Curbside Classic: 1979-81 Celica Sunchaser- The First Celica Convertible?


It’s amazing how the human mind works. While riding to lunch the other day, our driver ducked down a side street to avoid a clogged left turn arrow. As we rolled down this residential bypass, I spotted this car and immediately thought “Celica Sunchaser!”

I must pat myself on the back- Recalling that name after thirty years fully validates my car geek credentials. Had anyone in the car asked me about that odd looking Celica parked at the curb, I could have told them that back in the early eighties it represented a “halo” car for select Toyota showrooms, and was modified by an specialty manufacturer working in the same vein as Hans Prechter’s American Sunroof Corporation (but to clarify, it was not built by ASC). The cars were shipped from the Toyota factory to a Griffith Company facility where the roof was cut off, body reinforced, and new fiberglass components installed to provide a removable roof (The fiberglass also covered the rough sawn sheet metal edges).


Missing Emblem

I also recalled that the B-Pillar on these cars read “Sunchaser,” but while a nameplate indentation remains, the plate itself had fallen off both sides of the car. A careful study of this photograph also reveals that the composite cover over the B-pillar isn’t holding up much better than the missing nameplates. The edge trim has separated (perhaps because the fiberglass is disintegrating), and the face of the cover appears to be delaminating due to exposure.


So how did I recall the name “Sunchaser?” Simple- In their February 1980 issue, Motor Trend declared the Sunchaser as the next big thing. They placed the car on the cover, and devoted a full 6 pages to a review of the car. The article also included an extensive sidebar showing cars being modified at the vendor. At the time, this model topped the Celica price range, adding $2,995 to the MSRP. In 1980 this represented about half the cost of a base Celica, forcing the car into a higher price bracket where it competed with European nameplates carrying greater cachet than the budget minded Toyota nameplate. That helps explain why the Sunchaser only lasted three years.


This car looks nothing like the cars in the Motor Trend article (linked here). The fawning writer went into great detail regarding the superior engineering of the Griffith components, but may have been mislead by the glossy brochures. These pictures indicate that the basic Toyota trim parts have held up well (setting aside paint finish), but the Sunchaser pieces do not match Toyota quality. Short of a new tail light assembly, the Celica part of this car looks ready for another ten or twenty years, while the Griffith top pieces appear ready to expire today.


Weathered Roof

This close up of the forward edge iof the roof emphasizes my point. To match the Targa top insert (and cover up chop saw marks), Griffith covered the roof metal with black vinyl. It appears the vinyl has degraded, and trapped moisture against the sheet metal, leading to accelerated corrosion.


I should note that my criticism of this car could include the overall maintenance. A glance inside indicates that the current and previous owners have not strived to mantain the vehicle in a like new condition. That full ashtray also points to an owner who’s efforts are in opposition to good maintenance practices. However, I do find it amusing that someone took the time to remount the driver’s arm rest without the door panel in place. Certainly an approach that values functionality over form.


As I gaze on this Sunchaser, I’m once again struck by the contrast between the shiny new models once gracing the pages of Motor Trend, and this curbside reality from today. Inspired by this physical manifestation of a youthful memory, I dug further into the internet. No surprise, I found conflicting data and no real hard production numbers.  In addition to multipe hits showing variations of this notchback targa topped Celica, there were also two black and white photographs of additional Griffith models. First up, this Targa version of the Celica fastback, called the TX22 Sport:


Followed by this Supra based version called the Legato:


Beyond these brochure images, I only found one current picture of a actual TX22 Sport (in rough shape and riding on a trailer), and no recent pictures of a Legato. I’m thinking if these cars still exisit, they’re far rarer than the Standard Sunchaser. However, the most exciting thing I found during my internet research was….

This lovely beauty-


I present to you the AMC Eagle SunDANCER! Perhaps looking to leverage that Toyota magic, AMC also teamed up with the Griffith Company and developed a targa convertible, based on their long lived subcompact (AMC’s only remaining platform). While this picture (from the  website Bring a Trailer) shows an all wheel drive Eagle version, you could also get the Sundancer in the rear wheel drive Concord. Just like that, this unique conversion has leaped to the top of my CC photo want list. I’ll be keeping my eye out for one- Call me if you see one in your town.