 Toyota Carina 1600DX four-door sedan (TA12) © 2010 Mischa Lohr (with permission)

Toyota pitched the first-generation Carina as a stylish, sporty sedan, later adding twin-cam 1600GT and 2000GT grades, but there wasn’t anything especially sporty about the workaday 1400DX and 1600DX sedans. Unusual wrapover taillights were probably the A10 Carina sedan’s most distinctive design feature. (Photo: “Toyota Carina A10” © 2010 Mischa Lohr; used with permission)

In some export markets, the Carina and Celica would be sold side by side, but in Japan, Toyota opted to separate them and distribute the Celica through Corolla stores. This was a canny marketing decision: As Toyota’s least-expensive models, the Publica and Corolla had obvious appeal to the same young buyers who would be drawn to a stylish sporty coupe, allowing the Celica to serve as a showroom draw for the channel’s higher-volume products.

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.

1973 Toyota Celica 1600ST (TA22L) 2T-B engine © 2011 Lino Manuel Araújo Pinheiro (with permission)

Toyota’s pushrod T-system engines debuted in the E20 Corolla in 1970 and were subsequently used by the E20 Sprinter, A10 Carina, A20 Celica, and T100/T110 Corona. The version seen here is the dual-carburetor 2T-B version, which was standard equipment on the export Celica 1600ST and the top engine option on the earliest JDM Carina sedans. (Photo © 2011 Lino Manuel Araújo Pinheiro; used with permission)

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.

1972 Toyota Corolla Levin (TE27) 2T-G engine © 2017 Chris Stephens (with permission)

One of the most successful of Toyota’s various early DOHC performance engines in production terms, the 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) 2T-G made its debut in the original Celica 1600GT, but later found its way into the Carina, Corolla, and Sprinter. This one is in the engine bay of an early 1972 TE27 Corolla Levin coupe. (Photo © 2017 Chris Stephens; used with permission)

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.

1972 Toyota Celica ST hardtop (RA21L) side © 2011 Aaron Severson

In its original form, the first-generation Celica was 164 inches (4,165mm) long on a 95.5-inch (2,425mm) wheelbase and stood 51.6 inches (1,310mm) high. U.S. and Canadian cars with the 1,858 cc (113 cu. in.) 8R-C engine weighed about 2,300 lb (1,043 kg) at the curb. (author photo)

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.

1972 Toyota Celica ST (RA21) hood vents © 2011 Aaron Severson

All first-generation Celicas had hood vents, although the cheaper ET and LT grades had slots of a less ostentatious design (adopted by North American Celicas for 1973). Whatever their design, the slots were at least quasi-functional: The vents were open to the outside and the air cleaner snorkel was positioned to draw air from under one set of openings. On cars with crossflow engines, Toyota added an exhaust manifold heat riser under the snorkel to facilitate cold starts. (author photo)

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).)

1972 Toyota Corolla Levin (TE27) 2T-G engine Mikuni-Solex carburetors © 2017 Chris Stephens; used with permission)

Twin Solex 40PHH carburetors were as much a part of the image of Toyota’s early-seventies JDM performance cars as were their DOHC cylinder heads. Although the carburetors were locally made, supplied by Mikuni under license, Japanese manufacturers made a point of using the European brand name. (Photo © 2017 Chris Stephens; used with permission)

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.

1973 Toyota Celica 2000GT Liftback (RA25) dealer sticker from Shin Tokyo Toyota Corolla © 2014 Iwao (CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic)

In the Japanese market, the Toyota Celica was sold through the Corolla sales channel, which had its own JDM dealerships. (Photo: “Toyota Celica Liftback, 1973” © 2014 Iwao; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

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.

1974 Toyota Celica 1600GT hardtop (TA22L) overhead view © 2011 Rui Coelho (with permission)

The original TA22 Celica 1600GT was an exciting car in the Japanese market of the early seventies, particularly given the reasonable price. This 1600GT is actually a 1974 European model (identifiable by the fuel filler on the left sail panel), but it retains the original front end shape. (Photo © 2011 Rui Coelho; used with permission)

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.

