It was a small bullseye, and Toyota nailed it. When its Celica was introduced for 1971, there was no guarantee that American consumers would fall for the idea of a small sports coupe. Celica’s original competitors, the Opel Manta, Capri, and Mazda RX-2, all fizzled out quickly, yet Celica became a success and kept going for 36 model years. By the time our 1980 featured car was produced, Celica was the top-selling import in what had become a fast-growing niche. This didn’t happen by chance. Toyota created America’s favorite imported sports coupe by cleverly anticipating trends, and wrapping it in a package specifically tailored for their biggest export market. It was a strategy that paid off not only in the sports coupe segment, but in Toyota’s overall market strategy as well.
Toyota’s 2nd generation Celica doesn’t look like a revolutionary car… and indeed it’s not. Riding the same wheelbase and powered by the same drivetrain as its predecessor, featuring no technological breakthroughs, and breaking no performance milestones, in many ways it was starkly conventional. Celica’s innovation was subtler. Toyota used durability as a selling point, compensated for a relatively high price by providing good value for the money, and delivered more comfort than many US consumers expected in a small, fun car. While doing so, Toyota used this car as a linchpin for swelling its market share over the following three decades. The 1980 Celica was more than just a successful niche vehicle; it was a critical element to an impressive corporate strategy.
Celica traces its roots to 1971, when Toyota introduced a sporty coupe with a long hood, short deck, reasonable price… and based on sedan underpinnings. In other words, an outtake on Ford’s 1964 Mustang. By that time though, Mustangs had grown bigger, slower and costlier; Toyota sought to recapture the Mustang’s appeal, but in a small package well-tailored for the 1970s. Celica quickly became popular in North America, and small sports coupes in general remained a significant market segment for two decades.
Pure economics helped this popularity along. Young car buyers (Celica’s biggest customer base) reacted to the troubled 1970s by prioritizing good value, economy, and reliability. Furthermore, they wanted sportiness that seemed to elude domestic manufacturers. Celica delivered all of these things. Additionally, spiraling insurance rates pushed performance cars increasingly out of younger consumers’ price range. But with a little 4-cylinder engine, the original Celica hardly classified as a performance car in the eyes of early-70s insurance men. A reliable, fun car that was affordable to buy and operate: That was a winning combination.
The first generation Celica became a common sight on US roads, and had a long life too – sticking around through 1977. Along the way, Toyota overtook VW (in 1975) to be America’s top import brand – and Celica, accounting for about a quarter of Toyota’s mid-70s sales, played a significant role. While small sports coupes may have been a niche to the overall US car market, for Toyota it was a cornerstone of the company’s long-term strategy. Celica was somewhat of a flagship car for Toyota Motor Sales USA, both in terms of appearance and cost (it was second only to the slow-selling Mark II sedan in price). Plus, with its relatively young and prosperous customer base, Celica placed Toyota in a good position to capture more market share as the brand edged upmarket.
Like many Japanese cars, the original Celica’s design was considered “highly Americanized” for its liberal sampling of American styling cues (even though Celica was marketed worldwide). This tactic served the Japanese car industry well in the 1970s, but Toyota officials wanted to change tack and create their own styling characteristics. Celica paved the way.
Toyota was the first Asian carmaker to establish a US-based design studio, and an updated Celica was its first car. Upon forming Calty Design Research in Southern California, Toyota hired many American designers who sought refuge from the Big Three’s “stuffiness.” Calty’s chief executive, Mamoru Yaegashi, summed up the gulf between El Segundo and Detroit by noting that “in California, people are free; it is more acceptable to do different things. It is a white canvas. Detroit is a painted canvas.”
The Celica team’s design chief was one of those Detroit expatriates, and with an interesting background. David Stollery, a 35-year-old refugee from General Motors, had once been a child actor, earning fame as Marty from the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club serial “Spin and Marty” (he’s on the left above). As an adult, he enrolled at the Art Center College of Design and then embarked on a career as a car designer. It would have been hard to find a more All-American design chief.
Stollery’s white canvas led to a clean, unfussy design that achieved Toyota’s goal of creating its own design language. The 1978 Celica certainly didn’t look like any typically derivative Japanese car to date, or any American model either. And while many contemporary reviewers praised its “European-inspired” design, there were no obvious sources for such inspiration. In other words, the California designers drew up a distinctive car that established a unique identity for Toyota.
This is one instance where ad verbiage is not exaggerated. Celica’s California design is more suggestive of the 1980s than of the ’70s from whence it came. The low beltline, uncluttered appearance, and absence of excessive chrome created a modern-looking car, and one that was refreshingly devoid of faddish influences.
In the 2nd generation Celica’s case, beauty wasn’t just skin deep, but its newness was. Celica was still based on the former car’s platform, and still carried the 2189-cc, 95-hp “20R” engine that debuted on Celicas in 1975. What the new Celica gained most was sophistication.
