Fifty years ago this day, on December 1 1970, the first Toyota Celica went on sale in Japan. It proved to be a groundbreaking car, the first of Japan’s production “specialty cars”, fashionable personal coupes based on a sedan chassis. It oozed style, striking the market at just the right moment and immediately became a darling of racers both street and professional. Most importantly, it played a vital role in building the rich automotive lifestyle of Japan.
Before the Celica, most sports cars in Japan were bespoke designs, built on dedicated platforms like the Toyota 2000GT, Mazda Cosmo Sport, or Honda S800. Often more hand-built than factory produced, they necessitated expensive sticker prices that the average citizen, graduating from a motorbike or kei car, could seldom afford.
As motorization progressed, people yearned for cars befitting of their age, income, and tastes. Toyota had created the Corolla to slot between the Publica and Corona, but it soon became clear that another model, the Carina, could split the difference between the Corolla and Corona as well. It would be more powerful than the economy-minded Corolla, but not quite as luxurious as the Corona. In other words, it was an ideal niche for a sporty family sedan.
Astutely, Toyota also saw an opportunity for a chic, performance-oriented coupe that would attract younger drivers with an affordable price tag. They could base it on the Carina’s rear-wheel-drive chassis and share many mechanical components. That meant it could be built on the same assembly line to cut down expenses.
For the Carina, Toyota even took some powertrain and front suspension bits from the Corolla 1400, while body components like the A-pillars and door panels were borrowed from the Corona. For the coupe, though, Toyota would make it look like a completely different car. Development of the two began in parallel in early 1967.
A New Era
On October 30, 1970, the pair debuted at the 17th Tokyo Motor Show. In the past, a two-door version of a mainstream sedan would have taken the base model’s name, but because of the radical departure in shape Toyota assigned it a whole new designation: Celica, the Spanish word for “celestial” or “heavenly”. It was fitting, as its curvaceous lines were unlike that of anything else on the market. It was so rounded that, along with its recessed headlight “eyes”, it reminded people of the traditional good luck charm called a daruma. The nickname stuck, and to this day enthusiasts call these first-gens “Daruma Celicas”.
For showgoers who had attended the previous year’s Motor Show, they would’ve seen a similarity to the 1969 EX-1 concept. The rocketship wedge show car had stunned audiences, but it was something else to see elements like its rounded sides and unique pointed nose with sunken headlamps on the production Celica.
Its styling and name set the Celica miles apart from the Carina. The Carina has aged well and is no slouch in the looks department, but back then the 2- and 4-door sedan bodies seemed staid and formal next to its sportier cousin. Additionally, the Celica’s availability in coupe form only bestowed upon it an instantly athletic character. Its style became a sensation among customers for whom even a hardtop would not suffice.
Both the Carina and Celica went on sale that December, with the former sold at Toyota stores and the latter sold at Corolla dealerships in the company’s labyrinthine dealer network. Words like “wild” and “untamed” populated the Celica’s marketing materials, and the commercial’s catchphrase played on its sleekness: “From a Nation of the Future, Celica.” While Carina ads showed a happy family, Celica ads targeted rakish young men.
Toyota offered four engine options, including a 1.4 liter and three 1.6-liter units, and a choice of 4- and newly developed 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic transmissions. There were four model grades, starting with the ¥570,000 1400ET. Next came the 2T-equipped 1600LT, followed by the 2T-B 1600ST. However, it was the Celica’s range-topping 1600GT and its 2T-G engine that truly set it apart from the Carina.
Known as the TA22 in chassis code-speak, the Celica 1600GT gave customers access to the new high performance-type engine that was still rare in Japan, a twin-cam, twin-carb inline-four. Engineered by Yamaha, it generated 115PS (113 hp), 10 more than the ST’s 105, and churned out 105 lb-ft of torque. The price tag on the 1600GT was ¥875,000, and with Skyline GT-Rs asking over ¥1.5 million, the Celica was an absolute steal.
Young drivers with a passion for modifying their cars flocked to Celica. It was one of Japan’s first real — to borrow a phrase that would come decades later — sport compacts, an affordable and easy-to-tune car for speed-obsessed youths. Its market position was similar to that of the Honda Civic Si in the 90s, or the Toyota 86’s today. A perfect storm of affordable price, stellar looks, and street cred, it was an instant hit.
Fueling the desire to personalize the Celica was Toyota’s Full Choice System, an unprecedented program that let customers freely combine parts and features to create the exact the car they wanted. There were 27 possible combinations among the engine, exterior, and interior alone. Adding the transmission, paint color, and various other optional parts resulted in several million variations.
