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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
On paper, the A20 Celica was a pony car triumph: It had the right stance, the right look, good seats, an appropriately sporty driving position, a comprehensive array of gauges, and an enticing price.
How well the Celica lived up to its appealing image depended somewhat on your expectations. Compared to most contemporary Japanese or American sedans, the Celica didn’t handle badly, but cornering grip was a meager 0.63–0.64g, not helped by narrow 4½Jx13 wheels and modest rubber: 6.45-13 bias-plies on most JDM Celicas, 165SR13 radials on most early export cars. The stiffer GT suspension was better-damped, but offered little real handling benefit. Power steering wasn’t available and the unassisted recirculating ball steering was heavy, rather slow, and numb on center.
Admittedly, a lot of early U.S. pony cars didn’t handle especially well either, but the A20 Celica was not especially agile compared to contemporary European sporty cars or even a properly equipped Chevrolet Vega. In partial compensation, the Celica had a surprisingly good ride, particularly considering its short wheelbase and limited suspension travel. The Toyota was substantially more compliant than the stiff-legged Ford Capri or Galant GTO, suggesting that the A-platform’s coil-sprung five-link rear suspension had been money well spent.
As for straight-line performance, that depended heavily on where you were and which powertrain options you had chosen. Since only a few of the available engine/transmission combinations were exported, the only performance data we have for the rest are the factory figures, most of which strike us as wildly optimistic. By those figures, the slowest early Celica variants were 1600s with automatic and the four-speed 1400, although Toyota claimed even those could hit 100 mph (160 km/h) and run the quarter mile (400m) in 18.1 seconds.
In independent road tests, export Celicas with the single-carburetor 2T engine could complete the 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) sprint in a bit less than 13 seconds. The dual-carburetor 2T-B engine cut about a second from that time and brought top speed to around 105–106 mph (170 km/h) — a bit shy of Toyota’s claimed 109 mph (175 km/h), but very respectable for a 1.6-liter car of this era. According to the factory, selecting the five-speed gearbox increased top speed by 3 mph (5 km/h) and trimmed 0.2 seconds from quarter-mile (400m) times, thanks mostly to a shorter axle ratio than was normally specified with four-speed cars.
The performance star was the twin-cam Celica 1600GT, which could reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in the low 9-second range. We’ve found no independent road test that came within a half second of Toyota’s 16.5-second quarter-mile (400m) times, and the 115 mph (185 km/h) top speed quoted by the British importer seems nearer the mark than the factory’s 118 mph (190 km/h) claim. Nonetheless, the real-world figures were no cause for shame. Mitsubishi claimed that the rare, pricey twin-cam Galant GTO-MR was faster, quoting a top speed of 124 mph (200 km/h), but we strongly doubt the GTO-MR was quicker than the TA22 Celica 1600GT, which had the same torque output and weighed less.
Predictably, North America got the short end of the performance stick. Toyota advertising claimed the 1.9-liter Celica ST could run the quarter mile (400m) in 17.5 seconds and reach 109 mph (175 km/h), but with the 8R-C engine’s primitive emissions controls and North American cars’ taller 3.70 axle ratio, that was wishful thinking. Early independent test results were curiously varied, but averaging the figures yields 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times of about 12.5 seconds, quarter mile (400m) elapsed times in the mid-18s, and a top speed of about 103 mph (165 km/h) — in other words, about the same as non-U.S. Celicas with the smaller 2T engine. These figures were about a match for the U.S.-market Opel 1900 Rallye, but slower than a Capri 2000 and not necessarily any quicker than the lighter Corolla 1600.
While it didn’t set any new performance records, the A20 Celica had a lot to recommend it as an inexpensive, sporty-looking commuter car. Build quality was generally very good, ergonomics were mostly excellent, and the body structure was reassuringly solid. Experience would prove the Celica reliable as well, though sadly not terribly rustproof. American buyers would undoubtedly have appreciated the option of automatic transmission (belated introduced to North America in 1973), but manual gearboxes were a Toyota strong point in this era. Better still, all of the available engines returned fine fuel economy. Even the smog-controlled 8R-C and 18R-C could return up to 23–24 mpg (about 10 L/100 km) overall, at least 10% better than most contemporary rivals.