Sensing US consumers’ frustration with the deteriorating quality, drivability and value of domestic offerings, Toyota stressed these often-unquantifiable concepts as selling points. It paid off. Toyotas built up enough of a reputation for durability that buyers were eventually willing to purchase them even as prices surged due to unfavorable exchange rates. While Celica certainly wasn’t the first car to emphasize under-skin sophistication, Celica’s success during this period proved Toyota was on the right track.
Celica’s drivability and fit and finish impressed Road & Track editors to such an extent that the Toyota finished first in a 1978 sports coupe comparison, despite lacking hard-core performance credentials. If enthusiast-oriented Road & Track was won over by “soft” attributes like fit and finish, imagine its effect on the general public.
A comfortable, competent, small GT car was just what US consumers wanted. During the 2nd generation Celica’s 1978-81 model run, Celica averaged 155,000 US sales annually – or 30% of Toyota’s total US passenger car sales. This was rather impressive considering the model faced strong economic headwinds. Most detrimental to Celica’s sales prospects was an exchange rate that led to sometimes-dramatic price increases (prices swelled 12% between 1978 and ’79, for instance).
Such an impressive performance was made easier with the 1979 introduction of the pricier, 6-cylinder Celica Supra. With its help, US Celica sales held about steady between 1978 and ’80 (dipping a bit in ’81).
Thus, Celica filled a crucial position in Toyota’s lineup – its US passenger car sales (i.e., excluding trucks) were dominated by subcompact Corollas, and its larger sedans never excelled in the pre-Camry era. That left Celica to fill the dual roles of both an image leader and a performance leader.
The fact that buyers still lined up to purchase Celicas, even as the car’s price crept into domestic mid-size territory, baffled Detroit – as this 1980 Pontiac ad illustrates. It’s doubtful that anyone ever cross-shopped a Celica with a Grand Prix.
Buyers choose the “smaller” Celica due to considerations such as reliability and driving dynamics rather than than the provision of 6-passenger seating or a longer cruising range as mentioned in the Pontiac ad.
Our featured car hails from 1980, when Celica received a mild refreshing, including a restyled hood, grille, tail lamps, “sail-mounted” rearview mirrors, and quad rectangular headlights. These updates, particularly the headlight design, fit Celica’s crisp shape very well.
Beyond styling, the 2nd generation Celica was able to impress both customers and reviewers because the car’s mechanicals (albeit based on the 1st generation) were admirable. The 20R engine was smooth and flexible, while MacPherson front struts and a four-link live rear axle worked well together to deliver a comfortable, yet sporting and fun, ride.
Any complaints about the Celica’s performance typically revolved around the somewhat numb recirculating ball steering, and also its softly sprung suspension. Toyota stiffened Celica’s spring rates shortly after 2nd generation production started, but even the later cars tended to ride softly. Car and Driver’s statement that the Celica cornered “like a sailing ship instead of a sporting coupe” was an exaggeration, but the point is well taken. This was no sportscar, rather a capable GT.
Toyota prioritized ride comfort as much as handling, resulting in an easy-to-drive car, but not nearly a slalom champ (the 1st gen. car was actually nimbler). Amplifying the comfy persona, Celicas were also rather quiet for their day.
US Celicas were offered in two trim levels and two body styles. Base level ST Celicas came only in the notchback “Sport Coupe” body style, while GTs were available as either Sport Coupes or Liftbacks. Mechanically, both trim levels were nearly identical (the ST’s narrower tires were the most significant functional difference), but the GT provided additional amenities – the exterior side molding and passenger side mirror are the most conspicuous visual clues.
Because the liftback had been popular since its 1976 introduction – and with the notchback often identified with the cheaper ST – a GT notchback such as this one is rather unusual. Incidentally, one oddity on Toyota’s 1980 options sheet was that the GT notchback was the only Celica not available with an automatic transmission.
Celica interiors were modern-looking and functional, with good materials and an attractive, readable dash. While not suited for tall drivers, these Celicas featured wider, more comfortable seats than their forebears. As long as a driver’s head didn’t bump the roof, he was treated to comfortable surroundings, as Toyota prioritized both quality components and a high level standard equipment. From this photo, one can see some of the extra items included in the GT package. Upholstery was a step up from the ST (this car features “Super Soft Vinyl,” though cloth was also available), plus GT seats could tilt and had adjustable lumbar support.
GT instrument panels featured faux brushed aluminum instead of the ST’s faux woodgrain. Also coming with the 1980 GT package was a stereo radio, digital clock (not shown in the above ’79 brochure) and tilt steering wheel. Toyota interiors tended to feature little novelties that turned test-drivers into Toyota fans, like remote releases for the trunklid and fuel filler – somewhat special for the era, and standard on the GT.
