COAL: 1977 Toyota Celica GT · A Nicer Little Car

A gift from a friend ended a decade-long search for a car I thought I would never drive, let alone own.

There are two cars that have remained stuck in my brain since the moment I saw them, festering in those hard-to-reach places.

The first and perhaps most understandable is a 1958 Plymouth. Any model, though I’d prefer a two-door for that Christine vibe. It is a car I have yet to see in person, though I would very much like to one day.

The other, and the subject of today’s post, might be a littler harder to get one’s head around: a first-generation Toyota Celica? Who goes from a big, V8-powered American land barge to a small Japanese pony car? Well…I do. Let me explain.

It all started when I was 16, and looking at Craigslist. I didn’t have the money for anything, but wanted to see what was around. I saw it on the third or fourth page of scrolling: a 1974 Celica tucked away in a garage. I don’t remember much about it, but it was green and a notchback. I wasn’t a fan of Japanese cars back then, but I had never seen a Toyota that looked like that. It looked like a tiny first-gen Camaro from the 1960s, and lacked that bloat and clumsy lines of late 70’s American cars. I was blown away that you could get a car that looked that pretty so deep into the Malaise Era. My interest piqued, I began to do research into the early Celica and finally saw the car that would haunt me for the next ten years, the GT Liftback.

It looked so much like a fastback Mustang of the late ’60s. The lines were crisp and neat. It looked just the right amount of aggressive without being overbearing. It looked like what Ford might have built in some alternate future wherein the Mustang stuck to its Falcon underpinnings for just a little longer. That green Celica sold, and I wouldn’t see another locally for many years.

Life moved on, and so did I. Or rather, I thought I had. See, I’ve driven hundreds of cars since that day, thanks to my time at Streetside Classics and my laundry list of cars I’ve stumbled into owning over the years. I’ve parked my ample rear in just about anything you care to name: Chargers; Challengers; ‘Cudas; Mustangs; Camaros, Dusters, and many others, mostly American. I discovered that as pretty as those fastback Mustangs were, they were pretty miserable to drive.

Blind spots; loads of chrome catching the sun and throwing it straight into your eyes; crude handling, and rough-running engines that made far too much power for the car to comfortably control. I had been a fan of six-cylinder Mustangs for everything they were in comparison to their V8 siblings. They generally ran smoothly; without complaint, and drove in a way that didn’t feel like the entire car was going to plow into the street with every tap of the brakes.

Apollo, my 2004 Saturn, was living up in Ohio as I spent my last few months in Texas. I had started working a temporary position at a factory across town, and driving the Element every day was killing me on gas. On a whim I was browsing Craigslist, and there I saw it: a pale-blue 1977 Celica GT Liftback. I tapped the ad so fast, I swear my thumb broke the sound barrier.

The ad said that while the body and interior needed work, the engine had been completely rebuilt. Normally I tend to doubt things like that, but the pictures that followed showed the engine being worked on, and the parts that were used. I saw larger pistons and a cam from LCE Performance; long-tube headers from Pacesetter Exhaust, and a Weber 38 carburetor. The owner wasn’t messing about when it came to the parts he was using. The date code on the pictures showed the build was done in 2018.

My heart pounded in my chest as I looked at it there on my phone. A feeling welled up in me that was difficult to explain. I thought about it all day. My mind was stuck on that car in that way my autistic brain gets. I started to dive back into researching the early Celica, checking out AteUpWithMotor and other sites, chewing through information like a wood chipper to a tree.

On the phone that night with a friend, I gushed to her about it. Saying how cool it was to have finally seen another in my area for sale after so long. How with all the cars I had driven, I had never driven one of those. She instructed me to ask about it. From the tone in her voice I knew what she was suggesting but I couldn’t quite believe it. I tried to argue but she wouldn’t hear of it.

