COAL: 1979 Toyota Celica GT Liftback- Oh What A (Sinking) Feeling!

This 1979 Celica replaced the ’81 Mazda GLC.


While Lincoln City, Oregon, boasts the world’s shortest river (the “D” River…look it up) it may have one of the world’s longest main drags for a town its size. It must be the longest town on the Oregon Coast, anyway- about seven miles from top to bottom. That’s pretty strung-out for a town with a population of only 9,000 residents. That number undoubtedly swells four-fold during tourist season, but still. Fifty-six years ago, this coastal hamlet was actually five different towns, so that explains the snake-like layout. Back in 1965, the towns of Oceanlake, Delake, Nelscott, Taft, and Cutler City incorporated as a single new town, and the present-day municipality of Lincoln City was born. Well, gee, thanks for the lesson in Oregon Coast history, Matt, but what does any of that have to do with this COAL installment? Read on…

This pre-1965 postcard shows US 101 in what was then Oceanlake, Oregon.


Driving the stretch of US 101 through Lincoln City can be a tedious affair. The glory of the Oregon Coast gives way to strings of restaurants, gas stations, strip malls, motels, condos, tourist shops and traffic lights. Lots of traffic lights. In the seven-mile stretch, there are a total of 13 signaled intersections (yes, I counted!). Again, this is a town of 9,000. Now I’m not picking on poor Lincoln City just because I have nothing better to do. It can be quite lovely to walk on the beaches there as long as you face the Pacific and all the sprawl is at your back. And in all fairness, the town is a lot nicer today than it was back in ’89. It’s still worth a visit. But through no fault of its own, “the LC” has become indelibly associated with one of my worst automotive memories. In December of 1989 the wife and I decided to take a short siesta to the coast when we were on winter break from SOSC. And we got stranded. Guess where? And when we got stranded, I, like David Byrne, found myself asking, “Well, how did I get here?”

In my previous COAL, I didn’t fully disclose the details of my parents’ early wedding gift to us. Yes, they gave us the 1981 Mazda GLC that eventually wheezed its way to the top of Greensprings Mountain, providing me and my wife with an unforgettable car memory. However, there was a “part 2” to the gift. You see, the Mazda was meant merely to be the placeholder because we desperately needed some wheels. The car my folks really wanted to give us was their other one: a 1979 Toyota Celica GT Liftback.


Another view of the Celica parked on my parents’ street, 1989. Mom and Dad built a new house, so the neighborhood was still largely empty.


The Celica was my mom’s driver. Though my parents usually commuted to Newberg together, sometimes they would need to go at different times. So my dad bought my mom this beautiful gently-used Celica. They were growing weary of the commute from Portland to Yamhill County, and were in the process of moving to Newberg when they gave us the Mazda. My dad, a newly-converted Mazda-ite, soon replaced the GLC they had given us with his brand new 1988 626. But they figured they would only need one car when they finally got moved, so the ’79 Celica was going to go to us at that time. With me so far?

I don’t remember the exact date when we took possession of the Celica, but it was probably sometime in late 1988 or early ’89. I also don’t remember what became of the GLC- I probably gave it back to my dad and he sold it for whatever he could get for it. But we were thrilled to get the Toyota. The ’79 Celica was in its second-year of it’s new-for-’78 styling: crisp, clean and understated; quite a visual departure from the “Me, too! mini-Mustang” look of the previous generation (though I am fond of that version, too).

Our Celica had the same alloys as the car on this brochure.


Our particular Celica had the style and sophistication that the Mazda lacked, and it had it in spades: a sleek 2-door body style, dual sport mirrors,  blacked-out A-pillars, frameless windows, 8-spoke factory alloy wheels, power everything (well, almost–the mirrors worked with those weird little interior toggle adjusters), and a sunroof. Whereas the old Mazda was ho-hum white, the Celica was a decidedly more attractive rich metallic green. Handsome metal trim covered the extra-wide B-pillar (coupes got a slimmer post), and in ’78, Toyota had stamped “Liftback” onto that trim (like yeah, so?). In ’79, it simply read “Celica.” Much better. I thought that was cool. Underneath the hood sat Toyota’s rugged 20R 2.2 liter SOHC four, mounted longitudinally. This was still a rear-driver. With this mill, making about 90 horsepower and mated to a 3-speed auto, our Celica was no sports car. Yes, this car would have certainly been more fun with a 5-speed manual, but, hey, we were stepping up from a GLC! Who were we to complain?