It should come as no great shock that the A20 Celica sold pretty well. It took less than a year for production to top the 100,000-unit mark and annual production for the rest of the run was always comfortably in the six figures. Compared to the best years of the original Mustang, that wasn’t outstanding, but given that the market for cars like this in Japan was still not vast and Toyota was still building its reputation abroad, it was a very respectable total. In their first full model year, the JDM Celica outsold the Galant GTO by a margin of more than 2:1.
Global sales expanded further as the Celica arrived in additional export markets. The RA21 Celica ST was introduced in North America soon after the Japanese launch. TA22 1.6-liter cars became available in the U.K. about six months later and in Australia some six months after that. Total Celica production for the 1972 calendar year was more than 150,000 units and topped 175,000 for calendar 1973.
The Celica was also very successful on the track. As with the American pony cars it emulated, the A20 Celica’s stock suspension woes became largely irrelevant in racing tune and both the 2T-B and 2T-G engines were capable of producing considerably more power. Once the Celica was homologated, it began a brisk competition career, racking up a lengthy list of class and overall victories.
In 1972 alone, TA22 Celicas took first, second, and fourth places in the Japan Grand Prix and claimed outright victories in, among others, the Philippine Grand Prix, the Race de Nippon, the All-Japan Suzuka 1000km, and the Macau Grand Prix Touring Car Race. The following year, Swedish driver Ove Andersson drove a Celica 1600GT to class victories in two European Touring Car Championship (ETCC) events.
In rally competition, Celicas won the 1972 New Caledonia Safari and Ethiopia Highland Rallies outright, which spoke well of the stoutness of the basic structure. Ove Andersson then scored a class victory in the 1972 RAC Rally, a feat he and Geriant Phillips repeated in 1973. Andersson and Gunnar Haggbom also won their class in the 1973 Austrian Alpine Rally.
The A20 Celica continued to race throughout the model run — driver Win Percy used a 1600GT hardtop prepared by England’s Samuri Racing to claim class championships in the 1975 and 1976 British Touring Car Championship series — but the Celica’s World Rally Championship (WRC) duties were assumed for a time by the smaller and lighter TE27 Corolla Levin. Celicas finally returned to WRC in 1976.
Despite the Celica’s clear sales lead over the Colt Galant GTO, the appearance of the fastback GTO seems to have left the Celica development team fearing they might be missing a bet. A year after the public debut of the A20 Celica, Toyota’s exhibit at the 18th Tokyo Motor Show displayed a prototype fastback Celica, badged “SV-1.” A production version went on sale in early April 1973.
Although it dispensed with the SV-1’s exaggerated fender flares, the production fastback’s mostly new sheet metal made it longer, lower, and wider than the Celica hardtop despite an unchanged wheelbase. Fastback Celicas were probably more aerodynamic as well, but they were also about 155 lb (70 kg) heavier than a similarly equipped hardtop. Save for details like its five-light tail lamp treatment, the fastback Celica looked a great deal like the Galant GTO in profile or from the rear three-quarter view — enough so that a casual observer might mistake one for the other. Western observers almost uniformly remarked that the fastback Celica looked like the 1969–1970 Ford Mustang fastback, which was also true.
Toyota called the new body style a Liftback, signifying that it was a three-door hatchback rather than a two-door coupe. With its sloping fastback roofline, the Celica Liftback was, if anything, even less habitable for rear-seat passengers than was the hardtop, but the hatchback roof and folding rear seat made the Liftback more versatile for quotidian chores or the sort of “active lifestyle” pastimes that so fascinate advertising copywriters.
Celica hardtops, which had been updated in late 1972 with redesigned taillights and a relocated fuel filler on the left-hand C-pillar, retained their original front end design for about nine months after the Liftback debuted. In January 1974, Toyota communized both body styles, giving the hardtop the Liftback’s hitherto-unique front fenders, bumper, and hood. The goal was undoubtedly to simplify production, but the longer Liftback nose did arguably look better.