The front was the place to be in these cars. Rear legroom, not plentiful under any circumstance, virtually disappeared with the front seats moved back for taller front-seat occupants. Regardless, many people who grew up in the Great Sports Coupe Era spent time squeezed into a Celica’s rear seat, and somehow lived to tell the tales. One nice feature though was that in the 2nd generation coupe, rear windows swing out for ventilation – and while liftback windows didn’t do the same, liftbacks did feature extra air vents for rear passengers.
Options for Celicas were relatively few – automatic, air conditioning, alloy wheels, power steering, radios, and a sunroof (which this car has). Therefore it wasn’t unusual for buyers to customize their cars with items like louvers, luggage racks… or special wheels, such as these Keystone Sunspoke III wire wheels.
Though not offered through Toyota’s extensive accessories catalog, Keystone wheels were popular in their day – and evidently well-made, if they’ve survived on our featured car for 38 years.
By the time Toyota’s angular (and wider, higher and longer) 3rd generation Celica debuted for 1982, the Celica name was firmly planted as the leader of the imported sports coupe market. And for the next two decades, Toyota used a similar formula as with our 1980 featured car: A drivable, enjoyable, solidly constructed and uniquely-styled car. That formula worked well to establish Celica as a leader, and continued to work for many years to come.
Toyota’s 2nd generation Celica got to the top of its class by doing many things very well. It was sturdily built, comfortable (even somewhat luxurious for its class), and fun to drive. To its manufacturer, however, its biggest virtue was that Celica provided Toyota’s US subsidiary with a popular car that was more exciting than a Corolla, thereby considerably augmenting the brand’s image.
Celica become a key component to the company’s increasing market share, and the legions of young buyers who purchased Celicas were willing customers for larger and more uprange Toyota products of the 1980s and ’90s. It’s hard to think of a car from 1980 that hit the bullseye quite as well as the Celica.
Photographed in Fairfax, Virginia in October 2017.
A very good write-up on one of my favorite cars.
My sister owned one of these, an ST hardtop that she brought new. It was the 1st in a long line of Japanese cars she would own….though it is the only Toyota she would own (that I know of).
I drove the car and was favorably impressed, but as the write-up points out: these cars were NOT anything special “under the skin”, they were just very reliable and decent value for the money.
If I could find one and the price versus condition was reasonable I would buy it. But not because it is a terrific car to drive, I just like the styling.
BTW, I am not so sure that the competition “fizzled” so much as the manufacturers of the competition didn’t believe they could produce a car that equaled the Celica at the same price point. But maybe I’m wrong?
Nice piece and great historic pics. We were smitten with the Celica here in oz pretty much from day one, but I can’t recall ever having seen a notchback gen 2. Plenty of coddled and/or worked gen 1s around, and quite a few gen 3s, not so many gen 2s in my neck of the woods.
VERY rare over here in NZ too, I can’t think of seeing one for a long time, I think the damp NZ climate turned them into red dust. There used to be one blasting around in my area back in the 90’s, with the twin cam 18R-G. It would probably be almost that long since I last saw one.
Great article! I remember when these cars first came out, they were myself and my brother were in heaven. You dont get the cream interior like you used to back then. Great days!
38 years old. Still plenty of these around, still looking and sounding good.
In 1980 a 38-year-old car was a ’42. Only seen in museums.
Toyota truly changed the world.
There’s alot I can say about the Celica – I’ll think of it and post it later – but what struck me the hardest here was that awful Pontiac advert, which pretty much distills GM’s ’80s cluenessness down to one page. Forget the cars themselves, who would be persuaded to buy a car advertised like this? I can barely even read through the whole thing; there’s so much legal mumbo-jumbo that any good points it makes about the Grand Prix get lost in the morass. Compare it to the Toyota ads shown here – any of them.
Also, I had no remembrance of Toyota ever comparing their cars favorably to DeLoreans….
True. That attempt at quoting a ‘Japanese Auto Executive’ is way lame.
Right you are. I remember a whole genre of those ads: “The Pontiac’s glove compartment is 2 cubic inches larger than the Toyota’s, therefore only a fool would pick the Toyota!” Infuriating.
Great article; those Celicas really were slick cars. Still look good, too.
Yep, I remember well the TV ads of this campaign: the Japanese “exec” looks over the Grand Prix and asks in an accent that would be controversial today, “What does Pon-chak knaw that we don’t?”
Well, one could write the answer to that question on the head of a pin!
ETA: Found it!
Wow, that’s cringeworthy! Especially with the pre rather posterous comparison between the two cars.
I particularly like the line “…according to the fuel economy sticker your government requires” — as if the actor is a real Japanese auto executive.
That Pontiac ad makes me want to scream “It’s not about price, it’s about quality!” GM was completely lost and clueless at this point, they really didn’t understand at all.
Yeah, the main thing I take from the Pontiac ad is that GM’s executives were totally out of touch.
The fake quote from the fake Toyota suit may seem lame, but I reckon it’s a desperate attempt to ram home the Celica’s provenance to a certain demographic.