Inside, the car was reasonably luxurious by 1979 Japanese car standards. Like all Celicas of the time, it featured a full set of gauges, which was a nice touch by itself. Seats were vinyl, but they sported a high-quality woven pattern. If vinyl seats can be considered luxurious, they’d be like the ones in our Celica. The steering wheel was leather wrapped. The doors had those little lights so you wouldn’t stumble against a curb in the dark. The carpet was plush and not that Sunday-school flannel-board stuff you found in lesser cars. All in all a pretty nice package for two financially-challenged college students who lived in a dinky one-bedroom apartment that had been converted from a nursing home (true story!).

This lovely piece of brochure art shows a dash layout that is nearly identical to our Celica, right down to the color.


Even though it was a ten-year-old car, we got a lot of compliments. And it performed well at first. My parents had only had one problem with it that I remember- the water pump went out at around 77K. Not an overly costly repair, and probably to be expected. We got it with about 90K on the clock, so yeah, mileage was getting up there, but I had no reason to be overly concerned.

Problems started surfacing in 1989- small ones at first and, like the water pump, probably to be expected due to the car’s age. I remember cruising down Siskiyou Blvd.  in Ashland one night and noticed that the headlights and interior lighting started to dim. Thanks to the amp meter in the full gauge set, I could tell the battery wasn’t getting charged. So that was our first repair: a new alternator, and I don’t remember how much it cost, but to a poor college student, any amount is high.

There were other little annoying things. The carburetor started giving us problems (crap, not that again!). I tried some of that carb-cleaner junk. It helped a little. The car never was a rocket, but I was damned determined I wouldn’t let things get as bad as they were with the Mazda. (They didn’t, thankfully.) Then during the summer, my father-in-law helped me chase down some exhaust leaks that made the car sound like it had eaten one too many bean burritos.

All of those problems could easily be forgiven if not for that fateful trip to the coast. Seen in that light, the niggling issues we had throughout 1989 were just the appetizers for the steaming entrée of frustration that was served up during our winter break. Late in December, we drove from southern Oregon to Lincoln City and planned on staying a night or two there. Then we were going to drive over to the valley to see our folks for the holidays. On our first night in LC we were getting hungry, so we thought we’d pop out for a quick bite. We hopped into the green machine, cranked the key, but she wouldn’t turn over. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zip. The Empty Set. Did I make it clear it wouldn’t start?

This happening before the days of widespread cell-phone use (we didn’t even have those giant bricks like Scully and Mulder rested on their shoulders during the first few seasons of the X-Files), we went to the motel office to see if we could use their phone to call a tow truck and a garage. Learning our plight, the manager offered to take a look at the Celica. He determined that there was no spark, so he very graciously drove us two miles to the local Bi-Mart (ask your nearest Oregonian about this store) to pick up a distributor cap and some new spark plug wires. He even installed it all for us. I may have been losing my faith in cars at this point, but my faith in humanity was starting to go up a little. Brimming with new-found hope, we tried to start it again. NOTHING. By this time, it was getting late (I don’t remember what we did for dinner that night), so we decided to deal with it in the morning.

Well, morning came and it turned out it wasn’t just a bad dream, dang-nab-it, so now I knew we were in for a very long day. We called the local Les Schwab Tires (ask your nearest Pacific Northwester about this store) to see if they could recommend a decent mechanic in town. “Sports and Imports” was the place they suggested, and it was four miles down 101 in the Taft district, and we had the car towed there. The picture below is from a 2018 Google Earth Street View screen grab. That’s pretty much the way it looked in 1989, too.


Sports and Imports was rather-er-rustic, as you can see. Let’s just say there was no nice waiting room with fresh coffee and the latest copies of Car and Driver. However, the shop’s owner was a congenial fellow (I wish I could remember his name. Let’s just call him “Dan.” I mean, I could call him “that owner of the rather rustic garage, the one without fresh coffee or copies of Car and Driver,” but “Dan” is just so much easier). Dan was a 35-40ish man with a scruffy beard and wearing well-worn (and well-stained) coveralls. He was apparently the owner and chief/only mechanic. Pretty much what you’d expect in a small coastal town. Dan seemed confident he could get us on our way. There was a Dairy Queen right across the street, so we took up temporary residence there while Dan poked around under the hood.

