Toyota Celica is one of the most influential Japanese sports cars of all time, and it turns 50 years young this year!
Like many Japanese cars from the era, the Celica started as a scaled-down version of popular Detroit-made vehicles when it was first introduced in 1970. To this day, the Celica has become much more: a backroad hero, a rally icon with 30 WRC victories, one highly publicized ban, and an absolute arcade legend too. In more than one way, the Celica left a huge mark on both mainstream and underground automotive culture and as we take a trip down memory lane, make sure to buckle up because it will be loud, fast, and sometimes sideways!
First Generation (1970 – 1977)
The original Celica debuted in Japan as a notchback sports coupe with a coke bottle silhouette, mimicking popular American muscle cars. Worldwide sales followed soon with the car coming stateside in 1971. It was initially available only in ST trim, with just the 1.9-liter 8R engine. The 2.0 liter 18R-C replaced the 8R in 1971, and the 1975 facelift brought the 2.2 liter 20R alongside a revised flat front end instead of a slanted one like on the initial TA22 version.
The RA29 liftback joined the US-bound lineup in July 1974, sharing many styling cues with the 1968 Mustang fastback, thus earning the nickname Mustang Celica. In the states, the RA29 was offered only with a 97 horsepower 2.2-liter 20R engine.
Today, first-gen Celicas are beloved classics with a strong muscle car appeal in minimized bodies, and even though their horsepower ratings don’t look even remotely spectacular when compared to Detroit-made sports cars, they are immensely fun to drive.
Second Generation (1977 – 1981)
By the time the second generation Celica arrived, Japanese manufacturers were already gaining momentum, taking up market shares in the United States. Both Detroit and the US government tried to slow the Japanese manufacturers down, but they retaliated by opening the USA’s production plants. That’s how the second Toyota Celica was designed in the United States by an ex-GM designer, David Stollery, who then worked at Toyota’s Calty Research Design studio in Newport Beach, California.
The Series A Celica was built in 1978 and 1979, and it featured round headlights. The Series B had square headlights, revised rear lights and was mechanically identical to the Series A. Again, the Celica was available as a notchback and a liftback, but this time, it featured a more angular design.
Pillarless doors were present among the styling features, but this time, safety regulations pushed Toyota to produce a car with a thick B pillar. The same regulations applied when constructing an open-top variant, but the US-based Griffith company eventually converted around 2000 coupés into SunChaser Targa top convertibles.
Initially, North American models had a 2.2-liter 20R engine in both ST and GT models. Starting from 1981, the Celica got a 2.4-liter 22R that was also installed into the Pickup.
The 2nd generation Celica wasn’t as interesting as the first one, but it’s an important car for the company since it spawned another legendary name – the Supra.
In 1978, Toyota produced a liftback-based Celica XX with a straight-six engine. To distinguish itself from the four-cylinder counterparts, this car was named Toyota Celica Supra in the worldwide markets – a legend was born.
Third Generation (1981 – 1985)
The third-gen Celica debuted in 1981 as a notchback coupe and liftback forms, while the convertible conversion completed the lineup in 1984. It had an even sharper design, especially after the 1984 model year facelift, which brought pop-up headlights, a feature embraced by many sports car manufacturers of the era.
Facing the fact that the Celica is slowly losing its sports car appeal, Toyota decided to enroll in Group B rally championships. The Group B Celica Twin-cam Turbo was based on the Japan-only Celica GT-TS, constructed and raced by Toyota Team Europe.
However, Toyota couldn’t compete with more experienced Lancia and Audi racing teams. Still, it managed to snatch six victories on demanding African rallies between 1983 and 1986, creating the foundation for the Celica as a rally contender.
Fourth Generation (1985 – 1989)
The fourth-gen Celica debuted in August 1985 as a completely new car both inside and out. It was built on the Toyota T platform as a front-wheel-drive notchback and liftback coupe, departing from the Toyota A platform and its rear-wheel-drive roots. It came in four distinct trims: ST, GT, GT-S, and the coveted 190 horsepower Turbo All-Trac introduced in 1987.