Presumably a significant proportion of their sales by then must have been based on nationalism. “Let’s find an excuse to get a Japanese face in there somewhere.”
A prime example of Big 3 solipsism. It reads like an ad composed by sneering GM executives resentful that anyone would buy one of them furrin’ cars. An ad that might raise self-satisfied guffaws from GM executives but appeal to no-one else.
There were plenty more of tone-deaf ads from the Big 3 in this era, pushing random comparison stats no-one really cared about as a reason to buy their cars – “2 inches more headroom than Datsun 510!” “0-60 in 0.4 seconds faster than Toyota Hi-Lux!”
Then there were the outright preposterous, like the ad where the Ford Granada compared itself favorably to the Mercedes 300SD.
I got a big kick out of the 5th picture (California design studio).
I sooo remember the bell bottom pants, bushy mustache, and mile wide ties.
I imagine some disco songs are playing in the background to inspire the designers. 😁😁😁
Yes, but only one guy is wearing anything close to plaid trousers, which is disappointing. 🙂
My high school best friend bought one use, in the same color as the lead photo. It replaced his ‘65 Mustang, if that tells you anything….
Good to see one of these surviving that seems to be a daily driver rather than a highly modded show car. Don’t like the wire wheels; they seem too outdated for a car of this era. I always liked this particular model Celica, especially in hatchback form, and this brown was a common color too that actually worked on it.
This is a CC feature I have been waiting for (and didn’t know it) – superb article. I never knew the 2nd-gen cars were built on the same platform of the first, or that so much carried over.
I do remember reading years after the fact about the CALTY styling studio and that these were styled in the U.S. This only added to my love for this (probably my favorite) generation of Celica.
Even the hatchback, with its quasi-shooting brake profile, shouldn’t work as well as it does, but to your point, Eric, it was a unique, well-executed look that was all its own and didn’t have any obvious influences from other parts of the world.
The Griffith Sunchaser was a convertible I always thought I’d find and purchase once I moved to Florida. Alas, it never happened, but this generation of Celica notchback still does it for me all day long.
Keep in mind that the gen1 Celica really has two iterations (series). The first series had a shorter wheelbase and narrower front track. And its handling was not considered quite up to snuff. Toyota majorly re-engineered the second series Celica, which came out in MY 1975. The whole front of the car from the cowl forward was all-new, with a longer wheelbase, wider track, new steering and substantially revised suspension. This, along with revisions to the rear suspension and its “tuning” made the Celica a much better all-round performer, if not as overtly sporty as some other cars, like the Scirocco. But its balance of decent handling along with a comfortable ride is exactly what the bulk of its buyers wanted, for everyday use.
But the original, with it’s small bumpers, looked so much better than the 5-mph bumpered 75s
That’s right, Paul – I do remember reading that here at CC. Thanks for the reminder.
A big part of Toyota’s success has been in their ability to carryover the oily bits, wrapping them in new skins, and making everyone think they are buying something all new. They understand that most buyers don’t care much about the mechanicals, as long as the car works reasonably well.
I’ll second that! The 2nd generation lift back was by far my favorite Celica, and one of my all-time favorite cars. Pretty, rugged, unique, and well executed. It looked like nothing else on the road,, but in a wonderful way. It’s near the top of the short list of Toyota I’d love to own.
One of these may have been the second Toyota I ever drove (and the first newer than the 1960s). A friend told me that he had a chance to buy a very clean 1980 liftback (this was about 1985) but did not know how to drive a stick. He wanted me to drive the car and tell him if I saw any issues.
It was a white car with this very interior. I still remember the wrinkly door panels, just like in this one. The car did not seem sporty, exactly, but drove out very nicely. He bought it, learned how to drive it, and enjoyed it for several years.
For some reason these never tempted me. They did not fit my general preference for the Great American Barge nor my brief but torrid affair with European sporting iron. When I finally found the beauty of Japanese cars it was via Honda a few years later. But I would very happily drive one of these now if a really sweet one came my way.
My little brother had a beautiful ‘76 GT notchback, dark brown. Traded it for a Sunbird(!). He must have seen the Pontiac adv. I’ve never forgiven him.
So here’s a challenge: you’re a young ad writer, fresh out of advertising boot camp. Your boss comes to you with a mission. “Okay, kid. Pontiac’s all over us to perk up sales of the Grand Prix; apparently this little Celica’s eating their lunch. The last guy tried something about cruising range, and that bombed. It’s your turn now, and Pontiac wants something big. Get to it.”
What do you do?
(picture of WW 2 munitions in the background supplied below)
Who do you trust? Us or the people that bombed Pearl Harbor? Pontiac built the 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns that shot down kamikazes by the thousands. Those men trusted Pontiac with their lives.
Trust. When your car needs service on that long-awaited family vacation, you know there’s a Pontiac dealer in the town ahead, and you can trust him to fix it well. Try that with some Japanese shitbox 500 miles from their nearest service department! They don’t even make a glovebox big enough for American needs.