Toyota took orders daily, with dealers sending the orders and options to the factory by telex. Based on the collected orders, the plant would create a daily assembly sequence plan, taking into consideration order priority and production leveling. The system could deliver the finished car in as little as eight days.
A minor change in August 1972 relocated the fuel tank from under the rear floorpan to between the rear seat and trunk. New taillights separated the turn signal and brake lights into distinct elements, making the earlier “onetail” lenses more coveted by collectors today. Most significantly, Toyota introduced a new 1600GTV trim (more on this later).
April 1973 brought the Celica’s biggest change, the addition of a new 3-door Liftback body style. Based on the SV-1 concept shown at the 1971 Tokyo Motor Show, it was originally envisioned as a sporty multi-use vehicle in response to demand from outdoor-oriented customers. With rear seats folded down, the large tailgate could swallow surfboards and camping gear, as such hobbies grew in popularity during this era.
The Liftback offered three 1.6-liter and two new 2.0-liter engine options. Both had twin-cam options in the 2T-G and 18R-G, respectively. With maximum output on the top-spec Celica Liftback 2000GT model at 145PS (143hp) and a curb weight of 1040kg (2295 lbs), Toyota had cracked another home run.
A minor change in January 1974 squared off the coupe’s nose to match the Liftback’s and gave the coupe the 2.0-liter engine as well. In March, the revamped option-spec’ing program, called the New Order System, launched. High demand had made the previous system unsustainable. The New Order System issued factory orders every 10 days without modification for high-volume specs to be sold out of dealer inventory. Special-order cars were still possible, a daily update allowing changes to be made at any time. As a result, few early Celicas were alike, while later ones tended to have set menus.
The adoption of emissions equipment changed everything again in 1975, elongating the Celica’s nose to accommodate the extra gear. These more closely resemble the Liftbacks we got in the US, but contrary to popular belief the safety bumper-equipped models were also sold in Japan. In any case, the early, short-nose RA25s with 5-element “banana tail” rear lights are the Liftbacks most prized by collectors. Aside from emissions equipment, there would be no more major changes until the end of the first-generation.
While all this was going on, Toyota was also busy campaigning their new sports coupe in Japan’s motorsports arenas. The Celica’s inaugural race took place in November 1971, with three cars on the grid at the Japan All-Stars race at Fuji Speedway. Though unmistakably Celicas, the trio wore menacing battle armor, wind tunnel-tested aerodynamic noses (high technology in Japan at the time) with integrated molded blister fenders and small deck spoilers.
Suspension-wise, all arms were changed to pipe-and-ball joints and seven-stage dampers installed. Underhood, dry-sump race engines with more aggressive cam profiles upped the compression ratio from 9.8 to 11:1 and Solex 50 PHH carbs. With 170PS (168hp) and 116 lb-ft of torque on tap, the Celicas swept the podium, finishing 1-2-3 in their debut race.
Its successes didn’t stop there. In March 1972, a Celica won the Touring Class at the All-Japan Automobile Race at Suzuka. That was followed in April by an overall championship at the Race de Nippon, besting even larger displacement cars like the Skyline GT-R and Fairlady 240ZG. At the Japan Grand Prix in May, Toyota swept the podium again in the TS-a Class, with a Celica in 1st, 2nd, and 4th (a Corolla Levin came in 3rd). That same month, a Celica also won the the Suzuka 1000 km race, beating out cars like the Mazda RX-3 and Fairlady 240Z. In July, the Celica returned to the Japan All-Stars race where it swept the podium for the second consecutive year.
The Celica was on fire, and the many sports parts developed in and for battle went on sale in May 1972. With an already accessible platform and a catalog of hop-up parts, even more tuners would join the Celica faithful. Capitalizing on these much-watched successes, in August 1972 the Celica received a new top spec with a sport suspension, the 1600GTV — “V” for “victory”.
The most threatening of all the Celicas arrived in October 1972 at the Fuji 1000km. Though appearing like standard competition-spec Celicas, under their hoods the race-modified 2T-G engines had been turbocharged, an advanced and rare technology at the time. Moreover, the motors ran electronic fuel injection with twin sparkplugs, generating 260PS (256hp) and massive torque of 177 lb-ft. Despite the new induction system, Toyota managed keep the weight down to 760kg (1675 lb), the same as the naturally aspirated car, for an amazing power-to-weight ratio.
