Curbside Classic: 1974 Toyota Celica Coupe – Betting on The Wrong Pony

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(first posted 6/12/2013)     Today’s Curbside Classic is a cautionary tale; a lesson in how difficult it is to predict the future, and how humbling it can be to bet on the wrong pony (car).

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In 1972, I worked briefly on a small construction crew in Iowa City. Two of the young guys had just bought brand new cars. They were both painted silver, and were sporty coupes, but couldn’t have been more different otherwise. One bought a base Mustang coupe, just like in this picture, right down to the wheel covers. The other one bought a Celica Coupe, pretty much like this one. And the two of them argued endlessly about which one had made the better choice.

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Frankly, I thought they were both nuts to hock themselves at their tender age; I was driving a hand-me-down 1962 Corvair, and hit the road with it as soon as I had saved a few hundred bucks, leaving them to dig footings, keep their argument going, and make their payments for the next 36 months. But that’s beside the point, mostly. Of course I got caught up in the debate, and you probably won’t be surprised with which camp of the pony wars I had enlisted with.

You didn’t really need to be a very early Toyota fanboy for that. The 1971 – 1973 Mustang was not only the nadir of Mustangs, but pretty much of the the whole pony car segment. It had lost its direction, and was rather overwrought and excessive in just about every way possible. And though it reflected badly on Ford, all of the Big Three were similarly guilty at the time, with a few exceptions. As I looked at that bloated Mustang with its white wall tires and vinyl top, my personal Detroit DeathWatch ratcheted up a few notches. I just couldn’t see where they were going, other than off an inevitable cliff.

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Yes, the Celica was a skinny little underfed Japanese kid (2200 lbs), and its approx. 90hp 2.0L four hardly set the world on fire. For the times, it was lively, and compared to the Mustang, it was actually fun to drive. The stick shift was slick, the engine was willing, and at least it sounded and felt like it was trying hard. The manual steering and handling were…well, not up to BMW 2002 standards, but you could toss it around on the back roads and have a ball. It was so slim, one wore it like a suit. In comparison, the Mustang might have been your grandmother’s Grand Torino or LTD coupe: dull, soft, and slow; its de-smogged 302 losing out to the battle of its bulge.

The original Mustang, especially a bare-bones six with a stick, was much closer akin to the Celica than its 1973 namesake. And Toyota’s timing with the Celica was perfect, even more so a year later when the energy crisis hit.  The drastically-downsized Mustang II was Ford’s acknowledgment that the Celica had it right.

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But by that time, the Celica had won over a lot of loyal fans, especially with its 1975 refresh and the very 1969-Mustang-esque Liftback.

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And with the very handsome 1978 restyle, which was penned at Toyota’s brand-new Calty SoCal studio, it seemed that the Celica was well on its way to becoming America’s new pony sweetheart.

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That was quite the trick too, considering that this first gen Celica is very Japanese in style and feel. Yes, inspiration and the popularization of the affordable sporty coupe segment may be largely attributed to the original Mustang, but the execution here, especially the details, are anything but Detroit. Actually, the gen1 Celica was progressively “Americanized” throughout its fairly long lifespan, losing the original up-curved face and its delicate little geisha-butt. By the mid-seventies, Toyota knew clearly where the greatest opportunity for growth lay, and opening up the styling studio in California made that official.

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We’re not going to recap the whole pony car wars here, and we all know how the Celica story ended. Not like I predicted in 1972; that’s for sure.  But in the mid eighties, two significant events turned the tide: the lightweight Fox-body Mustang GT reappeared with its lusty 302, and the Celica went to a FWD platform. Ford had rediscovered its roots and thrived; the Celica went a different direction, which ultimately petered out more or less, unless we consider the Scion Tc its spiritual successor. Or is it over-reaching to consider the Toyota 86 (Scion FR-S) as legitimate successors? Now that would change the otherwise bleak demise of the Celica considerably. That’s not to say it didn’t leave some highly memorable (All-trac turbo), fun and reliable cars along the way.

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I’m a sucker for late-sixties to early-seventies Japanese design, even when it descends into kitsch, or worse. It was a time when the Japanese were finding a unique design language of their own, after they stopped blatantly imitating and before they either mastered a more universally acceptable look, or opened styling studios in California (and Europe). I don’t know where the Juke was designed, but Nissan is certainly more than willing to mainstream distinctly Japanese vehicles, like Cube. Meanwhile, Toyota’s Scions, some of them specifically designed for the NA market, are stylistic dullards. Toyota’s race to dominate the American market extracted a price.

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The owner of this particular Celica is very representative of so many other Curbside Classics. She’s a young woman who works in the cafe at my neighborhood market, and it was her uncle’s car, who had bought it new. Family keepsakes, passed from generation to generation, like genes. It’s her daily driver, having learned what it takes to keep a vintage Toyota on the road. I smile every time I see it, even though it humbles me to remember how cock-sure I was about its future in 1972.