COAL – 1978 Toyota Celica GT Liftback. Who Could ask for Anything More?

The second car I owned was a 1978 Toyota Celica GT Liftback. After selling my 68 Falcon, I was mainly getting around on my motorcycle and sometimes borrowing my parent’s Datsun, but felt a need for full-time 4-wheeled transportation. My dad had been thinking of selling the family Datsun, (a 1971 510 – which will have its own COAL in the future) and offered it to me. I was fond of the 510, but decided I wanted something different.

I started scanning the classifieds in both Santa Cruz, where I lived, and the San Francisco Bay Area, where my parents lived and I frequently visited.  It was the late 1980s and I recall looking for cars in the $1000-$1400 range. My goal was to find practical transportation but I was often tempted by the less practical. One memorable candidate on the less practical side was a fintail Mercedes 190 which I test drove.

Despite being over 20 years old, the car was in very good shape, and I remember that the MB-Tex interior was completely intact. It seemed like a lot of car for the money, very solidly built, and had a strong 1960s European charm, but the automatic (possibly semi-automatic?) transmission was vexing. I recall it was being sold by someone who had received it in payment of a debt and knew almost nothing about it. On a test drive, it seemed evident it wasn’t shifting into top gear and it wasn’t clear to me if it had transmission issues or if there was some sort of technique to get it to upshift.

Apart from the confusing transmission I could see any repairs being difficult and expensive on an older Mercedes and I decided to continue my search, I looked at a very rough second-generation Firebird which unfortunately was equipped with a V6 that lacked the performance to redeem the other shortcomings of the car. I also phoned the seller of a late-60s Olds 442, but the phone call made it evident that it was more of a project than I wanted to tackle and I never went to see the car.

Moving to more practical rides, a late-70s VW Rabbit I test drove had impressive road manners but was showing some rust, and I was a bit nervous about buying a used European car with fuel injection and front-wheel drive, both of which seemed complex, mysterious, and somewhat of unknown quantities at the time.

A 1977 Celica I looked at had some rust and body issues that led me to pass on buying it, but I was impressed by the general refinement of the car – it had a nicely shifting 5-speed, and the 20R motor had a reputation as a tough and reliable engine. While most American fastbacks sacrificed practicality for style, the Celica’s liftback and fold-down seats offered both in one neat package. The interior was nicely trimmed, and it was composed and quiet at freeway speeds – which was far from a given for small cars at this time. I had read a Road and Track article that listed the Celica in their top 10 bargain enthusiast cars, and I kept my eyes open for another Celica in my price range.

Not long after, I found a metallic blue 1978 Celica GT liftback in Berkley. It seemed well kept, and after going over it closely, I couldn’t find any evidence of mechanical issues. I offered to pay for a smog check and purchase it if it passed – which it did. The seller and I completed the paperwork and as we concluded the sale, she mentioned she’d like to keep the license plate frame, which was from a spiritual organization she was a member of – it was, after all, Berkeley.

This Celica was the first 5-speed car I’d had much experience driving, and in top gear was it quiet and untaxed on the freeway. My parent’s 510, for all its virtues, was loud and buzzy at similar speeds, and the fact that I was frequently making the 75-mile drive from Santa Cruz to the SF Bay Area inclined me toward something that was comfortable and composed on the freeway.

The Celica GT package came with an AM/FM radio in the dash, and mine had an under-dash cassette deck as well, along with what seemed to be an aftermarket balancer/fader to adjust the balance between the 2 front and 2 rear speakers. The air conditioning worked, and it had full gauges including a tachometer. Much like reviewers when the car was new, I was impressed by the overall quality, drivability, and general good design of the car and found the performance competent but not breathtaking. While a comfortable and well-equipped small car may not seem exceptional today, this was a car introduced in 1978, at a time when Chevrolet still was selling the Vega and had introduced the Chevette only two years previously. Many small cars of the 1970s were aimed at the economy end of the market and typically had spartan interiors and limited creature comforts in an effort to keep the MSRP down.

There’s another Curbside Classic article that gives an excellent history and overview of the Celica, so I won’t rehash the overall history, but it’s worth a read if you’re interested in learning more. It’s interesting that GM seemed baffled that new car buyers would pay more for a Celica than Pontiac Grand Prix.

