If time heals all wounds, it’s certainly helped the reputation of the 1978-1981 Toyota Celica in my mind. These cars were everywhere during my childhood, most frequently as three-door liftbacks. By that time most, usually painted some variation of brown or bronze, had succumbed to the tin worm and were quite the eyesore. By the mid ’90s, they were a very uncommon sight and naturally, I never got the best impression of them, but when they were released, as one of the first Toyotas styled in North America, they were quite fresh. Of course, I wasn’t alive while these were being cranked out so I had to take pictures when I saw this one in Rockland, Maine where it makes an even more improbable sight than in Indiana or Ohio. Non-original paint and rims notwithstanding, it allowed me to finally see it with a fresh perspective: suddenly, it’s 1980!
The treatment of certain details give this car away as a product of the 1970s, with brushed steel and protruding door handles not meeting the minimalism achieved by the crispest shapes of the following decade, but there’s a simplicity of form which its curvy predecessor lacked, not to mention the contemporary S11 Nissan 200SX/Silvia.
It could be that since I always see liftbacks, which have a uniquely wide B-pillar, I’ve failed recognize these as attractive cars. When the second generation Celica was new, though, those were the hot ticket, making this two-door rather obscure.
Well silly me for overlooking them, then, because these are actually quite good looking in their old age, and a stunning debut for the CALTY design center which conceived them. If only Toyota held onto that sort of design leadership. Actually, any sort of leadership would’ve been worth holding onto when it came to the Celica. If Honda’s Prelude was mild mannered, outside of versions with the “big block” VTECs, the Celica was resolutely taciturn, with the exception of the rare and expensive GT4/All-Trac which came out much later. The 2 litre 22R which powered these cars was above average for the times, of course, but future generations failed to meaningfully build on that competitive edge. This is one of the more exciting Celicas relative to the times.
Mechanically, these were conventional cars but up-to-date by American standards, with a five-link rear axle and struts up front to complement an overhead cam engine and five-speed transmissions. They were compelling buys until the likes of the Fox Mustang and Camaro got their act together with less strangled powertrains, and probably convinced more than a couple Monte Carlo intenders to go Toyota as well. But more than that, these cars also attracted many proto yuppies who went on to buy more expensive European metal by the time these were about five years old. Owner loyalty is much lesser in the image-conscious segments these cars played in, and when it came to building the Toyota brand in this country, the Celica played second fiddle to cars like the Corolla, Corona and pick ups.
That isn’t to say that they were unprofitable (quite the opposite) or that people weren’t more than happy to own Celicas. I’d imagine many fond memories are associated with them and that they were probably the first car many people owned with such classy touches as real bucket seats and full instrumentation. That dashboard had more than a few new car buyers feeling smart and from the looks of it, this particular car has seen service for much of its life; check out the ’90s vintage CD player (those weren’t necessarily cheap back then). This is a much more attractive dash than that which went into the 1982 and 1986 cars, the latter of which had faux-stitching (listen to Nancy, Toyota, and just say no!).
This car got upgrades before the ’90s, too, if those rear window louvers and pop-up sunroof are any indication. Actually, all the bolt-ons this car has gotten speak to decades of embodying its owners’ ambitions. It’s rare to see such love continuously bestowed upon a car and really, it’s in keeping with the Celica’s role as a fashion statement. But even if it was less than a serious sporting machine, honest design and mechanicals kept it from being a fashion victim. Will we see a well-built, stylish, keenly priced Toyota like this anytime soon? I’ll keep my fingers crossed; the FT-86 is a good start, even if its looks, its Subaru engine and the cynical, fabricated link to the posthumous fame of its namesake fail to impress. I’d argue product planners might find more inspiration in this model, which was what buyers wanted while it was actually in production. C’mon, Toyota, I know you have it in you.