These changes prompted the deletion of the Celica hardtop’s previously optional elastomer bumper covers, which Toyota doesn’t appear to have adapted for the Liftback. The redesigned hardtop was now also slightly (0.8 inches/20mm) longer than the Liftback and nearly as heavy, model for model. (Contrary to some English-language accounts, both body styles retained the original 95.5-inch (4,525mm) wheelbase until November 1975.)
Facelifted hardtops also had a new optional gimmick: the OK Monitor, a bank of six roof-mounted warning lights signaling low fuel, bulb failure, and other maintenance items. Also found on the T100 Corona and some other contemporary Toyotas, the OK Monitor wasn’t offered on export Celicas until later in the model run.
THE TWIN-CAM 18R-G AND 18R-GR
Launching the Celica Liftback provided an opportune moment for the belated introduction of the bigger 1,968 cc (120 cu. in.) 18R engine to the JDM Celica lineup. This was a timely addition, since Mitsubishi had recently added its 1,995 cc (121 cu. in.) Astron engine as an option for the latest A57C Galant GTO.
Two versions of the big engine were available in home-market Celicas. The single-carburetor 18R, used in the cheaper Celica 2000ET, LT, and ST, had 105 PS (77 kW) JIS gross, increased to 110 PS (81 kW) by 1974. The new Celica 2000GT had the 18R-G engine, which had an aluminum DOHC head with hemispherical combustion chambers and twin Mikuni-Solex carburetors. With a 9.8:1 compression ratio, the 18R-G boasted 145 PS (107 kW) JIS gross, making it one of the hottest engines then available in Japan. (When this engine finally appeared in Europe in 1976, it was rated at 118 PS (87 kW) DIN.)
We note “high-compression” because Toyota now also offered regular fuel versions of most of its dual-carburetor engines as no-cost options. The low-compression engines, indicated by an “R” suffix in the engine code (e.g., 2T-BR), sacrificed 5 PS (3 kW) and a nominal 3 mph (5 km/h) in top speed.
They were signs of things to come: Japan was already beginning to phase out leaded gasoline and Japan’s Environmental Agency had recently issued a series of stringent new motor vehicle emissions standards. To meet the interim rules that took effect for fiscal 1973, JDM Celica engines now had evaporative emission canisters and some of the modifications already found on North American engines, like an annoying positioning device that held the throttle partially open on deceleration to reduce hydrocarbon emissions.
Hardtop and Liftback Celicas offered most of the same powertrain options, with some exceptions. It appears that at launch, the twin-cam 18R-G engines were exclusive to the Liftback, which couldn’t be ordered with the smaller 1.4-liter T engine. Also, you had to choose a hardtop if you wanted the dual-carburetor 2T-B with a four-speed or automatic. The existing 1.6-liter 2T-G and 2T-GR twin-cam engines remained available alongside the new 18R-G and 18R-GR; the twin-cam engines were offered only with five-speed manual gearboxes.
(For those keeping track, chassis codes for the Liftback were TA27 with the 1.6-liter engine and RA25 with either 18R. Hardtops with the 1.4- and 1.6-liter engines retained the earlier TA20/TA22 chassis codes, but the new 2-liter models were now coded RA21, like their North American counterparts.)
Both the 2000GT and the hardtop-only 1600GTV now had bigger 185/70HR13 tires on 5.0Jx13 wheels, which were optional on other models. The GTV also had a stiffer suspension and a dash-mounted oil temperature gauge/warning light. A limited-slip differential was newly optional with any DOHC engine.
Toyota claimed that either 2000GT with the high-compression 18R-G engine could run the quarter mile (400m) in 16.1 seconds and reach a top speed of 127 mph (205 km/h). Again, we don’t have independent road test data, but our guess is that the factory top speed was fanciful, a calculated figure rather than a measured one. Officially, the regular-fuel 18R-GR added 0.2 seconds to quarter-mile (400m) times as well as trimming claimed top speed to “only” 124 mph (200 km/h).
