The Corona and Corolla had gained a solid foothold in international markets by the late ’60s, and studious Toyota was ready to strive for more. After earning respect through diligence and hard work, it was time to add some pizzazz to the lineup. And for ’71, it appeared in the form of the Celica (Sell-ah-ka), Toyota’s take on the pony car.
According to Japanese sites, the Celica was Toyota’s first car designed ‘from the exterior.’ In other words, the car’s styling took priority over other concerns. A typical pony car requisite. True to form, the Celica’s shape was tidy and sharp. Its proportions were in accordance with the genre, possessing a long hood and a short rounded deck. And its surfaces had nice sculpting and detailing, wrapping a cozy cabin. In short, the model’s mission was to provide a bit of sportiness and style, in a reliable and efficient manner. All while sharing a good amount of corporate parts. A template established by the original Mustang.
The Celica shared its platform with the new Carina, its corporate mate. As was the norm, US Celicas differed from Japan’s in some hardware. US models were powered by the 1.9L 8R-C engine found on the Corona and Mark II, though using a new camshaft to meet emission standards. Besides dealing with emissions, there were additional benefits with the tuning required for the new camshaft; a small increase in horsepower and an additional 500 usable rpm. (The Celica’s original JDM 1.6 Hemi engine first appeared in the US on the Corolla 1600).
Besides engine tuning, the new Celica improved on the Corona’s known suspension and brakes. At the rear, coil springs replaced the leaf springs and the axle was located via four trailing links and a Panhard rod. In unison, they kept axle hop under control. Front suspension was also new, consisting of MacPhersons, lower transverse arms, and an anti-roll bar. The Celica’s brakes were a noticeable improvement, reducing stopping distances by almost 90ft. against the Corona’s.
The manual 4-speed was slick and responsive, a known Toyota trait by then. Regarding the interior, it checked all the ‘pony car’ boxes. It was a stylish environment with full instrumentation, nicely arranged and detailed; a cozy and pleasant cabin for those seating upfront. The rear seats were cramped, of course, but that was part of the car’s spirit after all.
Not all was praise from Road & Track, as their test car suffered from some assembly issues. Doors rattled and clunked during closing, the engine was ‘noisy,’ and the differential was the ‘noisiest we’ve heard in years.’
Finally, while much had improved with Toyota’s sporty efforts, R&T directed its pleas to the one missing area: handling. While a nice car to push hard, the Celica still couldn’t match the handling of European competitors.
Yet, the Celica was a ‘handsome little coupe… an attractive and appealing car for someone who wanted a bit of extra sportiness.’ The muscle car era was reaching the end by the early ’70s, and along with cars like the Capri, the Celica was setting a precedent for a “new” kind of pony car.