The cars we loved.

1970 – 1977 Toyota Celica: The Japanese Ponycar?

1976 Toyota Celica ST

When most people think of muscle cars, images of Mustangs, Chargers or Falcon GT-HO’s come to mind. Although the concept (or the marketing hoopla) may have come from America, it was not an exclusively Stars and Stripes kind of phenomenon. Japan had it’s own muscle car revolution in the form of Skylines, Galants and the Toyota Celica – yes the Celica! Although some of the sports and GT cars that emerged from this era went on to become expensive near supercars in some form or another, the Celica maintained its position as an affordable sporty coupe – if not a ponycar by Japanese standards.

The Japanese auto industry was spreading its wings beyond the humble little econoboxes that it peddled to the West as the 70’s dawned. This engineering and design confidence was illustrated in splashy concepts cars like the Toyota SV-1. Shown at the 1971 Tokyo Motor show, it was a sleeker version of a concept coupe shown just a year earlier and put into production later that same year. Called the Celica, would be available in most markets in 1970 as a two door then as a liftback (three door hatch) after 1973. America got it’s first Celica in ST trim in 1971. Early American bound cars had either 1.9 or 2.0L engines.

1973Toyota Celica

1973Toyota Celica

The Celica may have competed directly with Datsuns 1500 and Chevy Vegas, but its looks and performance inspired loftier aspirations. It was intended to be Japan’s answer to the American Mustang. The comparison might sound laughable, until you considered how close in mission, size and power they had become by the mid 70’s. The 73’ Celica liftback even sported a Mustang-like taillight cluster, prompting many to call it the “Mustang Celica”in Japan.

All sorts of pressures had forced the Ford Mustang to change dramatically, becoming a much smaller car to the point that the Celica and Mustang had become quite comparable. They even had similar power ratings. A 74’ Celica was able to produce 90 hp from a 2.0L four, while the Mustang’s 2.8L V-6 made 105 hp. That also was the first year a Mustang offered a four-cylinder engine (a 2.3L) that made produced 88 hp.

Like Ford’s pony car, the Celica came with rather conventional front disc and rear drum brakes. The Celica had more lively performance thanks to its independent McPherson front and unusual De Dion rear axle. The Celica was able to keep itself slim at around 2,200 lb. despite having air and other power options in US models. By contrast the Mustang flirted with big V8 engines that only contributed to poor performance due to their added weight and low power output.

1974 Toyota Celica Interior

1974 Toyota Celica Interior

Mustang references aside, the Celica owed as much of its looks to the Toyota 2000 GT as it did from any ponycar. It was Toyota’s way of making a mass market sports car for those who could not get their hands on the rare and expensive 2000 GT or a BMW 2002 for that matter. The Celica would get a major facelift in 1975 with new bumpers and grille. The hoods were made longer to accommodate a larger engine, but the 2.0 remained the biggest displacement for the US market.

Unlike a typical muscle car, the tight cockpit featured a simple but well-designed dash with simple gauges for speed, oil pressure, rpms and fuel level. The ergonomics were a step above what drivers of Vegas or Grimilins were used to, yet the Celica was comparable in price to all of them in their sportiest versions at under $2,000 in 1972.

The Celica’s timing came at a critical time in the marketplace.  The Datsun 240Z had turned the sports car market on its ear and a fuel crisis was looming. Although the Z car was popular, it cost more than the Celica making Toyota’s little coupe an alternative for those wanting Japanese quality in a sports car.  Although far from being an economy car, the Celica’s light weight and small engine ensured that it would be well prepared for the two fuel crisis of the 70’s. 30 mpg on the highway was easily obtainable with the four speed manual transmission.

US Promotional Photo

1974 US Promotional Photo

American customers preferred to trade performance for safety and convenience. Black bumper guards, air conditioning and a 3-speed automatic transmission became the hallmark of most US Celicas.  4 and 5-speed manual transmissions had been standard and common elsewhere. European and JDM models were available with a 2.2L engine (2.2 in U.S. after 1975). Some of them in stripped down models with enhanced handling.

The ultimate first generation Celicas were those with a DOHC configuration.  A technical achievement usually reserved for the most expensive and advanced European sports cars, the 2.2L was available from the beginning. Code named 2T-G, it produced as much as 115 hp but never saw North American duty.

1977 Star Wars Special Edition Celica

1977 Star Wars Special Edition Celica

Despite some quality control issues centered on premature engine failure with some early 2.0L equipped cars, the Celica got good reviews and would later create many loyal lifetime Toyota customers. Toyota was able to tie-in the Celica to the Star Wars craze of the late 70’s with a one-off special edition model in 1977. The silver and black car featured hand painted decals. The FOX studio approved car was delivered to one lucky contest winner.

An  all-new 1978 Celica marked a departure from the original “muscle car” formula to a larger more comfortable GT like direction. The Celica would grow larger and more posh until the upmarket emphasis would result in a split of models to create the Supra in 1986. With a few exceptions, the Celica never got its mojo back in the US after that.

1976 Toyota Celica Liftback

1976 Toyota Celica Liftback


4 comments on “1970 – 1977 Toyota Celica: The Japanese Ponycar?

  1. goragon
    January 2, 2014

    i usually don’t care for Toyotas (in fact, i despise them) but i actually like this car. this and the old land crusers (fj40 and 60).

  2. Michael Keil
    April 4, 2017

    the 76-77 Celica’s had the 2.2 liter 20R engine. Fact checking isn’t that hard to do!

    • autopolis
      April 6, 2017

      I stand corrected, the 2.2 20R was available in the States starting with in 1975 for the ’76 models. I hope that makes your day.

  3. andrew kotcher
    May 17, 2018

    The car that got away,
    i was stationed in japan in the 80’s and had a 77 celica gt twin cam, it was quick! wish i had brought it home.

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This entry was posted on October 31, 2012 by in 70's Cars, Toyota and tagged , , , , .
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