In January 1974, the twin-cam, dual-carburetor 18R-G became available on JDM hardtops as well as Liftbacks and a third 2-liter engine option joined the options list: the 18R-E, also newly available on the Carina. Previously introduced on the Corona and Mark II, the 18R-E didn’t have the 18R-G’s racy twin-cam head, but featured Toyota’s first electronic fuel injection system and boasted a JIS gross output of 130 PS (96 kW). The 18R-E was available in 2000ST-EFI form in both body styles or as a cheaper 2000LT-EFI hardtop, both offered only with a five-speed gearbox. (Coronas with that engine were also available with the W40 four-speed or with automatic.)
Sadly most of these intriguing options were again denied to Celica export customers. North American buyers still had the 18R-C, but the bigger engine wouldn’t be offered in other markets for several more years, nor would the Liftback body. Even the hardtop’s facelift was slow to show up outside Japan.
North American Celica buyers did get some significant changes during this period, the most visible of which were cumbersome front and rear bumper overriders for all 1973 models, enlarged even further for 1974. They were Toyota’s initial means of complying with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 215, which for 1973 required bumpers that could withstand a 5 mph (8 km/h) pendulum impact in front and a 2.5 mph (4 km/h) rear impact, rising to 5 mph (8 km/h) both front and rear for 1974. (After intensive industry lobbying, smaller cars like the Celica got an extra year to meet the tougher rear bumper standard.)
The overriders were only an interim solution, since they were not capable of handling the corner impact tests that FMVSS 215 would require beginning August 31, 1975. For the 1975 model year, therefore, Toyota gave North American Celicas completely new bumpers: thick horizontal beams rather than the slim U-shaped integrated units used elsewhere. The big bumpers’ added protection was valuable in urban traffic — Toyota actually offered U.S.-style bumpers as an extra-cost option on late JDM Celica Liftbacks and some other home-market models — but it was painfully obvious that the A20 Celica hadn’t been designed with them in mind. They were also heavier, which was the last thing most North American cars of this era needed.
There was some good news for American and Canadian customers: the arrival for 1974 of the RA21 Celica GT. It did not, alas, feature the DOHC 18R-G engine or even the injected 18R-E, neither of which would ever be officially imported to the U.S. or Canada. However, the North American Celica GT did have the GT suspension; the five-speed W50 gearbox from the JDM RA21/RA25 cars, linked to a shorter 3.91 axle ratio; and, perhaps most importantly, the 185/70HR13 tires and wider wheels from the Japanese Celica 2000GT. The GT’s $200 premium over the ST also bought you different upholstery and an AM/FM radio, but not the JDM car’s power windows or soberer dashboard trim.
Although the North American Celica GT wasn’t any quicker than the ST, it did handle better. Contrary to some reports, the improvement was not due to the firmer GT suspension, but rather the fatter tires, which could hold on longer before succumbing to understeer. Lateral acceleration with the bigger tires was around 0.70g, which was passable though not exceptional for the time.
Prices had also increased, reflecting both inflation and the rising value of the Japanese yen following the demise of the Bretton-Woods fixed exchange rate system. In the U.S., a 1974 Celica ST started at $3,249, up 25% from the earliest American models. It was still cheaper than rivals like the federalized Opel Manta or Ford Capri, but price was becoming enough of a concern that Toyota added a cheaper RA21 Celica LT for the Canadian market. (We’ve found no indications that the LT was offered in the U.S., but if it was, it was very rare.)
Even with the higher prices, North American Celica sales actually climbed a bit for 1974 despite the effects of the OPEC oil embargo. The embargo hit sales hard in other markets, but the RA21 Celica was an economical small car by American standards, so it remained a reasonable choice for buyers nervous about the fuel crisis. 1974 was the first year that the U.S.-market Celica outsold its JDM counterpart; it would continue to do so for the next 25 years.
