The Toyota Celica Liftback debuted 50 years ago today

On April 6, 1973 the Toyota Celica Liftback was born. It joined the lineup just two years and four months after the original Celica in Japan, though it wouldn’t appear in the US market until 1976. Thanks in part to the Celica coupe and Japan’s rapidly expanding expressway network, the country was seeing a boom in recreational driving and outdoor activities. As a result, a car boasting style and performance but with increased cargo space and convenience hit the market at just the right time.

The Celica LB, as the Liftback is officially named in Japan, was based on the Toyota SV-I concept shown at the 1971 Tokyo Motor Show. The Celica coupe had been a massive success for Toyota, and it sought to expand its appeal with a more functional body style. Equipped with the 2T-G from a TA22 Celica, the SV-I was a running prototype. The concept also featured a pair of bucket seats that reclined separately for the second row.

The introduction of the Celica LB added 2.0-liter inline-four engines to the powertrain options, in both SOHC and DOHC variants. The top-of-the-line Celica LB 2000GT, with the twin-cam 18R-G, was positioned to compete with Nissan’s hugely popular Kenmeri Skyline. Toyota priced the Celica LB 2000GT at ¥1.12 million, a six percent premium over the Skyline 2000GT’s ¥1.06 million.

Toyota’s market research saw a boom in what would today be called “lifestyle” pursuits, and set out to develop a car with increased utility. The pitch sounds like it could be used for any number of modern SUVs, but back then a sporty silhouette was still of paramount importance. Toyota was determined not to disturb the sleek lines of the Celica, which was said to be inspired by the cross-section shape of laminar flow blades used in jet aircraft wings.

Toyota considered several designs, but settled on a large, sloping hatchback-style door that integrated the rear window. The wide opening that allowed made for easy loading and unloading, and the luggage capacity was impressive, especially with the rear seats folded down. A 1973 brochure photo suggests the kind of pastimes Toyota expected of Celica LB owners, showing off its ability to carry a suitcase, saddle, and outboard motor with ease. In marketing Toyota also cited surfboards and camping equipment. Crucially, the Liftback was equipped with a cargo area lamp to assist in packing and unpacking.

To preserve the overall balance of the design, Toyota extended the Celica’s length by 50mm (2 inches), and lowered the height by 20mm (0.8 inches) while simultaneously widening the body by 20mm. The grille was expanded and upright side markers to emphasize the new width. At the rear five-element “banana” taillights replaced the SV-I’s combination lenses, but when the Liftback made its US debut they were changed to three-element lamps (perhaps to better evoke the popular Ford Mustang for an American audience).

The Celica LB only broadened popularity of the line. Buyers could choose the lighter 1600GTV coupe for absolute performance, or the torquey LB 2000GT for a spirited grand tour. The Liftback subsequently became an integral part of the Celica lineup. From the second generation onward, each iteration of the Celica debuted with both notchback and liftback body styles right from the outset. By the sixth generation, it became the primary body style (the notchback variant was split off as a separate model called the Curren).

When Toyota decided to further expand the lineup with the six-cylinder Celica XX that Americans know as the Supra, those models were all derived from Liftbacks. Suffice it to say, the Liftback has had a lasting impact on the Celica lineage. If Toyota’s new president is successful in fulfilling his lifelong dream to revive the Celica, perhaps we will see a new Liftback down the road.

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6 Responses to The Toyota Celica Liftback debuted 50 years ago today

  1. BlitzPig says:

    The original Celica was so perfect in size and form, and the liftback just made it better. I still regret not purchasing one back then.

  2. Sleeka says:

    Yes, the early Celicas were great……I have had the pleasure of owning 17 Celicas, including 4 Liftbacks (RA28 model here in Australia).
    My personal favourite model is the ST162 (first of the front-wheel-drive versions) though. In Twin-cam 3S-GE form, they were brilliant for their time.

  3. speedie says:

    I learned to drive a manual on a 76 Celica GT. I had that car through college until I replaced it with my first all new car. Lots of fond memories speeding around Boston in it. You really should have a picture of the American version with the redesigned taillights and large bumpers for comparison. The Japanese market definitely got the better styled version.

  4. james says:

    Still a looker after 5 decades.

  5. Ben E says:

    I thought I was the only one who put my outboard in back of my Celica liftback….

  6. J Wilson says:

    In the mid 70’s, Toyota (with the Corolla, Celica, and truck) was really beginning to be taken seriously. They were several generations past the Toyopet, American cars were built with huge doses of I-Don’t-Care and were horrible, THEN the Arab Gas Crisis hit.

    The Celicas had been popular (if not a little girlie), but the fastback GT with it Mustang reminiscent styling was a hit, at indeed, exactly the right time, with its combination of sporty, fuel economy, and Timex build quality.

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