Junkyard Gem: 1977 Toyota Celica GT

Toyota spent the second half of the 1960s watching Detroit print dollars by taking plain-looking compacts and turning them into fun, sporty machines with a minimum of investment. Ford made the Mustang from the Falcon, GM made the Camaro from the Chevy II, and Chrysler made the Barracuda from the Valiant. So, when developing the new Carina sedan for 1970, Toyota decided to print some yen with a sporty-looking sibling on the same platform: the Celica coupe and liftback. Both the Carina and Celica made it to the United States for 1971, but the Carina sold poorly here and disappeared from our shores after 1973. The Celica, on the other hand, proved to be just the sharp-looking econo-commuter that Americans wanted, especially after OPEC shut off the oil taps in late 1973, and the first-generation Celicas were sold here through 1977. Here’s one of those now-rare cars, found in a Colorado self-service yard last year.

I came of driving age in California in 1982, and these cars were everywhere back then. Sadly, they rusted steadily in dry, salt-free climates and instantly in rust-prone regions, and very few remain extant today. This one isn’t as rusty as some I’ve seen, but the corrosion is bad enough that nobody was likely to fix it up.

The rust problem is a shame, because the four-cylinder/rear-wheel-drive Celicas shipped across the Pacific all came with Toyota’s virtually indestructible R engine under their hoods (the Celica Supra had a straight-six, eventually becoming a model in its own right). This is a 20R, a 2.2-liter SOHC plant made famous by the unkillable Hilux trucks of the same era.

The 20R in the ’77 Celica made either 95 horsepower (in 49-state form) or 90 horsepower (for California), which was quite a bit for a cheap 1977 car that weighed a mere 2,610 pounds. However, anyone who has driven a 20R-powered vehicle can tell you it’s a pure truck power plant, with all the low-end torque, flatulent-bovine sound, and reluctance to spin that implies. In Japan, Celica shoppers could get the much wilder 18R-G version, a short-stroker with a Yamaha-designed cylinder head and between 128 and 145 horses. There’s no way that engine ever could have passed American emissions standards of the time, so in Japan it stayed.

An Aisin five-speed manual transmission came standard on all but the very cheapest 1977 Celicas. Note the ESP control panel above the shifter; this is the Electro Sensor Panel, a warning-light system that would indicate problems when you pushed the button.

Toyota didn’t just copy the idea of turning Falcons into Mustangs when it created the first-gen Celica Liftback; it shamelessly lifted the look of the Mustang fastbacks of the 1960s.

Actually, I think Toyota’s designers were more inspired by the 1968-1969 Mercury Cyclone fastback than by any Mustang model, and I don’t just say that because I daily-drove a Competition Orange ’68 Cyclone at a time when plenty of 1971-1977 Celica Liftbacks were available for direct comparison. The C pillar decorations, the grille design, the wheel arch shapes — all of it looked extremely Cyclonic.

Sincerest form of flattery and all that.

The Celica GT wasn’t any quicker than the ordinary Celica in 1977, other than getting a five-speed manual instead of a four-on-the-floor, but it came with some snazzy trim and comfort upgrades.

The MSRP on this car was $5,304 (about $26,910 in 2022 dollars), making it the top-of-the-line Celica model for 1977. The most affordable Celica that year was the base notchback version with four-speed manual, which cost $4,199 ($21,305 today). A 1977 Datsun 280Z coupe cost $6,999 ($35,510 now), but that car wasn’t considered a direct Celica competitor.

The Celica’s logo was this dragon-boat for many years.

After the Celica begat the Celica Supra in 1978, the Supra began taking over the “sporty Toyota” slot in the lineup. Finally, the Celica went to a new front-wheel-drive platform for the 1986 model year. Production ceased in 2006, with the final US-market Celicas showing up as 2005 models.

This one was just too rough to be rescued, and it went to the crusher at some point during late 2021. These cars are seriously rare in car graveyards nowadays; I’ve documented just two others (a ’73 and a 76) during my 15+ years of documenting automotive history at the knacker’s yard.

Want to surround her with quality and lots of good things? Don’t be too sensible!

Import Car of the Year for 1976.

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