1975 and 1976 were challenging years for the auto industry for another reason: the enactment of considerably tougher emissions standards in Japan and Australia as well as the U.S. and Canada. While the U.S. Clean Air Act, passed in 1970, had set the initial emissions control targets, Japan approached them on a considerably more aggressive timetable — Japan’s late-seventies standards were actually tougher than California’s.
Toyota faced a bigger problem in North America, where stricter emissions standards coincided with the introduction of the heavier 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers. The solution was a new and larger engine for North American Celicas, Coronas, and Hilux pickups. Called 20R, it was a development of the R-system block with a 9mm (0.34-inch) longer stroke — bringing displacement to 2,189 cc (134 cu. in.) — and a new aluminum cylinder head with hemispherical combustion chambers and crossflow valves, operated by rockers from the single overhead camshaft.
Inevitably, there was also a plethora of additional emissions control equipment, which now included not only air injection, but also exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) and, on California cars, a catalytic converter. A heavy-duty radiator and fan helped to keep the emissions hardware short of meltdown on hot summer days. The bigger engine also brought with it a new chassis code: RA22.
The 20R had no more peak power than did the 18R-C; in fact, SAE net output actually dipped slightly from 97 to 96 hp (72 kW), or 90 hp (67 kW) in California. However, better breathing made the new engine more responsive and the fatter torque curve provided more power throughout the rev range. Peak torque climbed from 106 lb-ft (144 N-m) to 120 lb-ft (163 N-m; 122 lb-ft/165 N-m on 1976 California cars and 1977 49-state and Canadian Celicas). As a result, the latest North American Celica was somewhat quicker despite its extra weight and, on GTs, a taller final drive ratio. The downside was that the 20R engine was noisy and felt a tad agricultural when pressed.
In the home market, the Celica’s remaining premium-fuel engines were all dropped for 1975. In November of that year, Toyota made further powertrain changes to meet the next round of Japanese emissions standards, reducing the available JDM engine options to only three. All now had catalytic converters, air injection, and EGR, signified by a “U” suffix in their engine codes.
Base engine was now the 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) 2T-U, rated at 90 PS (66 kW) JIS gross. (Its net output was probably about 75 hp (56 kW), similar to the 2T-C engine in contemporary North American Corollas.) The midlevel choice, and the only one now available with automatic, was the SOHC 18R-U, rated at 100 PS (74 kW). Top of the line was the DOHC 18RG-U, making 130 PS (96 kW). It was now the only twin-cam offering; the 1.6-liter 2T-G would not return to the lineup until the debut of the second-generation Celica. With the revised engines came new chassis codes: TA23/RA23 for hardtops, TA28/RA28 for Liftbacks.
In 1976, Australia enacted ADR 27A, which imposed NOx limits similar to the 1975 U.S. federal level. Emissions controls had trimmed the output of Australian Celicas’ single-carburetor 2T-C engine to 75 net hp (56 kW), about the same as in Japan or the U.S. A detoxed 18R-C engine, similar to the now-discontinued U.S. version, arrived around the time ADR 27A went into effect, making a lackluster 85 net hp (63 kW).
These emissions-related changes did not, as yet, affect customers in other markets. Starting in 1975, the twin-cam 2T-G engine became available in the U.K. and certain other European markets where it hadn’t previously been offered. Beginning in 1976, European markets also got the 18R and DOHC 18R-G engines, generally in addition to the existing single-carburetor 2T and dual-carburetor 2T-B, which were now rated at 75 PS (55 kW) and 86 PS (63 kW) respectively.
A FINAL TOUCHUP
In November 1975, the Celica and Carina received what would be their last round of cosmetic and structural changes in this generation. Both cars got a wheelbase stretch of about 3 inches (70mm) ahead of the firewall, to 98.2 inches (2,495mm), and their track width was increased both front and rear. Front track was now 52.6–53.1 inches (1,335–1,350mm) depending on wheels and tires, up from only 50.4 inches (1,280mm) on the original 1971 Celica and Carina.