This generation of Celica was the first product of Toyota’s California design studio, and a unique enough design that it didn’t quickly look dated. One of my favorite design aspects was the stainless trim on the B-pillar. At the time, there was an aftermarket trim piece available to bridge these two stainless panels into a band reminiscent of a Porsche Targa (or a 1950s Ford Crown Victoria). I believe there were small ads in Road & Track for this trim piece. I was able to find a picture of one on a coupe but not the liftback version.

Photo Credit: Murilee Martin – The Truth About Cars

Less common were the aftermarket T-Tops. The Celica had frameless door glass, allowing Corvette/Trans-Am style removable T-tops to be installed.

The liftback was surprisingly useful for hauling – the cargo area could easily hold a mountain bike or a large guitar amplifier, both of which I frequently transported. Although the back seat was somewhat cramped, the space behind the seat made the interior less claustrophobic than a coupe would have been.

I recall on one trip up to San Francisco to see The Pogues at the Fillmore, a friend of mine was riding in back, and on the trip home, he folded down the seats, lay down in the hatch area, and fell asleep. The lack of a cargo shield on my car was a definite drawback. I never liked to leave the car parked with musical equipment or anything else valuable in the back, visible to all passers-by. I would sometimes have a blanket in the back to throw over the contents, but things never felt as secure as if they were locked in a trunk.

Another issue with the liftback was that the plastic interior panels in the cargo area tended to degrade with exposure to the sun. On my car, the sections over the wheel wells started crumbling, and I trimmed them away to avoid constant chips of disintegrating blue plastic on the cargo floor. The above image shows a Celica with a less advanced case of panel-rot, although I’d imagine that plastic is pretty brittle.

While it was a generally reliable car, and the 20R motor lived up to its reputation as a Japanese slant-6, at various times I did have to replace the water pump, radiator, and clutch slave cylinder, all of which were fairly easy DIY repairs that I completed in an afternoon, and I never had a problem with parts availability.

Later in my ownership, the clutch started slipping. After pricing a clutch replacement from several local repair shops and studying the procedure in the shop manual, I decided to tackle replacing the clutch myself. At the time, this was the most involved auto repair I’d ever attempted. My car spent several days on jack stands, and my recollection is that I used a borrowed trolley jack and a square of thick plywood as an improvised transmission jack. I had also wrapped a rope around the transmission several times and fed it through the shifter hole in the transmission tunnel and I recruited my friends to hold the transmission somewhat steady as I raised and lowered it during removal and installation.

Despite my general cluelessness and inexperience, the job went fairly smoothly – the transmission was dropped, I had a new throwout bearing pressed onto the release collar at a local auto parts store (this was back when parts stores were typically independent and frequently provided basic machine shop services) and I installed the new clutch disc and clutch cover using a plastic pilot tool that I believe I still have somewhere in one of my toolboxes. There was a bit of struggle getting the transmission back in place but thankfully it had dowels that helped align everything. Looking back, I don’t remember resurfacing the flywheel, though I may have hit it with some sandpaper or just decided it looked OK.

Dropping the transmission had required that I disconnect the exhaust pipe, driveshaft, shifter, and numerous other parts. I reassembled everything, refilled the transmission, dropped the car off the jack stands, and got ready to start the car. Firing it up, I was greeted by a loud growling noise that wasn’t there before. My heart sank until I saw a donut gasket on the ground that had presumably dropped from the exhaust manifold after I had disconnected the headpipe. After disassembling the exhaust, putting the gasket back in place, and reassembling everything, I took a deep breath and turned the key. This time all seemed to be well, and a test drive on hilly roads confirmed that the clutch now was holding.

The lost and found exhaust gasket

While the car served me well, it never inspired the passion or excitement that I’ve had for some other cars I’ve owned, and it’s telling that I didn’t bother to take any photos of it – all of the images in this article were found on the web, and pulling together photos, I’m astounded at how many images I found look to be of unmodified, unrestored examples that were being offered for sale as used cars. It’s either a tribute to how many of these were sold, or how well they held up that I was able to find multiple instances of cars that were dead ringers for my long-departed Celica. Below is a dealer video of a car nearly identical to mine down to the crumbling cargo area plastic, which the seller calls out at 14:30.

I eventually started to think about selling the car not because of any mechanical issue or specific shortcoming of the Celica but simply because I wanted to upgrade to something else. Toyota’s slogan some years back was “Who could ask for anything more?”

At the time, I thought that I could.