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The Toyota Camry we know today is, in some ways, a far cry from its origins. On the other hand, it is also a logical evolution over four decades in the making. Sure, the first standalone Camry model debuted in 1983. But the birth of Toyota’s most popular sedan actually has its roots in an earlier model.

What was the first Toyota Camry?

In the late 1970s, the world was dealing with a historic fuel crisis. In addition, both American and European automakers were struggling to create compelling, reliable products for a more budget, and efficiency-focused public. Enter the Japanese contingent, led by Honda and Toyota.

Toyota, for its part, had been making quality cars for the entire decade. While the brand’s debut ran aground with the unpopular Toyota Crown in 1957, it wasn’t content to call it quits. By the late 60s, Toyota was back, and this time for good.

Americans fell in love with the Corolla and Corona early on. Meanwhile, the two-door Celica was Toyota’s answer to the Ford Mustang. At home, Japan had the Toyota Carina, based upon the two-door sports car, but as a four-door sedan variant.

However, it wasn’t until midway through the Celica’s second generation, which ran from 1977 to 1981, that Toyota expanded its four-door lineup with a fourth model. This was the first Toyota Celica Camry, and is the first known instance of the nameplate.

Get to know the Toyota Celica Camry

The Celica Camry, oddly enough, was a touch larger than the Carina, despite riding on the same platform. And despite the fact that the Celica coupe and liftback were both on sale in the U.S., the four-door Camry variant never made it to U.S. showrooms. Toyota, instead, chose to continue selling the rear-drive Corona sedan as it had done since 1964.

It featured the same front-engine, front-wheel drive layout we know today, and offered a choice between 1.6-liter and 1.8-liter four-cylinder engines. The smaller engine offered a whole 88 horsepower and 96 pound-feet of torque, while the larger 1.8 gave drivers 94 horsepower and 110 lb-ft to work with.

By 1980, Toyota was all-in on the Celica Camry. A high-end version featured four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes – sporty tech for the time. In addition, the last Celica Camry also got a more powerful engine from Toyota’s R-Series lineup. This 2.0-liter four-pot gave the sedan a potent 133 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque in the top-spec GT 2000 variant.

The Camry is born

The Toyota Celica Camry from 1982
The first-generation Toyota Camry | Toyota Global

Sales of the Toyota Corolla and Corona helped the brand march up the ranks to be the third highest-volume import automaker in America. But it was time for a change, and in 1983 Toyota dropped the rear-drive Corona from its U.S. lineup. Instead, it brought a newly-minted Toyota Camry to our showrooms.

By 1985, Toyota managed to sell 128,000 Camrys to U.S. buyers, thanks in part to a wide range of variants. There were 2.0-liter gas cars, 1.8-liter turbodiesel, deluxe and luxury trims, and a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearboxes. In addition, buyers could choose from a four-door sedan or a five-door liftback body style.

A far cry from the Camry we know today

It’s hard to believe that, just over 40 years ago, the Toyota Camry didn’t even exist yet. But in sending its first front-wheel drive midsize sedan to the U.S., Toyota would cement its place in our automotive landscape for generations. Now, the Camry is as common as dandelions in spring. But not long ago, it was simply an offshoot of an unlikely Toyota sports car.

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