In a couple of hours (he had another car ahead of ours, I think), he announced his diagnosis: a faulty igniter unit. I had heard of distributors, but was completely ignorant about igniter units. He could have called it an “engine energizing unit thing” and I wouldn’t have been the wiser. But it didn’t sound like it would be too expensive to repair. New ones would set us back about $100 from a dealer, Dan told us, but he knew of a place in Portland, a Toyota scrap yard, where we could get a used one for about $20.

A great, money-saving solution, no doubt, but there was one problem: there were 95 miles of coast range and valley between us and Portland. So I did the only thing a young, desperate guy does in a situation like this: I called my dad. Thankfully, Newberg was only about 65 miles away and since dad was a college professor, he was on winter break, too. So yes, my dad came to our rescue. I am not ashamed to admit it. You do what you have to do. He drove to Lincoln City, picked us up, and then straight to Portland where we bought a used igniter unit from the salvage yard. It was getting late in the day, so dad took us back to Lincoln City the next day so Dan could install the unit.

We waited in Dairy Queen again while Dan worked his magic. Well, I wish he would have actually had some magical powers, because the “new” unit didn’t work. Dan was a little baffled. It could just be a bad one, he thought. But he went over to a shelf and pulled out a manual and began thumbing through the pages. Turns out that Toyota had made a change to the Celica igniter unit mid-model year (thanks for that, Toyota!) and our unit was the wrong one. The salvage yard didn’t have the one we needed so now we’d have to go and buy a new one from a dealer. Of course, Lincoln City didn’t have a Toyota dealer, so my poor dad drove us the 60 miles to the nearest one that had the part- Capitol Toyota in Salem. While there, I had to walk past a line of shiny new-for-1990 Celicas. Yeah, dream on.


The 1990 Celica was all-new, and quite a looker IMO.


We got the unit and Dad whisked us back to Lincoln City. (A side note: I’m not sure he minded all this driving. His 626 was still fairly new and he enjoyed driving it. He was especially fond of the “hill-holder” feature, which he got a chance to use driving in the Coast Range.) It was getting late in the day, but Dan put the new unit in as soon as we delivered it to him. We all held our breaths when Dan tried to start it up. Silence. Dead as a Sunday night in Klamath Falls. I could see frustration building in the Dan’s expression. “I don’t get it.” He shook his head. So he went over the grimy and well-worn manuals and rifled through them again while we went back to the DQ, which was now becoming like a second home. Soon he had an answer for us: when replacing the igniter unit, you also have to replace the pick-up coil (another part I had no idea existed).

So yeah, another parts purchase from Capitol Toyota, this one for about $80, and we decided to pick it up the next morning. The Celica was now going on its third night bunking in the shop. The next day, we were back in Salem and I had to walk past that line of new Celicas a second time. $80 (no sales tax, this is Oregon, remember!) and several hours later we were back at the shop to deliver the part. Whoever said “the third time’s a charm” was exceedingly prescient, at least in our case. After Dan installed the coil, the little green Celica started right up. The sense of relief in the shop was palpable. We’d have been uncorking bottles of Champagne if we had them.

The Celica in Klamath Falls during the summer of ’89. It looks like we installed those faux sheepskin seat covers. I have no idea why on earth we did that. My grandpa’s ’78 Chevy Scottsdale pickup is also visible in this photo.


Due to my general mechanical ineptitude, I have no idea if Dan should have known to replace the pick-up coil at the same time as the igniter. That would have saved us at least one trip to Salem. But I was truly grateful for him- he stuck it out. Then he handed us the bill. I braced myself. We purchased the parts when we picked them up, but there was still the matter of his fee. The bill: $25 for labor. That was it. Three nights in his shop and hours of head-scratching and frustration and he only charged us $25. A little humanity in that sprawling, tourist-trap of a town. We were literally at his mercy and he turned out to be a genuinely decent human being. So at least this automotive tale has a happy ending. 1990 turned out to be pretty smooth for us car-wise as we seemed to be past the worst of it after this incident. But life has a way of upsetting your complacency. That story, and the new car that came out of it, will be covered in my next COAL.