Celica was designed to tap into the ’70s zeitgeist, when people were enjoying a new-found sense of freedom and leisure activities were on the increase. Within the motoring industry this lifestyle was being expressed through ‘pony car’ vehicles such as the Ford Mustang, Pontiac Firebird and Dodge Challenger – indulgent purchases perhaps but also ones with a go-anywhere, do-anything practicality that was impossible with true sports cars such as the Toyota 2000GT of 1965.
Launched in December 1970 as a two-plus-two coupé derivative of the new Carina (and from April 1973 as a Liftback model), Celica displayed styling clearly inspired by its American counterparts. Significantly, it was the first Japanese car to use robots in its assembly, so the quality of manufacture was more consistent than any of its contemporaries. It was also one of the first to comfortably accommodate people with six-foot frames and use a full-feature dashboard.
In Japan, Celica became available with a choice of four T-series engines ranging from 1.4 to 1.6-litre capacities. The most powerful of these was the 115bhp twin-cam 2T-G breathing through twin Solex carburettors. The first US-spec cars received a familiar 1.9-litre engine from the Corona, while European examples appearing from May 1971 were equipped with two middle ground 1.6-litre T-series engines. Later in the car’s life the worldwide engine range was bolstered with 2.0-litre and 2.2-litre R-series engines, the top 18R-G version offering up to 145bhp.
Though comfort and ease of use were the development team’s priority, independent front suspension and a four-link rear setup with separate dampers gave Celica superb handling for the time. A Japan-only GTV model with sports suspension made further improvements in that regard, reinforcing an image that was already rocketing after a number of race victories in domestic motorsport events. Meanwhile, it was Celica’s early efforts in European rallying that led directly to the formation of Toyota Team Europe (TTE). And it was no doubt Win Percy’s and Martin Brundle’s numerous successes in the British Touring Car Championship with their Samuri-prepared cars that kept UK sales bubbling.
The millionth Celica rolled off the production line in June 1977 and sales showed no sign of slowing. Pundits therefore wondered why Toyota revealed its replacement just three months later, but the board’s decision to launch a new, second-generation Celica was clearly made to stay ahead of the curve.
The development team evidently focused on the lucrative American market, with the new mode displaying noticeable increases in length and width, higher equipment levels, and improved comfort. This time Celica was a full five-seater. Coupé and Liftback body styles were once again available and both managed the feat of being lighter than the previous generation, despite their larger dimensions. An expanded range of T and R-series engines were employed in the new car, all of which were tweaked to comply with new anti-pollution laws.
Those trading up to the new Celica from the much-loved previous model usually felt at home straight away. The motoring press agreed, with test articles often commenting that it still felt very much like a Celica, but thanks to improved practicality, refinement and driving dynamics, Toyota had addressed virtually everything that needed attention. At a stroke, Celica felt like a car capable of crossing continents, so to meet the requests of a growing number of owners wanting a more powerful grand tourer version, Toyota launched the six-cylinder Celica Supra.
Just over two years from its UK launch in January 1978 Celica was given a mild facelift that included four rectangular headlights within a horizontal grille arrangement. This coincided with the launch of the Griffith Sunchaser and Targa models, unofficial convertible and targa-top versions. Built for Griffith by Aston Martin Tickford, only twelve and eight examples respectively were ever delivered into the UK market. Such a comparative sales failure may have had something to do with the fact that Toyota had announced a new third-generation model waiting in the wings.
July 1981 saw the domestic introduction of the next Celica, its fresh, straight-edged yet aerodynamic design with semi-retractable headlamps making an instant impression on the market. The interior was equally futuristic, featuring a digital instrument panel and even the world’s first navigation system on some models.
With 20 different versions available (plus another seven for the Celica Supra), buyers in Japan had an exceptional choice of specification levels, including Japan’s first mass-production twin-cam turbocharged engine. The slimmer UK range that emerged in February 1982, however, came with Toyota’s best all-independent chassis set-up, allied to a cheaper disc/drum brake package and proven two-litre engine. This made an affordable starting price possible, given the generous overall equipment levels.
Though the second-generation Celica was finally coming good in the Group 4 class of the World Rally Championship after many years of TTE persistence, Toyota decided to switch its motorsport campaign to the new car. This was in spite of the fact sporting rule changes had been signalled that would mean the car would only have a short competition lifespan.
