Toyota Celica 1970-81
Yes, the whole line, not just one of the cooler ones from that era. Why? Because the Toyota Celica has the dubious distinction of being the first car that I seriously considered buying way back when I was 20 or so. Given my predilection for big ol' American cars (here, here, and here, for example), one might wonder how I managed to have stumbled on a compact import as my first serious foray into car-buying (in which I was not alone). And why this one in particular?
It's kinda complicated but not really: The upshot is that when it came down to actually spending my own money on a car, I suddenly had a need for both value and maintainability. Now, at that time I had a pretty firm grasp of the maintenance issues associated with various makes, including big American iron and fun little imports, none of it particularly positive. I hadn't had much experience with Japanese imports, having grown up in middle America where mostly GM-related products ruled; Japanese cars seemed small, distinctly un-fast, and prone to rusting out even quicker than their American (and Italian!) brethren. So I actually surprised myself somewhat for even considering a small Japanese car.
What follows isn't meant to be a comprehensive (or even concise) history of the Celica, since that can be found all over the Interwebs. No, I simply highlight some things about the Celicas from that era that seem interesting and/or appealing and give a few reasons I looked into them lo these many years ago, reasons that might resonate with many who were around during those halcyon days, or are at least interested in them. And along the way pop in a fascinating little coincidence having to do with my current Lust. . . .
And, truth be told, initially there was some justification for that in terms of the cars: they weren't very comfortable but they were generally pretty economical, not terribly attractive -- many of them looked just plain goofy -- and certainly didn't have the panache of the European roadsters. They were the things the local librarian bought because they were inexpensive and practical and to hell with style and performance (note: I'm married to a librarian so ease up on the coming hate mail!).
Then again, even as early as the late 1960s many in the Big Three were starting to take notice. . . .
. . .One of those with special relevance to your humble correspondent was Lee Iacoca, who'd driven the design of the original Mustang pony car. When the redesign of the Mustang was being considered due to the falling sales in the early 1970s, Iacocca summed up his view of the Mustang's direction this way:
When I look at the foreign-car market and see that one in five is a sporty car, I know something's happening. Look at what the Celica started to do before the two devaluations [of the dollar] nailed it! Anyone who decides to sit this out just ain't gonna dance!"1
That is, in part, why the Mustang II looks the way it does: small, sporty Japanese cars were starting to make a major impact and Iacocca had a good idea that the market was heading in that direction.
Those initial Celicas indeed looked. . . different. It really was a truly Japanese design; its full Americanization was still a few years away. They truly looked like an import. They were initially (1971 in the US) only available as a pillarless hardtop coupe with a 1.9 or 2.0L I4 under the hood and most came with a manual transmission; automatics began to show up in the 1973 models. Yeah, at only 90 bhp it wasn't going to best much of anything on the drag strip, but it was so much lighter than the pony cars of the time that it wasn't as slow and sloppy as one might think, and had handling characteristics that made it at least somewhat, in modern parlance, "tossable" on curvy roads.
I actually quite like the look of the '71-'77s as they hew pretty closely to my beloved pony car proportions. They look sporty with a little touch of aggressiveness and manage to look like they're moving even while standing still. The only things that look really out of place are the side-view mirrors on the earlier models, stuck way up front as they are. Certainly a more pleasing (and decidedly less foreign-looking) than some of the other Japanese imports such as the Datsun B210.
The Liftback (1973 on) bears a rather striking resemblance to the classic fastback Mustangs -- right down to the multi-lens vertical tail-lights -- and this is apparently no accident. I always found the irony of this period rather amusing: Ford was busy trying to make the new Mustang II look more like a sporty import, while Toyota was busy trying to make their sporty import look more like an American pony car icon. I actually like the non-Mustang-looking Celicas better; the Mustangization adds too much unnecessary detail to my eyes.
But to be honest, that first generation wasn't the one I was looking at to buy: it was the succeeding 1978-81 generation after it had received a very substantial facelift. This version was designed in the US and it shows. Though still recognizably Japanese, it's a lot less. . .different than the previous generation. Its lines are smoother and perhaps a bit more box-like with a traditional 3-pillar design. They came in coupe or liftback versions; I tend to prefer the latter myself, although neither one really works all that well for me. This was also the generation that spawned the Supra. Designed to compete with the vaunted Nissan Z-cars, it was longer and wider than the regular Celicas, and had the option of a 110 bhp straight-6 engine and upgraded suspension that included MacPherson struts up front and disc brakes all around. I can't say the Supra turned me on back then; among Japanese sport coupes if I noticed anything at all, it was the 240Z.
So, errr, why did I think about buying one? Two words: Consumer Reports. They came highly recommended in both quality and reliability. Ah, how I remember poring through the Car Buyer's issue and carefully comparing the little dots to see which car would cost me less money to operate. At the time, of course, CR was taken as the Bible on "unbiased" reliability ratings, and probably still is in some quarters. I didn't really read car magazines back then, I was busy with the audio ones, so CR seemed the right place to go to learn about cars. I've since come to look askance at CR for a number of reasons and I admit to being a little embarrassed having confessed to my past, ummm, indiscretion in this regard. But, no harm, no foul: I never did buy a Celica or anything else for that matter, having an AMC Hornet and a Buick Century bequeathed to me in the early 1980s.
Oddly, even as I write this I'm not being seized with any desire to go out and find one as I am occasionally wont to do upon writing about an old car of my acquaintance. Probably because I never really lusted after them or had anything much to do with them apart from a purely intellectual exercise in car-buying for mere economical transportation. That's probably the main reason it's taken me so long to write about them, as I'd mostly forgotten I'd ever wanted one in any capacity. There are a few still running around this neck of the woods, but not as many as one would think given their ubiquity back then. I certainly notice the Mustang-derived Liftbacks, but more out of a sense of curiosity than any kind of Lust, per se. Otherwise, unless I stumble upon a time capsule version sitting in a garage somewhere, this missive will probably be the last I ever think of them again.
1. Quoted in The Complete Book of Mustang, Publications International, Ltd. 1989, p.170.
All photos from Wikipedia.