Why Toyota would go to this trouble with cars now very close to the end of their design lives is not altogether clear. The official explanation was that the longer wheelbase provided more room for emissions control equipment, but North American Celicas had been able to mount all that hardware within the original wheelbase, even with the longer 20R engine. Our suspicion is that the front-end changes were a means of streamlining production at the Tsutsumi Plant, which would shortly begin building Coronas and Carinas on a common assembly line. The longer wheelbase and wider front end put the dimensions of the Celica and Carina within fractions of an inch (5mm) of the T100 Corona, which probably made it easier for the three cars to share transfer equipment and production facilities.
Whatever the rationale, the changes had the ancillary benefit of transforming the Celica’s previously stodgy handling. The early A20 Celica’s principal dynamic flaw had been massive roll understeer. Early Celicas were almost as nose-heavy as a big-block American pony car, particularly with the heavier R-system engines and air conditioning. With such a narrow front track, tight turns would cause substantial body roll, which with the stock front suspension geometry promoted significant camber loss. The front anti-roll bar resisted the body lean at the cost of heavily loading the inside front tire, resulting in ponderous understeer.
The front-end changes mitigated this problem in two ways. First, widening the front track reduced the Celica’s tendency to deposit its weight on the inside front tire without also increasing understeer-promoting front roll stiffness. Second, extending the wheelbase shifted more of the Celica’s static weight toward the rear axle, so there was less weight on the front tires to begin with. Even with those changes, the Celica would still understeer at the limit, but long-wheelbase cars (especially the Liftback, which had more weight over the rear axle) could now sustain significantly higher cornering speeds than before. Newly available 5½Jx14 wheels and 185/70HR14 tires were a further boon to lateral acceleration.
Thus revised, the Celica Liftback was finally introduced to export markets for 1976, supplementing but not replacing the hardtop. Both JDM and export cars shared the longer wheelbase and wider track along with other minor revisions, including a tidied-up dashboard layout, a relocated OK Monitor system (now available on some export models under the name Electro Sensor Panel, or ESP), bigger front brakes, and a larger fuel tank. These updates were signified with new chassis codes: Outside North America, Celica hardtops were now coded TA23/RA23, Liftbacks TA28/RA28. Late North American hardtops had the chassis code RA24 while the new Liftback was RA29.
Japanese Celicas retained the same three-engine lineup as the previous year, but there were some gaps in engine availability during the 1976 calendar year as Toyota certified the various powertrain combinations for the tougher 51 Showa NOx standards. JDM Celicas meeting the 1976 standards had new chassis codes: TA35/RA35. This change wasn’t reflected in other markets.
Despite the inevitable complaints about its styling being derivative of the Mustang’s, the Celica Liftback got a surprisingly warm reception outside Japan, winning Motor Trend‘s 1976 Import Car of the Year Award.
Derivative or not, the Liftback body was sleek and sporty-looking even with the big North American bumpers. It was also a much-improved car in many respects. The Celica was still not as nimble as the new Volkswagen Scirocco, but the Toyota was a capable and reasonably economical highway cruiser that no longer lost its footing any time the road curved sharply. (A good rack-and-pinion steering setup would have iced the cake, but the Celica wouldn’t switch to rack-and-pinion steering until the third-generation A60.)
Straight-line performance was decent as well, at least with the bigger R-system engines. Even the lightest TA23/TA35 Celica 1600LT hardtop (the base 1600ET was dropped during 1976) was about 200 lb (90 kg) heavier than an early TA22, so cars with the latest single-carb 2T engine were rather sleepy, needing more than 15 seconds to reach 60 mph (97 km/h). Specifying the single-carburetor 18R, which was very mildly tuned even in European Celicas, trimmed 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times to the high 12-second range. We’ve yet to find independent test results for the late 2000GT or 2000GTV, but British ads claimed a top speed of 114 mph (184 km/h) and 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times in the high 9-second range, which for once sounds a bit too conservative. (Given the 2000GT’s weight and claimed output, we’d estimate 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in about 9 seconds flat and a top speed of 118 mph (190 km/h).)
