The Celica Story

Reflecting on the life of our sporting star

Sometimes a car comes along unlike anything that’s been seen before, arriving with style and panache that not only capture peoples’ imaginations, but also their hearts.

The year was 1970, and the new kid on the block was the Celica. 

With a name that means ‘Celestial’ or ‘Heavenly’ in Spanish, the minute the Celica turned a wheel it was destined to be a star; no-one realised it would go on to shine brightly for 35 years, span seven generations and, for many people, become a car that was truly out of this world.

The speciality car

The sleek new 2+2 coupe arrived on the scene in stylish fashion in December 1970. Referred to as a ‘speciality car’, the Celica was designed to provide drivers with a greater feeling of freedom; combining a practical interior (accommodating those over 6 feet tall), within a sporty and, importantly, affordable package.

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With a name that means ‘Celestial’ or ‘Heavenly’ in Spanish, the minute the Celica turned a wheel it was destined to be a star

Built upon the existing Carina platform, Celica’s strong styling and brand name meant it stood apart by cleverly hiding its modest base-model roots.

An extensive list of customisable options, known as a ‘full-choice system’, also lay at the heart of its showroom appeal: an engine line-up that consisted of 1.4-litre, 1.6-litre engines, two manuals and a single three-speed automatic transmission across four model grades of ET, LT, ST and GT, meant customers were given more freedom to personalise their cars than ever before.

Although this comfort and ease of driving was a priority, the Celica still had to respond in the corners for the real enthusiasts. Thankfully, its independent front and four-link rear suspension setups, with separate dampers, didn’t disappoint in the tight-and-twisting turns.

This combination of strong engines and handling finesse was a successful recipe in motorsport; a number of race victories in Japan and Europe would lead rally driver Ove Andersson to establish Toyota Team Europe (TTE) in Cologne, and use it as a hub for Toyota’s motorsport activities going forward.

In April 1973, a three-door coupe with ‘fastback’ styling was added to the range. The Celica Lift back, as it was known, was developed to address demand from the increasing number of people wanting to use it for outdoor activities. Its large tailgate and folding rear seat-backs instantly gave its owners a large cargo area to swallow up anything from surfboards to camping stoves.

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A growing icon

In August 1977, after six years and eight months and a staggering one million sales, the second-generation Celica arrived amid much anticipation. Continuing the format of Carina underpinnings, supporting two-door coupe and three-door lift back body styles, the new model, with the needs of a growing American fan base in mind, grew in size through a longer, wider body that featured a low belt line and large swathes of glass.

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Still superbly well-equipped for the period, and now comfortably seating five, the new car had slimmed down while still remaining practical, refined and dynamic. In 1978, with increasingly stringent emission controls coming into play, Toyota was forced to modify its engines, which was a particularly difficult challenge for the Celica’s high performance power plants. Fortunately, with a few minor tweaks the Celica was able to continue using its now-celebrated DOHC (Double Overhead Camshaft) engine.

For the observant among you, a mild update in August 1979 altered the look of the second-generation Celica – its existing four round headlamps being replaced with four rectangular lamps nestled either side of a new horizontal grille – a small change that made a marked difference to its aesthetic.

The future’s aerodynamic

In four brief years, the third Celica iteration was upon us. As moviegoers queued excitedly to watch Indiana Jones locate the Lost Ark, a new and distinctly wedge-shaped Celica that over-flowed with aerodynamic creativity was wowing car lovers.

As well as the razor-sharp contours and flat surfaces, the most notable feature was the semi-retractable ‘rise-up’ headlamps. In a nod to the improved aerodynamics, the lenses would sit flush with the bodywork when not in use, reducing drag to create a smoother front.

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Inside, drivers were welcomed with a futuristic interior design that featured a fully digital instrument panel and, on certain models, the world’s first on-board navigation system – how spoilt we are now.

One year later in 1982, Japan’s first turbo-charged DOHC engine joined a Celica engine line-up that consisted of 1.6-litre, 1.8-litre and 2-litre derivatives.

In October of that year, 200 special Group B homologated (a certification allowing it race in a motorsport series) models known as the GT-TS, and based around the new engine, were made available. After making an instant impact with the third-generation Celica, winning its first event and helping Toyota to fifth place in 1982 World Rally Championship the new turbo-charged Group B rally cars were immediately more competitive.