“Cassy, do you have any idea how long it’s been since I’ve heard you get that excited about anything? I know you sold your Volvo and that Saturn isn’t what you really want, be honest. I’ve been wanting to do something like this for you for years. You know cars better than anyone I know. Just ask the guy if you can see it. If you can… we’ll go from there, okay?”

I agreed, knowing she was right. I thanked her and sent a message to the owner. He got back to me after a day or two, and we set a time to meet that weekend. Naturally, I saw nothing but Celicas for the rest of that week—all later generations than the one I was going to see, but all it did was stoke the fires of my excitement.

After what seemed like a year, the owner and I met at a Walmart in his town. The car was in good shape for how old it was. Being a late ’70s car from Japan meant there was rust. I was only buying my dream car, not the Golden Gate Bridge. There were a couple small holes in the floor, and some rust in the cargo area. There were brown blooms of surface rust on the pale blue, sun-blasted body.

The frame was solid, and all the lines and hoses looked new. The tires had plenty of tread left. The interior was just as bad as the ad had mentioned: cracked white vinyl as far as the eye could see. No sun visors. No headliner. There was a working Bluetooth radio, and cold R12 air conditioning.

Here’s a video of it running

The test drive went well. The car started easily, and the hotter cam gave it a lumpy idle after warming up. It really did sound like a mini muscle car. Moving through all five gears was very easy, and the manual steering didn’t pose any problems. My butt dyno had me guessing that the car was probably making around 115 horsepower. The R20 four cylinder under the hood was never known for being a powerhouse, but seeing as it was a repurposed truck engine and the only one offered in the US-market Celica, it was more than enough for the little car. It sounded like a tractor at idle and a like motorcycle at full throttle on the highway. Cruising at 75 wasn’t an issue. All the lights worked; the horn worked, and the wipers did their job. This car was far from perfect but I wasn’t going to get another chance like this, the car I’d wanted for so long, with all the mechanical work sorted out, with a friend providing the ability and willingness to get it!

A deal was made.

The car became known as Suzie Blu—the spelling is intentional; her name comes from this Disney cartoon:

When I became the owner of Suzie, I still had three more months left to be in Texas. She has been my daily driver, and I couldn’t be happier. She seems to sit at this perfect intersection of reliability and coolness. It’s a Toyota; it does what Toyotas do: it runs and drives with the kind of steadfast performance the brand is known for. However, Suzie does it with just a little bit of edge. She’s not a show car. She looks like she’s been on the road for decades because that’s the case. You don’t get that kind of patina sitting in a garage! She sounds like she’s got a chip on her shoulder. She’s still here, and dammit, that’s got to count for something.

All I have done during my time in Texas with her is make the car a little easier to live with. I cut a big piece of carboard for the headliner and screwed it in place. I added a pair of grey sun visors from a 1980’s Mazda 323 and the shift boot from a Ford Festiva found in my local junkyard. A fabric center console from Walmart got me cupholders and some extra storage. A bolt-on angled tip added to the exhaust meant that I could load the hatch without having hot air chuffed at my legs the entire time. I haven’t touched the engine; I haven’t needed to.

The air blows cold; the engine runs well, the radio sounds good. Of the many, many cars I have had up to now, this one is my favorite—hands down. It’s fitting that that this is the last car Texas is providing me after a hellish year: the nearly going bankrupt, watching myself and family become deathly ill, and having to say goodbye my fiancé as she went to Ohio ahead of me to look for work…etc.

There’s a line in that cartoon up aove. The very last one, fitting the very last car I’ll own in this state:

“It’s a miracle. That’s what it was, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer little car…”

The plan is to build savings back up, and get Suzie the work she needs after the move. New floors; bodywork, new paint. It won’t be cheap or the type of thing that I can do all at once. However, I want to see it done. This car deserves the best life I can give it. I am so happy she will be coming with me to my new home in Ohio. The start of a new chapter for my soon-to-be-wife and me. As I write this, I will be leaving in two weeks. I’ll be sure to cover the thousand-mile road trip as I’m sure I am bound to see some interesting things!