The Turbo All-Trac was known as the Corolla GT-Four on other markets and had a chassis code ST165. It featured permanent all-wheel drive, 5-speed manual, a viscous-coupling center differential, and was a top of the line Celica.
In the American market, Toyota also introduced a limited run of 77 examples (one sold in each California dealership) celebrating Toyota’s IMSA GTO championship win. These cars were the first Turbo All-Trac models for the American market, and they all came in white with white wheels and a discrete IMSA GTO CHAMPION inscription on the front side moldings. Still, they were mechanically identical to later models. This limited run is a cool collectible in the Celica community nowadays.
By developing a four-wheel-drive powertrain, Toyota further explored its potential in the World Rally Championship. The rallied up ST165 GT-Four had mild success in WRC and non-WRC events, but it served as Toyota’s way to gather rally know-how and implement it for the next, more successful generations.
Fifth Generation (1989 – 1993)
The curvaceous, exciting new Celica came in 1989 as a notchback and a liftback. It featured the new Super Round styling, which promised increased structural strength without excess weight. The Celica was improved in many ways, even featuring four-wheel steering, exclusively for the Japanese market. Again, the All-Trac Turbo was a flagship version, with its revamped 2.0l 3S-GTE producing 200 horsepower and flared fenders.
Collectors should look for the 3S-GTE-powered GT-Four RC or Turbo 4WD Carlos Sainz as it was known in other markets. This limited run of 5000 examples was built for WRC homologation purposes. Most of them, 3000 to be exact, were sold in Europe, with the rest being RHD models for Japanese, Australian, and other smaller markets.
These cars are already older than 25, so you’ll probably want to browse through European classifieds to find a perfect and preferably unmolested example for your fun weekend driver or a collector’s piece.
Sixth Generation (1993 – 1999)
Still round, but this time without the trademark pop-up lights, the sixth-gen Celica came as a 1994 model year car. From the front, it looked like the bigger Supra but still relied on front-wheel/four-wheel-drive drivetrain configurations and four-cylinder engines. In the USA, the Celica was available only in two trims, ST and GT, meaning that the stateside buyers missed all of the All-Trac version’s fun.
That’s a shame because the 239 horsepower 3S-GTE-powered ST205 GT-Four was the most powerful, most advanced Celica to this day. Apart from the powerful engine and four-wheel drive, the ST205 also had an aluminum hood, revised turbo, improved suspension, and four-channel ABS.
The first run of 2500 Group A homologation specials is the most collectible Celica ever. As mentioned, the United States missed this homologation special once again, but given that the run was made in 1994, they are also available for import.
The Celica Group A caused quite a stir in the 1995 World Rally Championship, where it was banned due to a highly sophisticated turbo restrictor. Luckily, the car was immortalized on consoles and arcade machines thanks to the SEGA Rally franchise, which pitted it against Lancia Delta Integrale and Lancia Stratos in the original game and many more in the Sega Rally 2 follow up.
Seventh Generation (1999 – 2006)
The final Celica was introduced in 1999 as a liftback only, and it came in GT and GT-S trim in North America. The Celica GT had a 140 horsepower 1ZZ-FE with VVT-i mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. The sportier GT-S had a 2ZZ-GE under the hood, with 180 horsepower and VVTL-I technology. This variant had a six-speed manual or button-shifting four-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel disc brakes, and metal pedals.
USA buyers benefited from numerous visual and performance-oriented upgrades directly from TRD USA. For example, the Action Package gave the Celica a new front bumper, rocker panels, and a higher rear spoiler. The mechanical upgrades included in the TRD program for the Celica were dampers, anti-sway bars, lowering springs, short shift kits, revised exhaust, and more. The 1ZZ-FE Celica GT could even get a supercharger, albeit unofficially, because the hood was too small for it to fit without making further changes.
The seventh Celica is a fun and affordable sports car with unique styling, and also the last Celica to this day. In 2004, Toyota announced that the Celica and the MR-2 would not be developed further due to the market losing interest in coupes. Many other Japanese cars from the same segment didn’t survive, but as the Supra recently made a return, Celica enthusiasts can hope for a modernized version sometime in the future.