Curbside Classic: 1980 Toyota Celica GT – From Zero To America’s Favorite In Under Ten Years

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.

Source of sales figures: US International Trade Commission Publication #1762 and Ward’s Automotive Reports.

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.