In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Japanese sports car market was still in its infancy. A number of sports models had been sold in Japan , including some supremely excellent ones like the 1967-1970 Toyota 2000GT , but Japan was still mostly known to the rest of the world for its small economy cars . But two cars would come along that would usher in an era of Japanese sport compacts that would raise the status of the entire country’s automotive industry. The first of these was the 1969-1978 Datsun 240Z in 1969, followed just a couple of years later by the Toyota Celica , in 1971.
The accompanying video for this article shows Jay Leno talking to a Toyota representative about the car. He calls the Celica Toyota’s first sports car, which isn’t strictly true. Both the Sports 800 and the 2000GT predate the Celica, but the Celica was the first mass-market Toyota sports car to be sold outside of Japan. The nameplate would live on until 2006, and continues on in spirit with the Scion tC . But more importantly, the Supra nameplate would get its start as a sub-model of the Celica, one of a few versions of the Celica that could hold its own against much more expensive sports cars with much bigger engines.
The “coke bottle” styling of the first-gen Celica probably looks more than a little familiar, even if you’ve never seen a first-gen Celica before. It is basically a scaled-down version of the styling used for muscle cars of the era. There were even a few non-functional vents on the Celica, by that time a favorite of designers in Detroit. This styling was not typical of Japanese sports-car design up to that point, with the designs of the Sports 800 and 2000GT being very different. But the Celica was a global car, and Toyota wanted to give it a design more in keeping with sports-car design in what would be the car’s biggest market, North America.
The car was initially offered only as a notchback, but a liftback version debuted in Japan 1973, and the rest of the world in 1976. This version was often referred to as the “Japanese Mustang” or “Mustang Celica,” because although there were several similarities between the cars before, the liftback made the resemblance undeniable. The Celica was much smaller than the Mustang though, especially the Mustang of 1971. The Celica was fully two feet shorter and 9 inches narrower than the 1971 Mustang. In fact, it was partly due to the success of the Celica that Ford would bring out the smaller Mustang II in 1973.
To give you an idea of just how small the cabin of the first-gen Celica is, consider this: the 2015 Smart ForTwo is 2.5 inches wider. You had to really like anyone who was going to be in the car with you, because they would practically be sitting on your lap. The interior had quite a bit of “wood grain” plastic, but also a number of standard features that would have cost extra in an American car. Air conditioning was still an optional extra at this point though. The higher levels of standard equipment were a major selling point of not only this, but other Toyotas and Japanese cars in general at the time. On the whole, the interior was a lot like the exterior; it looked like a muscle car, but was a lot smaller.
Five engines were offered for the Celica in various markets, with North America getting bigger engines and the rest of the world getting engines that were smaller but had twin-cams. The first American versions had 1.9-liter engines, this was followed up with 2.0-liter engines and finally 2.2-liter engines. All of these were basically the same R-series engine, but tweaked to fit different needs. The smaller versions of the engine were in fact more powerful, with emissions regulations reigning the 2.2 in to 97 horsepower from the 110 that the earlier cars were producing.
This wouldn’t be so bad if there had also been an accompanying weight loss. The early notchbacks weighed only 1,900 pounds, so that 100 horsepower was really quite a good number. The U.S.-market liftbacks of 1976 would weigh in at 2,500 pounds, a significant amount more. That said, by this point the Mustang that the car was continually being compared to weighed about the same and was putting out only 83 horsepower in base form and 93 from the up-optioned V-6.
In 1971, the Celica that is shown in the video sold for $4,000, or about $23,000 in today’s money. Since that’s pretty close to what the 2013-2015 Scion FR-S sells for today, you might be thinking that this was a cheap way to have some fun, but that’s not quite true. Even with adjustments for inflation, cars cost a lot less 40 years ago, and some American competitors started at about half the price of a Celica.
The Celica was much better equipped, and by the time the energy crisis was in full swing, it was faster as well. But it was still a more expensive car than you’d expect, and this is perhaps why they aren’t as easy to find today. But the good news on that front is that if you do manage to find a first-gen Celica, it will not be terribly expensive, even compared to the current prices of the contemporary American cars that originally sold for much less. Most go for less than $10,000 and even really good low-mileage examples don’t go too much over that.
As much as the Celica was compared to Mustang when it came to its appearance, the car’s real competitor from Ford was the Maverick, Ford’s own scaled-down version of a muscle car . It was offered with a variety of I-6 engines or a single 289 V-8, and was really tremendously popular. It out-sold the Mustang for its whole production cycle, and obviously far outsold the Celica. For those who thought the Mustang was a bit much but the Celica was too small, the Maverick offered a good compromise.
Nissan Z-Car: 240Z, 260Z and 280Z
In the story of Japanese sports cars in the U.S., the 240Z is really the most important car there is. It was quick, it was relatively cheap for what it was, and it looked fantastic. And though it was by no means a big car, it was more spacious than the Celica, and just generally better-suited to the global market. Dealers couldn’t keep them on the lots, and the Z car continues to live on today. It is generally better remembered that those early Celicas, but there’s no shame in losing to the best.
The original Celica was a good car launched at just the right time. American muscle cars were just starting to get a bit too big for some people, and once they sunk into the mire of the energy crisis, any manufacturer with a smaller, fuel efficient sports car won big. The Celica would go on to do great things, such as birth the Supra and the awesome Celica GT-Four of the ’90s. It’s an important piece of Japanese sports car history and this was its starting point.
- an actual sports car that didn’t start to suck once the energy crisis hit
- light, very light, like a sports car should be
- quite attractive for a ’70’s car
- hilariously tiny
- styling is derivative
- entirely too rare in the U.S.