Trust Us! (add in whatever GM slogan was current at the time for Pontiac)
That’s about the best I can do, boss.
Really, Pontiac’s ad guys maybe should have looked for ideas from Pontiac’s own advertising from their glory days in the 1960s, some of the best automotive print ads ever. Lovely drawings of glamorous people in glamorous places with a glamorous Pontiac always the center of attention. THOSE made me want to buy a Pontiac, nothing at all like the pathetic Grand Prix ad from 1980 banging on about how to calculate estimated mpg.
Why did Toyota stop making the Celica? Did Toyota lose their way over the various generations of the car, or did the market for two door coupes disappear?
My take on it is a combination of both factors. The Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86 is probably the closest thing to a Celica that Toyota currently sells. However the 86 is an aging design and sales are roughly half of what they were when the car was introduced in 2012.
I always considered the Scion tC to be the Celica’s successor, filling the same basic niche the Celica had since the early ’70s, effectively extending the Celica’s reign two generations. The two cars only overlapped for one year.
Scion toyota Celica
Never noticed that! But that’s essentially what it was.
One thing both generations of tC has that was better than any generation of Celica was a great back seat. Plenty of headroom and legroom and you could even recline the seatback quite aways. Somehow they managed this under what appeared to be a low-slung coupe roofline, especially in the first generation. Otherwise it was a Celica redux, sporty style, well equipped, reasonably priced, pleasant to drive but not really sporty, but reliable. I find the first tC even more attractive than the ’78-’81 Celica which is my favorite.
The market for two door coupes was taken by utes. The are probably a few ute models that outsell the whole sport coupe category. That’s a complete reverse in my lifetime.
Our family had a ’79 notchback automatic in the mid-80’s in that beige color once I took over the Mazda 626 coupe. Looking back I still can’t fathom my Dad’s decision to buy two smallish two-doors in a row for a family of four.
I remember not liking it at all at the time (you sat too low, the dash was very high, the color was not to my liking), but have come around on them, especially the styling and even more for the post facelift ones with the rectangular lights such as the subject car. (Ours had the round lights).
My college roommate had one as well, also a ’79 notchback in beige but his was a GT with a stick (and those same wire wheels!). After college we lived in the same house in San Francisco for a while (early 90’s), one morning we went out the front door and were greeted by the sight of his car at the curb with both doors open and missing the doorpanels, someone had taken them. Very weird. He drove it for at least another year without door panels, then sold it (got rid of it?) and took public transit.
Neither ever seemed to have any mechanical issues that I can recall.
The only person I knew who owned a 2nd gen Celica, a liftback, bought it to replace a Fiat 124 Spider. I think that says a lot. Not much later, our other 124-driving colleague (coupe, not Spider) traded his in on the 1st gen RWD Mazda 626. Come to think of it, that was about when I bought my first Japanese car too, my Civic.
I traded my 1971 Opel 1900 Sport Coupe on a 1972 Celica ST. The Toyota was a better car in every respect except for the handling. It was finished more nicely inside and out and was more reliable…a lot more reliable. It served me well for the several years I owned it. I know that a lot of people like that generation of Opel, but mine seemed to me like a German Vega.
A work colleague had a black 1979 or 1980 Supra in black, like the one in the ad above. He drove it to and from work daily, which for him was a good 60 mile commute. He kept it in immaculate condition and had it for years. A real workhorse of a car and great looks to boot.
Terrific write-up on a very important car. A couple of points to add:
The Capri had been a huge success in the US, and was the #2 selling import car for a couple of years. But exchange rate issues hit Germany first, and there’s no doubt in my mind that a lot of Celica sales in its earlier years came from Capri buyers/intenders. I don’t have the numbers here, but I’m quite certain that Capri sales were significantly higher than Celica sales ever were. It really created this segment of the market, and then handed it over to the Celica.
I think that the styling of this generation is superb; one of the best styled cars of the whole era, or longer. I was blown away by it when it came out, and never got tired of it. I still appreciate its timeless good looks. And although I like both a lot, the notchback coupe ultimately is a bit better in my eyes. Of course tomorrow I might feel differently.
Curiously, the next gen Celica was styled in Japan (obviously) and was clearly oriented more to the taste of that market. I suspect that the gen2 Celica might not have agreed with Japanese taste as much as it did with Americans. I was quite disappointed by that change, and have never been quite fully pleased by it, although in works pretty well in the fastback. The coupe does not work for me.
Needless to say, these are as tough as anything Toyota has ever built. Well, they share their drive train with the legendary Toyota pickup/HiLux, and are bulletproof. There’s still a couple around here, old beaters, that are still chugging along. But a few years back these were still very common here.
Yes, Capri sales were quite higher than Celica sales in the beginning. I couldn’t find US Celica sales stats for 1971-72, but in both 1973 and 1974, about 59,000 Celicas were sold in the US annually. During those two years, Capri sales totaled 113,000 and 75,000 — so Capri was definitely the leader early on.