1971 Mitsubishi Colt Galant GTO-MR (A53C) front 3q © 2013 Martin Reiß (with permission)

Rarest and fastest of Mitsubishi’s A53C Colt Galant GTO fastback coupes was the GTO-MR, which had a DOHC version of the 4G32 Saturn engine making 125 PS (92 kW) JIS gross, a five-speed gearbox, and auxiliary torque arms for the rear suspension. It was offered in only a few specific color combinations, including the one seen here: Kenya Orange with black stripes. Although the Galant GTO remained in production through 1976, the GTO-MR was dropped in August 1972. (Photo: “Mitsubishi Galant GTO MR – 1.6” © 2013 Martin Reiß; used with permission)

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.

CELICA ABROAD

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.

1972 Toyota Celica ST hardtop (RA21L) front 3q © 2011 Aaron Severson

Except for their powertrain and outside mirrors, earliest RA20 and RA21 North American Celicas still looked much like their JDM counterparts inside and out. North American cars had standard front disc brakes (with the dual-circuit master cylinder required by federal law since 1968) and radial tires, which were optional in Japan. (author photo)

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.

1972 Toyota Celica ST hardtop (RA21L) rear 3q © 2011 Aaron Severson

On the earliest 1971–1972 A20 Celicas, the fuel filler was concealed behind the panel between the taillights. On hardtops, the filler was relocated beginning with the 1973 model year, but early (1973–1975) Liftbacks retained the original location. Note the original taillight design, which was also changed for 1973. (author photo)

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.)

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

The first-generation Celica’s well-designed reclining bucket seats were one of its stronger points, at least in the better-trimmed models. Front seat travel was not abundant for really tall drivers, however, a common shortcoming (literally) of contemporary Japanese cars. (Photo © 2011 Lino Manuel Araújo Pinheiro; used with permission)

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 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)

EMISSIONS EXHAUSTION

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.

1977 Toyota Celica GT hardtop (RA24) 20R engine © 2014 Murad Zama (with permission)

Where Toyota’s earlier SOHC R-system engines had inline valves, the 20R had a new crossflow head for greater volumetric efficiency. Peak power for 1977 engines was a modest 95 hp (71 kW) SAE net (90 hp/67 kW in California), but net torque was now 122 lb-ft (165 N-m) at only 2,400 rpm. Toyota never marketed the 20R in Japan, where local tax rules would have made it unaffordable, but some later JDM cars offered the very similar 21R-U engine, essentially a 20R de-bored to a more tax-friendly 1,972 cc (120 cu. in.). (Photo: “Celica 1977 ra24 gt” © 2014 Murad Zaman; used with permission)

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.

1974 Toyota Celica 1600ST hardtop (TA22L) front cabin © 2016 Rui Coelho (with permission)

A well-appointed interior was one of the first-generation Celica’s biggest selling points, although home-market buyers had to pay extra for many of these features. A JDM 1400ET with plain vinyl seats and none of the option packs was a considerably dourer environment. (Photo © 2016 Rui Coelho; used with permission)

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.

1974 Toyota Celica 1600ST hardtop (TA22L) main instruments © 2016 Rui Coelho; used with permission)

All export Celicas had 8,000 rpm tachometers, which were standard on the JDM Celica GT and GTV and part of the S and SW packs for lesser grades. For 1976–1977 cars, the headlight and wiper controls moved from the instrument panel to multifunction steering column stalks. At that time, cars with woodgrain trim also got a new grain pattern. (Photo © 2016 Rui Coelho; used with permission)

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.

1974 Toyota Celica 1600ST hardtop (TA22L) secondary gauges © 2016 Rui Coelho (with permission)

All Celicas had three secondary gauge pods. Through October 1975, the pod closest to the steering column contained the fuel gauge, with the other two containing coolant temperature and dual ammeter/oil pressure gauges (or battery/oil pressure warning lights) respectively. For 1976–1977 cars, the cigarette lighter was moved to a lower point on the dash and the three pods were shifted farther toward the passenger side to make room for a bank of warning lights between the main instruments and the secondary gauges. The pod nearest the steering column now had a dual fuel level/coolant temperature gauge while the pod nearest the front passenger now contained the clock (for grades that had one), leaving the middle pod for oil and battery lights or gauges. Late cars also moved the radio to the center stack, making room for an ashtray beneath the clock. (Photo © 2016 Rui Coelho; used with permission)

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).