Equipped with the outgoing car’s storming twin-cam engine, Celica once again made an instant impression, winning its first event and helping Toyota secure fifth place in the 1982 WRC. The following year, the new 370bhp Group B car emerged from TTE’s workshops, based on the domestic turbocharged model. Though ‘hampered’ by having only two rather than four-wheel drive, the new car claimed a second place result first time out and was crowned the ‘King of Africa’ after winning three-quarters of the continent’s WRC rounds in four years.
A facelift in August 1983 gave Celica a neater, pop-up headlight arrangement and a revised rear lens treatment, though it took until February 1984 for this to filter down to UK cars. Also notable during this period was the launch of an official convertible version in the States, developed by the American Sunroof Company. Historically, drop-top versions of Celica had not been successful but this was a quality product that helped forge a long association between Toyota and ASC.
The fourth-generation Celica of August 1985 was a marked departure from its predecessors. The most significant difference was a switch to front-wheel drive. The car was a clean-sheet development with a smooth, aero-efficient design language that bore no sign of being derivative of the past. It also had a new mechanical layout that allowed the forthcoming Mk3 Supra to stand independently within Toyota’s sporting range.
Initially available as a three-door Liftback model in Japan and Europe (the US also got a two-door coupé that later provided the foundation for an ASC-engineered convertible), the new car was powered by a range of four engines – base single-cam 1.8-litre or 2.0-litre models, the familiar mid-range 1.6-litre 4A-GE twin-cam, and a new 2.0-litre 16-valve twin-cam 3S-GE flagship unit with n 86mm ‘square’ bore/stroke. Naturally, the suspension was totally redesigned to suit the new transverse powertrain layout, introducing MacPherson struts all round.
Price increases were not welcomed by the motoring press but reports also revealed that in terms of the model’s new-found handling and chassis balance, the cost seemed justified. Just one model was initially available in the UK market, equipped with a high-spec 2.0-litre unit delivering 147bhp through either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.
Soon afterwards, in October 1986, Toyota announced the launch of a flagship GT-Four model with a new 3S-GTE engine, a turbocharged and water-intercooled development of the already high-performance 3S-GE. Its 185bhp output made it the most powerful 2.0-litre engine in Japan. This degree of power, when distributed to all four wheels via a central differential, also made it a perfect rally weapon.
The UK launch of the GT-Four was delayed until March 1988, as the unleaded fuel it required had not been readily available until then. But it neatly coincided with the Group A car’s début in the WRC. It was Toyota’s first serious challenger for the championship crown, and the works TTE team entered every event in the WRC calendar from then on. The best results came in 1990 when Carlos Sainz won the driver’s title and Toyota took second place in the manufacturers’ championship.
Generation five was announced in Japan and Europe in September 1989, while the fourth-gen’ Celica was still strutting its stuff in world rallying. An evolution of the previous platform, the new car shared the same wheelbase as before but was fractionally longer and therefore slightly taller to balance the shape. It was smoother in design, benefiting from organic ‘super round greenhouse’ styling, and was appreciably lighter and quieter than before.
Power for domestic models came from three varieties of 3S-series engines, all with 2.0-litre capacities and tweaked to improve power and responsiveness.
The 3S-GTE in particular now featured an air-to-air intercooler and a twin-entry turbocharger with a ceramic turbine wheel, which once again catapulted it to the top of the league as the most powerful of all 2.0-litre production engines, at 225bhp. Meanwhile, the naturally aspirated 3S-GE used a new variable induction system and a stainless steel exhaust manifold that gave it an extra 25bhp and 14lb/ft. Both of these engines featured in UK-spec’ cars that became available in early 1990.
Interestingly, US and European versions of the GT-Four were based on a new wide-body ‘GT-Four A’ added to the domestic range in August 1990. Sitting 55mm wider than the standard Celica, it allowed larger 15-inch alloy wheels and 215/50 tyres to be specified for improved grip. A year later Japan adopted this ‘A’ body as standard for the GT-Four model. But the ultimate version of the fifth-generation Celica was probably the GT-Four RC homologation special of September 1991, which also formed the basis for the limited edition (only 440 produced) Carlos Sainz model for the UK market.
The launch of this special edition was made all the sweeter when Sainz clinched the driver’s championship on the year of the car’s début. But it was the WRC campaigns of 1993 and 1994 that are best remembered, when Toyota won the championship titles outright.
During the 80s and early 90s, Toyota generally stuck to four-year production runs with a mid-life refresh halfway through. This rapid turnover meant that development of a new model usually started soon after the launch of the current generation. In the case of the sixth-generation Celica, work began in the spring of 1990. Hundreds of proposals were evaluated, with the aim of giving the next car a more distinctive ‘face’.