Assessing the performance of the North American RA24/RA29 Celica is a bit more difficult. Celicas with the 20R engine were definitely quicker than cars with the earlier 18R-C, but several 1976 road tests of the new RA29 returned credibility-straining 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times of 10 seconds or less — more than a second quicker than any previous U.S. test. Given the Celica Liftback’s substantial curb weight and unchanged output, those results suggest a press car with more than its normal allotment of vitamins. Quarter-mile (400m) elapsed times were still in the low 18s, more plausible for the Celica’s weight and output, while top speed remained about 104 mph (167 km/h). Fuel economy was also little changed at around 23–24 mpg (10 L/100 km) overall, reaching perhaps 27 mpg (8.7 L/100 km) on the highway with the five-speed gearbox.
While these aren’t impressive numbers today, they were pretty good for the mid-seventies, particularly given the Celica’s price. Comparably priced V-8 rivals like the Ford Mustang II or H-body Chevrolet Monza were quicker, but not dramatically so, and neither could approach the Toyota’s fuel economy or assembly quality. The Ford Capri remained a strong rival, as did the Scirocco, but if you were shopping for a compact sports coupe in this era, the Celica was at least worth a close look.
In Europe, the Celica’s reputation got an additional boost thanks to its return to WRC competition. Toyota Team Europe’s new RA28 2000GT Liftbacks scored no overall victories in the 1976 or 1977 seasons, but earned two second-place and two third-place finishes, a respectable showing.
Consequently, what on the surface appeared to be a modest update of an aging platform proved to be a shot in the arm for global Celica sales. European sales rebounded after a lackluster showing in 1974–1975 while U.S. exports jumped more than 50% for 1976 and an additional 63% for 1977, accounting for a substantial percentage of all U.S. Toyota sales in those years.
In the home market, business remained steady — in Japan, the Liftback had been around for almost three years at that point and the only significant changes had been emissions-related — but that was no bad thing. Celica sales during the latter part of the run still averaged about 50,000 units a year, excellent for a JDM specialty model.
Combined with robust export business, worldwide Celica sales topped 220,000 units in 1976 and passed the quarter-million mark in calendar 1977, the final year of the first generation. The last A20/A35 Celicas were built that July, short after aggregate production topped 1 million units. The U.S.-designed second-generation Celica, coded A40, debuted in late August, along with the new A40 Carina.
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.
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.
Special thanks go out to all the photographers who were kind enough to let me use their images for this story, and to Don Andreina, Rui Coelho, Scott McPherson, and George Neil for their help with research.
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NOTES ON SOURCES
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Cusumano, The Japanese Automobile Industry: Technology & Management at Toyota & Nissan (Cambridge, MA: The Harvard University Press, 1985); “Dragon Boat Race Festivals of Naha and Itoman, and elsewhere in Japan, their history and their cultural significance,” Japanese Mythology & Folklore, n.d., japanesemythology.wordpress. com/ notes-resources-on-dragon-boat- race-festivals-and-their-significance/, accessed 4 January 2017; Jim Dunne and Ray Hill, “Small sports cars: big on handling and economy,” Popular Science Vol. 209, No. 4 (October 1976): 32–38; Jim Dunne and Rich Ceppos, “Subcompact sports coupes — economy with verve,” Popular Science Vol. 211, No. 6 (December 1977): 26–34; John Fuchs, “Road Test: Camaro/Challenger/Firebird/Javelin: The Fearsome Foursome,” Motor Trend Vol. 26, No. 4 (April 1974), reprinted in AMX & Javelin Muscle Portfolio 1968–1974, ed. R.M. 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The online dictionary Jisho (jisho.org) was a big help in deciphering Japanese-language information.
Some historical exchange rate data for the dollar and the yen came from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies,” MeasuringWorth, www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission. Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate dollar equivalent of prices in non-U.S. currencies, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all equivalencies cited herein are approximate and are provided solely for the reader’s general reference — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!