The standard line is this: In 1970, Datsun launched the 240Z in America, proving that Japan could build a world-class, affordable sports car, and doing wonders to reverse the stereotype of the Japanese car as a horrible econobox. But while the Z was truly great, and a major success for Datsun (nearly 200,000 sold in the U.S. alone), it wasn’t the only automaker looking to break into the American performance market.
The 240Z took off because it cost about as much as a well-optioned Camaro, but offered cutting-edge features like a fully-independent suspension, overhead cam engine, and disc brakes. In short, it was a grand tourer with world-class aspirations. But in October 1970, Toyota unveiled a performance car of its own at the Tokyo Motor Show. Instead of punching up like the Datsun, it aimed for what was still the bread-and-butter of coupe sales in America: the ponycar.
1970 may have given us the Chevelle 454 SS, the Hemi ‘Cuda, and the Boss 429 Mustang, but the majority of “muscle car” buyers were just fine with either thrifty straight-six powered versions or well-optioned cruisers. A plush Mustang Grandé, Barracuda Gran Coupe, or Chevelle Malibu was far more common on American roads than their fire-breathing versions. Toyota felt that the segment could be shaken up below the big-displacement marquee models and hoped its new model, the Celica, could deliver. Within seven years, the Celica would be established as one of the best affordable performance cars in the world.
In the late ’60s, Toyota began working on a competitor for the American sporty coupe segment, but instead of looking at the drag-strip specials that captured America’s attention, it focused on the original: the 1964 Mustang. By the time the Celica was revealed in late 1969, the Ford was rapidly losing the plot. The once lithe Mustang had gained nearly 800 pounds and was turning into a slow, lazy cruiser. Its competition from Detroit wasn’t faring much better either.
The Celica hit the streets in Japan first, then Europe, before arriving in America in the middle of 1971. Power came from a 1.9 liter inline-four, which was good for 108 horsepower. While that was less than what a straight-six Mustang could offer, the Celica tipped the scales at just 2,200 pounds, some 1,200 pounds lighter than the Ford. It was also significantly smaller outside, while still offering nearly as much room in its stylish cockpit. Equipped with a crisp four-speed manual transmission, and standard features like front disc brakes and a full instrument panel, the Celica offered a lot for an affordable model in 1971. And at under $2,600 ($400 less than the Mustang), it caught on quick. 16,000 cars were sold by the end of ’71. Another 40,000 found buyers in 1972.
Some purists dismissed the Celica as a cheap Mustang copy, but the comparison wouldn’t last for long. Like the Datsun 240Z, it handled far better than most models at its price point, and thanks to a new state-of-the-art production facility, the Celica was the first Japanese car to be partially built on an automated assembly line. So at a time when build quality was falling off at a worrying rate in Detroit, the Celica was simply better built. It would make all the difference once performance-based segments began to disappear.
The muscle car as Americans knew it was dying. Federal safety and emissions laws meant that the already heavy and overburdened Detroit coupes would only get slower and heavier, while the already efficient Toyota saw relatively few changes. Sales climbed to 59,000 for 1973 as the engine was enlarged to 2.0 liters and a three-speed automatic was introduced. For ’74, the Celica was saddled with some unfortunate looking 5-mile-per-hour crash bumpers, but Toyota introduced the GT, a performance model with a firmer suspension and five-speed manual transmission. As sales reached 59,000 again, it was named Motor Trend’s Import Car of the Year.
And Detroit had seemed to take notice. In 1974, the second-generation Mustang was introduced as the Mustang II. Based on the compact Pinto, it was sold with a range of four- and six-cylinder engines, and was roughly the size and price of the Celica. In an odd twist, the original had pivoted to copy the supposed imitator. But that’s where the similarities ended; when it came to ride, performance, and build quality, the new Mustang II couldn’t hold a candle to the Toyota.
1975 saw the car’s biggest changes to date. The new standard engine was the 2.2 liter four, which was significantly smoother than the original mill. The wheelbase was also stretched 3 inches, the front and rear fascias were redesigned, and a liftback model was introduced. Sales jumped to 65,000 units in America. In 1976, the first full year of the liftback, sales topped 100,000, and it was again named Motor Trend’s Import Car of the Year.
By 1977, not many people were calling the Celica a muscle car rip-off anymore. In fact, compared to the underwhelming Mustang II and bloated Camaro and Firebird, the Celica was one of the most rewarding affordable driver’s cars around. Over 163,000 Americans took home a Celica in its final year before an all-new model would arrive for 1978. The Celica would continue to be a strong seller for Toyota, but the more contemporary design of the second-generation car would leave something to be desired compared to the clean lines of the original.
At the end of 1977, Toyota had sold over 1 million Celicas worldwide, and ironically, demand for American muscle cars may have played a big role in that. Save for a few exceptions, it was virtually impossible to get high displacement Detroit iron in Europe and Japan, and if you could, it was often prohibitively expensive. The Celica’s long hood/short deck proportions, lively performance (far more engines and variants were available in Japan), and overall good looks were better than the real thing for plenty of international buyers, and Celica built a strong cult following.
Over the years, a healthy performance aftermarket and successful factory-backed racing programs made the Celica one of the most popular performance nameplates in the world. But sales began to decline in the early 2000s, and in 2004, Toyota announced that the seventh-generation car would be the last of the line.
But as Japanese cars finally begin to get their due among serious collectors, the first-generation Celica has become one of the first models to be embraced. The Mustang comparisons have become an asset, and its great looks, high build quality (provided examples aren’t rusted), and thriving performance market make it a perfect artifact from the moment when the Japanese figured out how to do driver’s cars better than the Americans. It’s been a whole different ballgame ever since.