Once again built around a purpose-built coupé formula, the new car borrowed styling cues from the recently launched Mk4 Supra and was the first Celica in many years not to feature pop-up headlights. Evolving engineering allowed the bodyshell to be fractionally larger, substantially stronger, yet around 90kg lighter than before. Engine options and the MacPherson strut/dual link chassis set up were pretty much carried over from the previous generation, though ABS was now offered as an option on all models. Some markets later included a 1.8-litre model that provided a temptingly priced entry into Celica ownership.
In February 1994, 13 months after the car’s launch, the GT-Four was reintroduced to the domestic market with the aim of providing Toyota with another WRC title – which duly occurred when Toyota won the manufacturers’ championship that year and driver Didier Auriol took first place in the drivers’ championship. Power for the road-going version was increased by another 30bhp to 255bhp thanks to new valve timing and further alterations to the turbo and intercooler arrangement. This allowed it to rocket to 60mph in just 6.1 seconds and carry on to a maximum speed of 153mph. Sensibly, the GT-Four’s brakes were extensively uprated and included lateral G-sensors so the braking effort of individual wheels could be more effectively controlled.
The UK market initially received just one Celica model from March 1994 onwards – the 173bhp 2.0-litre GT. This decision was vindicated by the fact the car perfected the trick of being both quick (0-60 in 7.9 sec) and surprisingly frugal (up to 45mpg). While praise was effusive for the naturally aspirated Celica, some magazine road testers in the UK found the new GT-Four a little too refined, though did admit that it improved the harder you pushed it, and was preferable over long distances compared to other rally-derived machines.
The end of UK sales of the GT-Four arrived in September 1996, around the same time as the Mk4 Supra was deleted from the market, while the smaller Corolla had swiftly become TTE’s weapon of choice in the WRC. Minor changes for the 1997 model year became the swansong specifications for the sixth-generation Celica, with many markets selling the last fully-loaded cars right up until the switchover to the long-awaited new machine.
Toyota’s striking XYR concept car shown at the Detroit Motor Show in January 1999 offered more than just a strong hint at the design of the forthcoming seventh-generation Celica. With the benefit of hindsight we know that it was virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, which went on to make its world début in September 1999, shortly before Toyota announced it had produced its 100-millionth vehicle.
The project was managed by Tadashi Nakagawa, the man also responsible for the third-generation MR2, and showed a similar engineering direction: weight reductions, smaller and lighter components, and razor-sharp handling. It debuted a duo of new 1.8-litre engines co-developed with Yamaha, offering variable valve timing (VVT-i) and a top-spec version with a second high-lift camshaft lobe that engaged at higher revs (VVTL-i). This latter engine was one of only a handful of powerplants that offered a specific output of more than 100bhp per litre.
Unlike any other Celica before it, only one coupé body type was offered. It was never engineered to evolve into convertible or four-wheel drive variations. This clearer focus allowed the development team to concentrate on making the body structure as light as possible for this solitary purpose, while smaller displacement engines also offered the opportunity to fit a smaller fuel tank. The net result was a car with a shorter body and longer wheelbase, and that tipped the scales at just 1,090kg in base trim.
European sales began in November 1999, initially only with the lesser 140bhp 1ZZ-FE engine, but joined almost a year later by the 189bhp 2ZZ-GE engine in the guise of the Celica 190. This car was gradually phased out of the UK line-up after a new flagship T Sport model was launched in August 2001 with unique alloy wheels and larger front brakes.
As was Toyota’s normal procedure, a midlife facelift was announced a couple of years into the production run, this time ready for the 2003 model year. Thanks to careful management of the stock of run-out cars, Britain received the updated version at the same time as Japan and the US. Yet despite buoyant sales assisting Toyota to its 10th straight year of record UK sales, there was no escaping the fact that there was a worldwide trend away from sports cars.
In the face of this movement, Toyota had no choice but to discontinue the Celica in the US in the summer of 2004. UK sales continued with reasonable vigour, especially with the attraction of a special edition GT variant with lowered suspension, a surprisingly wild aero package, and dedicated 17-inch alloy wheels. But the death knell tolled in January 2006 when tough new emissions regulations were announced; making Celica comply with the new levels would simply be uneconomical. Production officially ceased in Japan in April 2006.
From its introduction in December 1970 to its final bow more than 35 years later, Celica production had reached the epic heights of 4,129,626 units.
In 2013 Toyota started making the Celica again to a welcome audience.
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