1974 Toyota Celica 1600ST hardtop (TA22L) center stack © 2016 Rui Coelho (with permission)

A center stack with dual air vents was a new addition for 1973 Celicas; the earliest models had a single swiveling vent hung beneath the dash and mounted the clock in a pod at the front end of the console. On cars with air conditioning, which this European 1600ST doesn’t have, the A/C controls replace the upper blanking plate. On the JDM GTV grade, the bottom slot is filled by an oil temperature gauge with accompanying warning light. The center stack was redesigned again for 1976, placing the radio (on cars so equipped) below the center vents and the optional OK Monitor (called Electro Sensor Panel in North America) below that. (Photo © 2016 Rui Coelho; used with permission)

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.

1977 Toyota Celica 2000LT Liftback (RA28) side © 2016 Don Andreina; used with permission)

Outside North America, the new nose on 1976–1977 Celicas increased overall length to 166.9 inches (4,240mm) for the Liftback, 167.7 inches (4,260mm) for the hardtop. The wheelbase stretch isn’t easy to spot unless you have an earlier Celica to compare, but to our eyes, it benefits the car’s proportions as well as its weight distribution. Note the fuel filler on the rear fender; on 1973–1975 Liftbacks, the filler was concealed between the taillights. (Photo © 2016 Don Andreina; used with permission)

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.

1977 Toyota Celica 2000LT Liftback (RA28) front 3q © 2014 Don Andreina (with permission)

All 1976–1977 Celicas had wider tracks, although the dimensions varied somewhat depending on wheel and tire size. With 5-inch-wide wheels, track was now 52.6 inches (1,335 mm) in front and 51 inches (1,295mm) in back; with 5½-inch wheels, both figures increased an additional 0.6 inches (15mm). Late JDM Celicas still had 13-inch wheels, although 14-inch wheels were optional on 2000GT and 2000GTV models and standard on export cars, with tire sizes ranging from 165SR14 to 185/70HR14. (Photo © 2014 Don Andreina; used with permission)

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.

1977 Toyota Celica 2000LT Liftback (RA28) rear 3q © 2014 Don Andreina (with permission)

While Celica Liftbacks had more cargo capacity than hardtops, which had tiny trunks, liftover height was high and rear passengers older than middle-school age would find their heads pressed against the backlight. Rear window louvers, a popular aftermarket accessory during this period, helped to keep rear occupants (or cargo) from roasting on hot summer days. (Photo © 2014 Don Andreina; used with permission)

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.

1977 Toyota Celica 2000LT Liftback (RA28) rear © 2014 Don Andreina; used with permission)

In the U.S., first-generation Celica Liftbacks were offered only in GT form, although LT and ST versions were available in other markets. This Australian 2000LT Liftback (chassis code RA28) has the low-compression, emissions-controlled 18R-C engine with 85 hp (63 kW). Note the new three-light taillamp design, which makes the Liftback look even more like the 1969 Ford Mustang than it did to begin with. (Photo © 2014 Don Andreina; used with permission)

DECEMBER ROMANCE

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.)

1976 or 1977 Toyota Celica GT Liftback (RA29) front 3q © 2016 zombiete (CC BY 2.0 Generic)

In the U.S., Toyota sold a total of 264,152 Celicas in the 1976 and 1977 model years, which was more than the combined total of all 1971–1975 U.S. sales and represented around 25% of all first-generation Celica production. (Photo: “Toyota Celica GT” © 2016 zombieite; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

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).)

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

In North America, the final 1976–1977 Celicas were 174.6 inches (4,435mm) long in hardtop form (RA24) or 174.2 inches (4,425mm) for the Liftback (RA29). While we assume the Liftback was the more popular of the two body styles by a good measure, at least in the U.S., the hardtop remained available till the end in both ST and GT grades. (Photo © 2016 Andrew Buc; used with permission)

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.