The switchover occurred in ’75, when Celica sales took the lead, and then after that it was no contest. In ’76, Celica sales tripled those of the Capri.
Regarding the ’82-85 Celica design, I have read that the 2nd generation (California-designed) Celica sold poorly in Japan… though I’ve seen no numbers to verify this. I suppose maybe Toyota’s hierarchy wasn’t too impressed with the Gen. 2 design, even though it sold very well in North America, and they thought that a Japanese design would be better globally for the next generation. Just a guess.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think I’ve seen ANY JDM 2nd gen Celicas here in NZ, apart from the 2nd gen (Mk1/40-series) Celica Supra. All of the 2nd gens I have seen here have been NZ new, or the very occasional Australian or USA import. I’ve seen a few 1st gen JDM ones. The 3rd gen went off over here, but that may also be because they were right in the sweet-spot of when NZ started taking used JDM cars en masse….
It would be interesting to see the sales numbers for Capris, Mantas, and Celicas.
As a kid, the Toyota Celica was the first Japanese car I really liked. (I never saw a 240Z until we moved to the US in 1977). And to make the point, the the lawyer-star of a Greek TV show set in the mid-70s drove…a Celica.
I think retrofitting a 77 Celica coupe with the small bumpers would make the ultimate Celica.
I also thought the 2nd Gen when it came out was a great looking car, especially the coupe. Interestingly, lots of praise for the rectangular headlamps, but I think the original round ones are nicer looking.
If I was 23 in 1972, I probably could not afford a BMW 2002. I could get the Capri with a V6, the Celica with a 5-speed, or the Manta with it’s great steering and ride handling. Probably would come down to the Manta and Celica, and, being 1972, I’d probably with the ‘better quality’ Opel….
I don’t have sales figures for the Manta, but here is a comparison of US sales between the Celica, Capri and Mazda RX-2 (this chart begins in 1973 because the source I used didn’t break out Toyota or Mazda sales prior to then).
Sales of these cars was relatively competitive early on, but RX-2 and Capri sales really plummeted in the mid 1970s, while Celica sales soared.
Sales of all Mazda models tanked in the mid 70s when (potential) buyers started to realize that the cars were small but the rotary engine’s thirst for gasoline was big.
Capri is a bit of a puzzler. The 1st generation was a big hit, while the 2nd generation kind of died slowly. My sister had a 74 and considered replacing it with a Capri II. Unfortunately, her career took a downturn, and when it was time to replace the 74 (due to terminal rust issues) the funds for a brand new car just weren’t there. She wound up driving a succession of beaters for 10-15 years…including a Citation at one point.
My perception is that the RX2 was doomed by gas prices as well as long term engine (seal) durability, though whether those issues were real or just perceptions is a fair question. And the Capri was doomed by Ford’s longstanding apathy about their captive imports; is it a Ford or a Mercury, does it compete with or complement the Mustang II, etc? The Celica had none of those handicaps. And the second gen styling was remarkable for a Toyota of the time, though the Capri II was no slouch.
Mercury sold over 500,000 European Capris. By 1972, Mercury sold more Capris and Cougars than Ford sold Mustangs.
Ford didn’t have a choice about whether the Mustang II and Capri competed with or complemented each other. The Mustang II was a home run and there was no reason for the public to buy a Capri, except to be different. The Mustang II sold several times the volume of the Euro Capri, so Ford would be silly to do anything to hobble the Mustang. The only sensible strategy would be to let the Capri find its own level, if it can.
Ford had been set up to sell captive imports, but they hadn’t forced the English Ford Line on their dealers befpre the Capri. Ford knew that the Cortina was a niche product in the States against even the Falcon: “I want a car even smaller, less exciting, and more fragile than the Falcon!” English Fords were plain, simple cars that had minimal appeal to US import buyers.
The RX2 was the oldest rotary vehicle at the Mazda dealer, and it ended up between two stools: bigger and heavier than the RX3, and less plush than the RX4. But the bad stench around the rotary nearly killed Mazda in the US.
The Mercury Capri was already a lame duck waiting for the Fox Capri when the second gen Celica arrived. The auto market works like that sometimes.
The Capella RE/RX-2 was not really designed for the same market — it sort of ended up shoehorned into that role because the rotary engine gave it more straight-line punch that a lot of other four-cylinder cars. The Savanna/RX-3 coupe ended up shouldering the sporty-car duties, leading Mazda to replace it with the Savanna RX-7 in 1978.
The Capri continued through 1987 in Europe — there was a Mk3 Capri we never got — although it ended up being a low-volume niche item mostly for the U.K.
Yes, iwas only discussing the US market.
I remember those “compare Pontiac’s MPG to imports…” ads.
One would loudly say “gets 1mpg more!!”. Another would say, “gets ONLY 1 MPG less than a…”
A well-written treatise, indeed!