It was the natural evolution of Toyota’s incredible but tragic Toyota 7 Can-Am program. The 800PS (789hp) racer had been canceled before it could compete, so Toyota’s race engineers ported what they had learned to the Celica. Unfortunately, both cars ended up retiring in that first race, but non-turbo Celicas continued to rack up wins. In November, they won 1st and 2nd place in the final Fuji Grand Champions race of the year, and won the 1973 Makes Challenge as well.
The hits kept on coming. Naturally aspirated cars soldiered on as Toyota honed the Turbo Celicas. In March 1973, a Celica again won the first round of the Grand Champions series. In April, with the release of the LB2000GT, its 2.0-liter racing variant made its debut at the Japanese Grand Prix and promptly took first and second place in its class.
Finally, on July 29, 1973 at the Fuji 1000km, a pair of of Celica Turbos, one Liftback and one coupe, entered in what would be the zenith of the Daruma’s race activities in Japan. With output now pushed to 300PS (296hp) and 195 lb-ft, they were a force to be reckoned with. The sight of these green monsters on Fuji Speedway became the stuff of legend, especially with Harukuni Takahashi and Kiyoshi Misaki barrelling around the Daiichi bank during a torrential rainstorm.
The weather got so bad that the race had to be cut short (to 808 km), but the image of turbo Celicas charging past the grandstands, scattering trails of rainwater behind them, was indelible. The Liftback Turbo took top honors, while Nobuhide Tachi’s (founder of TOM’s) 1600GT placed 3rd, and Hiroyuki Kukidome and Mitsumasa Kanie’s Celica Turbo coupe came in 4th.
As this was taking place at home, Toyota was launching an all-out motorsports blitz internationally. That same month, the Celica captured a 1.6-liter class win at the West German round of the European Touring Car Championship at the famed Nürburgring. Driven by Ove Andersson and Freddy Kottulinsky, it placed 6th overall, beating out factory teams from BMW, Ford, and Alfa Romeo, and setting a new division lap record of 9 minutes 29.5 seconds in the process.
A week before the win at Fuji, Andersson and Kottulinsky’s Celica took the sub-2.0-liter class win at the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps. As fate would have it, rain poured over this race as well, but the Celica 1600GT still managed 9th overall, besting Alfa Romeo, Audi, and Chevrolet’s Camaro.
The trio of wins in three different countries that summer was the pinnacle of Celica racing, but that doesn’t even come close to covering it all. Beyond the circuit, it won its class in the RAC Rally twice in a row before Toyota Team Europe replaced it with the smaller TE27. It became the first Japanese car to win the Macau Grand Prix, and did it twice. It developed a huge following in the Philppines thanks to the exploits of renowned racer Dante Silverio. Schnitzer Motorsport of Germany even built one of the first Japanese Group 5 silhouette racers out of Celica Liftback, a mix of Teutonic and Japanese engineering that earned it one (albeit non-title) victory in West Germany.
A Life Well Lived
Sadly, Americans at the time knew little about the Celica’s international motorsports adventures. Nor did we receive the twin-cam engines that made the Celica a bargain masterpiece. Instead, Toyota gave us SOHC fours ranging from 1.9 to 2.2 liters and 97 to 109 horsepower. Though torquier, we missed out on the precision soul that connected the Celica to its racing brethren and made it a favorite in its homeland.
Still, it was deemed good enough to receive Motor Trend‘s Import Car of the Year award when the Liftback made its stateside debut in 1976. It was a hard-fought win, too, outshining future legends like the Honda Civic CVCC, VW Rabbit, and 930 Porsche Carrera Turbo.
Toyota sold over a million Celicas worldwide in the first generation alone, with coupes outselling Liftbacks three to one. Over 400,000 of them found homes in Japan, over 520,000 in the US. The rest were scattered among 70 countries, establishing Toyota as a company that could build not just dependable cars and trucks, but also spirited driving machines.
In late 1977 Toyota, as it is wont to do, released a Japan-only Black Edition to finish off the run. Available only on the Liftback 2000GT trim, it was limited to 385 units, as denoted by a serial numbered decal on the rear quarter panel. The number represented the 385,000 Celicas registered in Japan at the time.
The first-generation Celica endured an unusually long lifespan for a Japanese car of the era, but it never outstayed its welcome. Through its value, ordering system, and motorsports conquests it revolutionized the way people thought about personal transport in Japan. The Celica let them build cars according to their tastes, and reflected each owners’ individuality. That inspired countless enthusiasts, and as such the Celica played an decisive part in creating the customization-friendly car culture of Japan that we celebrate today.
Images courtesy of Toyota, Gazoo Racing, Fuji International Speedway, Rodenstock.