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Although its two-wheel drive configuration put it at a disadvantage compared to four-wheel drive rivals, it would go on to be crowned the ‘King of Africa’ after winning three-quarters of the continent’s World Rally Championship rounds over four years, including the 1984 Safari Rally for the first time.

A rally legend is born

The fourth-generation of 1985 represented a marked change for Celica by adopting a new front-wheel drive configuration (replacing the previous rear-wheel drive) and, for the first time, only being available as a coupe lift back – an admittedly smooth-shaped one, with a very aerodynamic 0.31 drag rating.

The new front-engine, front-wheel drive configuration brought with it a totally redesigned suspension that incorporated MacPherson struts all round. Inside, drivers could revel in the improved comfort whilst enjoying gazing at the ground breaking new digital instrument panel, with colour LCD display.

Particularly of note was the October 1986 release of the GT-Four model, which came equipped with  full-time four-wheel drive and potent 185PS DOHC engine incorporating a turbocharger and water-cooled intercooler  – the most powerful 2-litre engine in Japan – and the perfect basis for TTE’s renewed attack on the WRC title.

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The team didn’t have to wait long. After debuting the new car in every event in the 1988 World Rally Championship calendar, Carlos Sainz clinched the drivers’ title in 1990 (the first for a Japanese manufacturer) and took a pleasing second place in the manufacturers’ championship.

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All about the curves

As the fourth-generation Celica continued to take the rallying world by storm, in 1989 a more rounded fifth-generation model was launched. Its unique styling over-flowed with curved lines and surfaces all wrapped around a slightly longer and taller body.

Power came from three significantly reinforced and responsive 2-litre engines, the most powerful of which sat in the GT-Four model, producing 225PS – 40PS more than before.

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This newer four-wheel drive model looked even more purposeful, with a wide stance that spanned 55mm wider than the standard Celica to house 15-inch alloy wheels and larger tyres for improved grip.

In 1992, a new WRC homologated ‘special’ was made called the GT-Four RC (Rally Competition). Produced in a limited run of 5,000 cars it went onto seal the WRC drivers’ and manufacturers’ title in 1993 and 1994 with Juha Kankkunen and then Didier Auriol, respectively – a tremendous achievement.

A radical new face

Just when everyone thought they knew what to expect from the next Celica, the sixth-generation arrived. Sporting a radical new four-headlamp (no pop-up lights) face on top of a newly designed platform, there were immediate improvements in rigidity and a reduction in weight to enhance its sporting credentials.

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Even though the body was engineered to be stronger and the body wider, weight was reduced by around 90kg. The higher output 180PS model also benefitted from a new super-strut suspension that won accolades for its razor-sharp steering, handling and grip.

Launched for sale in Japan in 1994 to support that year’s WRC challenge was a new WRC homologated GT-Four. Powered by a 255PS engine featuring new valve timing alongside turbo and intercooler revisions, this road-rocket would get to 100km/h in a little over six seconds and power on to a top speed approaching 250km/h – where permitted!

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As offered in previous generations, a convertible model was developed but this time featuring an electrically-operated hood in place of hydraulic power – increasing the amount of boot and rear cabin space to match the coupe.

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The final chapter

Unbeknown to those who witnessed the covers come off the new seventh-generation model, this would be the final interpretation of a car that meant so much to so many.

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Initially shown as a the XYR concept car at the Detroit Motor Show in January 1999, the production car’s appearance kept remarkably close to the show-stopper when it was put on general sale in September of that year.

In a nod to the wedge-shaped profile of the third-generation model, it sported a lean and angular look with a long wheelbase and ‘wheels at each corner’ stance and was only offered as a liftback – a decision was taken early on not to develop a convertible or four-wheel drive.

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The focus for the engineers was weight and a headline figure of 1090kg meant this model saved between 60-90kg from the previous generation car. The front-wheel drive platform and two new 1.8-litre VVT-i engines, co-developed with Yamaha and offering 145PS and 190PS, were adopted to give drivers improved stability and power during high-speed driving to reflect the development concept of ‘sensations of a lightweight GT’.

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And so, after 35 years, seven distinct generations, numerous motorsport victories and over four million sales, the final page of the Celica story was turned. As a worldwide trend away from sports cars began to appear in 2004, production of the Celica ceased in April 2006.

Thankfully, the memories of the brightest stars take a lifetime to fade…

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