Putting a sporty coupe body over basic sedan mechanicals is a time-honored strategy in the automobile business. None employed it with more spectacular success than Ford in the mid-1960s with the Mustang. Toyota obviously was paying attention, because in 1971 it did a similar thing with its ho-hum Corona sedan, creating the Celica, a car that would become a minor sensation for the fast-growing Japanese brand. Five years later, Toyota took another page from the Mustang’s playbook by bringing out a second body style, the Celica GT Liftback.
If anything, the hatchback even more closely copied from the Mustang, with its triple rectangular taillights, trim bits behind each rear-quarter window, pronounced haunches, and slight up-kick at the back of the rear fenders. Like the Mustang, both the notchback and hatchback Celicas had sport-coupe proportions, with a long hood and a small passenger compartment. And like the Mustang, the Celica looked good. In an era when Japanese car styling was often just a bit off, the Celica — particularly in Liftback form — was undeniably handsome.
Perhaps that’s why, for those who came of age in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Celica was a desirable machine. At the time, Japanese economy cars were everywhere — the result of gas-price panics in 1973 and 1979 — but the Celica was one of the few that actually managed to be cool.
Although the Celica doesn’t have anywhere near the following of the Mustang, it can still turn heads today. Certainly this silverexample, which has less than 10,000 miles on the clock, turned the head of Tommy Sullivan, a police captain in Larchmont, New York. He spied it parked at a service station where it was getting its New York State annual inspection.
Sullivan, who has owned a string of modern Toyotas, says, “I just love the old Japanese stuff.” He is of that era. “The ’70s was when I started driving,” he says. “And my parents had big GM and Ford products. But my sister’s boyfriend had a Corolla Liftback, which I thought was the neatest car. And I ended up learning to drive a stick shift on a Datsun B210. After high school, I had a ’73 Camaro, but then my friend got a Datsun 240Z and I begged him to trade me.” Eventually, Sullivan got a 280Z of his own (which he still has). But he couldn’t stop thinking about the Celica that he’d seen at that service station.
One year later, he saw it there again, and this time Sullivan tracked down the owner, who had bought it new. Eventually the owner, who was getting on in years, agreed to sell the Celica. The car had 8200 miles. “You have to do me one favor,” the gentleman said. “You can never take it out in the snow. The salt will kill it.”
Salt and the resulting rust certainly decimated lots of the Celica’s siblings, at least in the Northeast. As popular as this car was when it was new, you seldom see one on the road today.
That’s what makes Sullivan’s Toyota such an utter time machine. To see it is to immediately be transferred back to the ’70s. It helps that this example is bone stock — right down to its fourteen-by-five-and-a-half-inch styled steel wheels — and that its silver color is that of the brochure car.
Open the lightweight door, and you’re hit with the smell of warm vinyl. The high-backed, reclining bucket seats were something special in the 1970s, as were the standard five-speed manual transmission, the AM/FM stereo, and the set of five round gauges. This car is further equipped with factory A/C. The seats are low, and the windshield is narrow by today’s standards. The back seats are even lower and definitely cramped under that sloping hatchback, but people were thinner back then.
Insert the key, and the high-pitched seatbelt warning buzzer sounds — a not-so-pleasant flashback. The four-cylinder fires right up once we remember to give it a little gas. The 2.2-liter (2189-cc) overhead-cam engine arrived with the ’75 model year; previously the Celica had a 1968-cc unit, which itself was enlarged from the 1858-cc SOHC four in the launch-year car.
For 1976, output was 96 hp — not much compared with today’s sporty cars, but then neither is the Celica’s weight, at about 2500 pounds. Still, acceleration is leisurely, and the car doesn’t isolate you from the engine’s machinations. There’s an honest, mechanical movement to the gearshift, which is rather tall, and the clutch is very easy to modulate — just the thing for all those young drivers still getting the hang of a stick shift. The thin-rimmed steering wheel is leather-wrapped (or is that vinyl?), and you have to tug it pretty hard, as there’s no power assist; efforts are manageable once you’re under way, but parking takes some muscle. Apparently, we were stronger back then, too.
The Celica can be modified, of course, for increased performance, but much of the car’s charm comes from seeing it the way it looked back in the day. “The people who like these cars are the ones who remember them from high school,” says Sullivan. “And the kids — kids dig ’em.” So it is now as it was then: the Celica is a car for the young — and also those who remember their youth.
ENGINE: 2.2L SOHC I-4, 96 hp, 120 lb-ft
TRANSMISSIONS: 5-speed manual 3-speed automatic
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Live axle, coil springs
BRAKES F/R: Discs/drums
WEIGHT: 2500 lb (est.)
YEARS PRODUCED: 1976-1977
NUMBER SOLD: 264,152 (U.S.-market Celicas in 1976 and ’77; GT Liftback figures unavailable)
ORIGINAL PRICE: $4499 (1976)
VALUE TODAY: $2000-$10,000
The Celica GT Liftback was a fun, sporty car that appealed to young buyers in the mid-’70s, and if you were one, the car’s scarcity today makes it a powerful time machine. Celica mechanicals are simple and durable, but the bodies are rust-prone and sheetmetal parts are not available. Neither are many other parts besides basic mechanical items (many of which are common to other Toyotas), so it’s especially important to buy a car in the best possible condition. A GT Liftback that has been kept original is preferable to one that’s suffered a lot of questionable modifications.