1976 or 1977 Toyota Celica GT Liftback (RA29) front 3q © 2014 Josh Garrett (with permission)

Big bumpers and a bulged hood make late first-generation Celicas look somewhat chunkier than the early cars, which they were. Factory curb weight was now quoted at 2,610 lb (1,184 kg) for North American Liftbacks, about 50 lb (23 kg) less for the hardtop, both figures presumably not including air conditioning. This RA29 Liftback appears to have wider-than-stock wheels and tires. (Photo: “Toyota Celica GT” © 2014 Josh Garrett; used with permission)

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.

1976 or 1977 Toyota Celica GT Liftback (RA29) rear 3q © 2014 Josh Garrett (with permission)

In the U.S., the RA29 Celica Liftback GT listed for $4,699 in 1976 and $5,139 in 1977, both figures without air conditioning. In GT form, the RA24 hardtop was about $200 cheaper than an equivalent Liftback, with an ST hardtop listing for about $400 less than the GT version. (Photo: “Toyota Celica GT” © 2014 Josh Garrett; used with permission)

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.

1977 Toyota Celica 2000LT Liftback (RA28) front 3q - high © 2014 Don Andreina (with permission)

Derivative it may have been, but the first-generation Celica Liftback was nonetheless an attractive car, especially with the slimmer bumpers used outside North America. This Australia 2000LT Liftback is a fairly rare car; the RA28 Liftback was only sold in Australia for a single model year. (Photo © 2014 Don Andreina; used with permission)

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.


RELATED ARTICLES


NOTES ON SOURCES

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(Nishikasugai, Japan: December 1977); and “[Toyota Corolla],” [Japanese Corolla Store brochure 036321-5105], May 1976; Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., “Introducing the Toyota Celica ST. (Some economy car.),” [advertisement, 1971]; Introducing the ’74 Celica GT. Five-speed and all,” [advertisement, ca. September 1973]; “Introducing the 1975 Celica GT. 2.2 liter, 4-seater, 5-speeder,” [advertisement, ca. September 1974]; and “Toyota Celica” [brochure], October 1974; “Toyota SR-5 Pickup,” Road & Track Vol. 26, No. 9 (May 1975): 142–145; “Toyota SV-1,” Carstyling 2.0, n.d., www.carstyling. ru/en/car/ 1971_toyota_sv_1/, accessed 6 February 2017; U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Safety Studies & Reports: Bumper Q&A’s,” n.d., www.nhtsa. gov/cars/ problems/ studies/ Bumper/, accessed 21 September 2016; “Variations on a Theme (Full Test: 1976 Toyota Celica),” Motor Manual No. 403 (May 1976): 62–66; Gary S. Vasilash, “Inside CALTY,” n.d., Automotive Design and Production, www.autofieldguide. com, accessed 19 June 2009; VYT01240, “Celica’s History,” [First-Generation Celica World], www.geocities. co.jp/ MotorCity/1367/his.htm, accessed 8 February 2017; Ted West, “Toyota Celica Liftback,” Car and Driver Vol. 21, No. 11 (May 1976): 37–40; Hillel Wright, “Get set for boating in Naha and Itoman,” Japan Times, 21 April 2013, www.japantimes. co.jp/life/ 2013/04/21/ travel/ get-set-for-boating-in-naha-and-itoman-2/, accessed 4 January 2017; Wally Wyss, “Return of the Native,” Motor Trend Vol. 23, No. 8 (August 1971): 50–52; Jack K. Yamaguchi, “Agony of Prosperity,” World Cars 1973: 65–69; “Hard Fall and Gradual Rise,” World Cars 1975: 46–51; “The Motor Industry of Japan,” World Cars 1971: 39–46; and “The Year of Uncertainty?” World Cars 1979: 61–66; and Akira Yokoyama, Project X — The Challengers: 240Z (The Fated -Z- Plan – Fairlady Z / 240Z – The Legend of the Most Successful Sports Car in the World), trans. Sachiko Sato (Tokyo, Japan: Ohzora Publishing Co., 2003/Gardena, CA: Digital Manga Publishing, 2006).

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!


29 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.

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