Japan, Inc. caught a trifecta of breaks in the early 70s. Two of them were pure luck and the third was entirely planned.
a) The decline of the dollar vs. European currencies effectively put the Europeans out of the economy car market. (SAAB, Volvo, BMW, etc. were forced to move upscale to survive.)
b) The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 pretty much forced most Americans to at least look at economy cars.
c) (the planned one) Japan, Inc. simply built better cars. Aside from rust issues, they were more durable and less failure-prone than American economy cars, which were built begrudgingly by Detroit (and Kenosha?).
It was blind luck that caused Americans to start looking at Japanese cars, but once they did, the price and quality of Toyota, et. al. won them over.
Well said Evan!
Also, baby boomers were more open-minded than their parents.
In 1973, a WWII vet was in their late 40s, early 50s. Many of them would NEVER buy Japanese. Korean War era American males had been exposed to shoddy Japanese products: “JJ” for Japanese Junk.
I think Sony TVs and Honda motorcycles really went a long way toward softening these attitudes.
Then baby boomers, who were more ‘progressive’ started buying Japanese cars, and when they turned out to be pretty good in terms of reliability, and great values, the anti-Japanese bias virtually disappeared.
Interestingly, VW and the Germans didn’t face these biases.
The Germans faced the same biases in the 50s. VW buyers were actual WW2 vets and their brothers, sisters, and parents.
Probably the strongest bias against Japan was the idea of buying expensive manufactured goods from a country that had been known for low cost manufacturing of cheap trinkets. As you say, Japan had been exporting good electronics, watches, motorcycles, and cameras since the 60s which helped.
Great, just what I needed to read. I was so excited, when in 2016, a friend who had a 1978 Liftback GT wanted to sell it so he could finish his plane. At $800 for a 135,000 mile 5spd. it was the deal. Just needed to be smogged and brought down from Santa Rosa. Even found the replacement parts for broken trim on eBay along with an NOS carb. Then October 2017 came along including the Tubbs Fire. My friend was bummed. I was bummed. Now I am bummed again reading this great article… 🙁 🙁 🙁
I share your pain
Eric, terrific article!
After the first-generation, Aussies really latched onto the liftback. I don’t recall ever seeing a second-gen notchback here and I’ve only seen one or two in total of all subsequent generations of Celica notchback combined.
As much as I prefer the liftback like my fellow countrymen, the second-gen definitely looks better as a notch. There’s something rather awkward about this generation’s fastback styling… It’s a bit too upright maybe? The following generation looks sleeker and more aggressive so if you’d told me IT was designed in Cali and not this one, I’d have believed you. Very interesting that the opposite was true.
Very good points you made about Toyota’s strategy for this and I also agree with Shiftfocus’ point about Toyota’s deft use of carryover mechanicals under new sheetmetal.
I believe that the new Celica was Motor Trend magazine’s 1978 import car of the year. The notchback coupes looked like they might have been influenced by the BMW 6-series coupes that came out a few years earlier, but the styling of the Liftback Coupe really seemed very original when it came out and has never been copied.It was a much better car than the Chevy Monza, Pontiac Firebird or Mustang II which were pretty old by 1978. The 1979 Mustang (especially the notchback) had similar proportions, but it was pathetic when equipped with the standard 4-cylinder engine.
The Celica’s bumpers were functional, comparatively light weight and comparatively unobtrusive, while still meeting the federal U.S. bumper impact standards in effect at the time. They were not the heavy battering rams found on so many U.S cars (like the Pontiac Grand Prix for instance).
I had heard that the stylists at Toyota’s Japanese headquarters were very miffed that the U.S. Calty-designed car was put into production and they were also very jealous of its success, which lead to the Japanese-designed slightly odd-looking 3rd generation model introduced for the 1982 model year.
Aside from some critics who felt that the handling was too compromised in favor of a smooth ride, the car was criticized for sharing its engine with the Corona and Pickup. (Especially the pickup.) I believe they described it as being “agricultural-like” and suitable for a small farm tractor.
I don’t see too many of these cars still on the road which is kind of sad.
Years ago, I got a LOT of seat time in a 1980 Celica ST in that same color. It was very much a commuter sports coupe, and really pretty competent as one. I can’t say it was exciting to drive, but it took a lot to make it complain.
Like several others here, I found these very attractive when new and they’ve aged very well. At the time I became interested in cars as a kid – around 1976 – many Japanese cars just looked malproportioned to me. Think Datsun 710. At best, they looked dated; the ’77 Celica was attractive, but it looked like a copy of a ’67 Mustang to me, and old Mustangs were plentiful and cheap back then if that’s what you wanted. Suddenly, here was a Japanese car that looked crisp and modern. I loved it, inside and out. I still do – I’d happily stare at that dashboard for my hour or so I spend behind the wheel daily.
My neighbor had a ’79 Celica Supra, burgundy paint with matching leather interior, that I rode in occasionally. The standard Celicas took on some of the Supra’s styling for 1980, including the rectangular headlights that fit the grille opening better, as well as the seats and steering wheel.
I do think though that as much as the Celica hit the bull’s eye, the car (or line of cars) that most hit the bull’s eye in 1980 was – don’t laugh – the GM X body line including the Citation and Skylark. Within a few years it would be apparent to buyers that these were Deadly Sins, but in 1980 we were all spooked by the second big fuel crisis in half a decade, long lines at the gas pumps and all. Lots of Americans wanted the roominess and luxury of a big car but with small-car fuel economy, and here was GM offering perfectly-timed cars that looked and drove like smaller versions of the big Detroiters that were still very popular in the late ’70s. Someone used to a LeSabre or Cutlass could get behind the wheel of an Omega or Skylark and feel and home. These were HUGELY popular in their first year (actually year and a half) on the market before their problems (and quickly accruing competition) drove most of them off the market earlier than planned.
Hugely popular for sure!
In the summer of 1979, gas prices went from about $0.65 to over a dollar. I remember the mechanical pumps started selling in half-gallons, because they couldn’t go over $0.999 per gallon….
My family really needed a second car anyway, and the high price of fuel spurred my dad to spend the money to get something more economical than our 15 mpg Pontiac (not a big one either–a Ventura, aka Nova)
In spring of 1980, car shopping with my dad, Citations were selling for full-sticker, no haggling. A Malibu probably cost less.
My dad was a “GM man” in those days, but even more, he was frugal and would not pay ‘sticker price’. He got us a new Ford Fairmont.
The spring of 1980 was a memorable time to buy a car, for sure. My mother was trying to buy a new Omni, which were hard to get and probably the only car the Dodge dealer was not discounting. After being told twice that her special-order car had not come in (I always believed that both had been sold off the truck for more money) the salesman called and told her that they could no longer honor the price due to price increases in the interim. I’ll bet the experience would have been completely different had she wanted a Diplomat or a St. Regis.
That’s what my father bought (in 1980)..but a coupe, the Omni 024. I think of it as his “mid-life crisis” car…it was different than cars he owned before and afterward.
His best friend from growing up (they’d both moved away from their hometowns) came up on his only visit to see my parents in 1981….he owned one of these. I remember my parents taking him and his wife up to Montreal for a couple days…during which I added a cassette deck to my Dad’s Omni…in retrospect I should have gone for air-conditioning, for the next year my parents moved to Texas…though my Dad managed to keep the Omni a few years longer, its lack of AC led to my Dad letting it go sooner than I think he normally would have (plus as a coupe it wasn’t the most practical car for a family man).
One of my friends a few years later also had one of these …but it was sady totalled right when he was planning to trade it in on a new Toyota truck…he wanted to check whether the truck had come into the dealership, parked the Celica outside the lot in the evening when the dealer was closed…but forgot to set the parking brake…it somehow rolled into a 4 lane road, turned, and crashed into cars in the front row of the dealership…when I saw him the next day he was crushed…but somehow he managed to work something out with the dealer, as once the truck did come in it was his next vehicle.
For a brief period, at least in my area, there was a shortage of 4-cylinder cars because a higher percentage than expected wanted them for the higher fuel economy. As a result V6-equipped cars – normally only a $125 option – were being sold at a discount that made them slightly less expensive than the 4 cylinder cars. Imagine paying extra to have an Iron Duke instead of the new 2.8L V6.
Just a decade or two later choosing the V6 version of a Camry or Accord routinely cost an extra $1,500 or more.
Learned to drive stick in a 5-speed 76 GT in Krylon Blue. Miss that car. Values have gone way up, just like with most Toyotas of the 70s and 80s.
I wonder if this was the reason they included a remote fuel door release?!? (the video shows a race team attacking the trunk lid to access the fuel cell at Bathurst in 1977)
“Yep, I was gonna get that snazzy Celica, but this here stripper Grand Prix was $400 cheaper, so……” said no one…ever. The Pontiac “Know How” campaign. I remember those stupid ads. cringe worthy on several levels. They compared the Grand Prix to the Datsun 208ZX too! in heavily Japanese accented English: “How can the Grand Prix seat 6 people so comfortably…and still get the same mileage? Pontaic must have something we don’t”…. KNOW HOW! (big booming American male voice) I was 10 at the time and I didn’t buy it. Pretty damn sure my parents didn’t either.
I was lucky enough to get the notched back Gt used. The original owner had it in candy apple red with custom white pinstriping tinted windows and chrome luggage rack with the keystone wire rims . so sharp . really miss that car. Loaned it to a coworkers girlfriend so she could look for a job. She took it for a joy ride and totaled it, no coverage . or I’d still have it.
Great article. One question for anyone on here…..I’m replacing my original steering wheel for a MOMO, but I can’t find the hub adapter for my 1980 Celica Sunchaser. Any ideas?