With the sports coupé named Celica, Toyota landed a bull’s eye exactly 50 years ago. After the sports car 2000GT was only produced in homeopathic doses, the new model was to achieve worldwide sales success – and it did. The name was derived from the Spanish word ‘celestial’ (heavenly). In addition to pure sportiness, suitability for everyday use and enough space in the interior were high on the list of requirements. At the same time it should be inexpensive to produce, which also kept the sales price low.
Generation 1 (1970 to 1977)
The first Celica, known internally as A20, was launched just in time to be also offered in Germany. Toyota Deutschland had been founded a few months earlier. In order to be able to realize the planned large quantities, Toyota had built a new factory with robot production lines in Tsutsumi. In addition to the Celica, the mid-size sedan Carina also rolled off the production line there. A 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine provided the propulsion. The Celica LT had 58 kW/79 hp (with three-speed automatic only 55 kW/75 hp) and the Celica ST came with 63 kW/86 hp. However, since the car only weighed about a ton, this was fully sufficient for sporty driving dynamics. In 1973, the Celica GT followed with a 79 kW/108 hp engine. This reached a topspeed of 183 kph (114 mph), making life difficult for more powerful sports cars.
Three years later an extensive model update was carried out. In this course, the already available Hardtop Coupé was joined by a Fastback version with a large tailgate. This was also exclusively available as Celica 2000 GT with a two-liter, 120 hp engine. The wheelbase grew by 70 millimeters in all versions. After seven years and more than 1.2 million units built, production of the first generation ended in December 1977. Under Ove Andersson, the Celica scored its first respectable successes on the rally tracks.
Generation 2 (1977 to 1981)
Surprisingly, Toyota managed to keep the second generation of Celica under one tonne in weight despite its larger dimensions. In addition to the normal Coupé and the Liftback, customers were able to opt for a Convertible or a Targa for the first time. These, however, came about as subsequent conversions at companies such as Tropic in Germany, American Custom Coachworks or Griffith in the USA. On the engine side it remained at 1.6, 1.8 or two liters of displacement in Europe. In the USA there were 2.2 and 2.4 liter four-cylinder engines. Only the 90 hp two-liter engine made it to Australia. In 1980, a model update provided rectangular instead of round headlights.
For Japan and North America, the Celica XX (in the USA called Celica Supra) was launched. This top model not only received a higher quality equipment. A 2.6-liter or 2.8-liter inline six-cylinder engine worked under the hood. The second generation Celica also competed in rallies and circuit races. Achim Warmbold won the 1980 German Rally Championship at the wheel of a Celica GT.
Generation 3 (1981 to 1985)
When the third generation of Celica rolled out to dealerships in 1981, many were again surprised by Toyota. Indeed, the Japanese manufacturer dared to take the step towards four-cylinder engines with 16 valves in mass production. Until then, this technology had only been available in racing cars and a few small-series cars. The choice was 86, 105 or 120 hp. In addition, the company introduced the Celica Supra, which was based on the Liftback with some minor design changes and was now also available in Europe. This had a 2.8-liter inline six-cylinder engine with 125 kW/170 hp.
As a homologation special for motorsports, 220 units of the Celica GT-TS with 370 hp were produced. Even more power was only available to the factory drivers of Toyota Team Europe (TTE). From 1983, they used the Celica Twin Cam Turbo in Group B of the World Rally Championship. However, since they didn’t use four-wheel drive as most of their competitors, Toyota was only able to shine at the material-killing rallies in Africa. There they achieved six overall victories in eight participations. This earned the vehicle the nickname ‘King of Africa’. Exciting side note: In Japan, from 1980 to 1982 there was a Carina with an extended front end with a design in the style of the Celica Supra available. This model was given the name Celica Camry. In Europe, this car came to the dealers as a normal Carina with a different rear design and optionally available as a station wagon.
Generation 4 (1985 to 1989)
Toyota quickly learned from the mistake of relying only on rear-wheel drive. Already in the following fourth model generation, the Celica was available with four-wheel drive in the 190 hp GT-Four (in Europe only with 185 hp due to stricter emission regulations). The normal models now had front-wheel drive, as the T-platform from the Toyota Corona served as the basis. The rear-wheel drive A-platform was from now on exclusively available for the new Toyota Supra, which advanced to become an independent model series. While in Europe only the liftback version of the Celica was available, customers in Japan and the USA continued to have the choice between Liftback and Coupé.
The World Rally Championship had meanwhile turned away from the fast and dangerous Group B. The planned successor Group S, for which Toyota prepared an MR-2, was also no longer coming along. Instead, the previous second division of Group A was practically raised to become the highest class. These were near-series vehicles with a cubic capacity of two liters, which had to be sold to private customers in a minimum edition of 2,500 copies for homologation. The Celica GT-Four easily met this quota. Thanks to its good aerodynamics and proverbial robustness, it quickly achieved numerous successes in rallying. In 1990, one year after production of the fourth generation ended, Carlos Sainz won the world championship title with a Celica.
Generation 5 (1989 to 1993)
After the fourth generation had already made its debut at the IAA (Frankfurt Motor Show), Celica number 5 stood in the same place in 1989, retaining the wedge-shaped design with pop-up headlights. In addition, the aerodynamics had been perfected and the power had been increased to 225 hp in the Turbo GT-Four. A computerized active suspension system called ‘Active Control Suspension’ was available as an option. This used hydraulic elements with sensor control instead of conventional springs and stabilizers. It kept the vehicle balanced during braking, acceleration and cornering maneuvers.
With the fifth generation Celica, TTE easily surpassed the success of the fourth. Drivers such as Carlos Sainz, Didier Auriol and Juha Kankkunen not only achieved numerous rally victories. In 1992, 1993 and 1994 these gentlemen also won the drivers’ championship, and in the last two years mentioned also the manufacturers’ title. The white-painted coupés with red-green Castrol advertising were popular among fans and feared among the competition.
Generation 6 (1993 to 1999)
Actually, the Celica had long since ceased to have any stress when the sixth model generation was released. Competitors like Ford Capri or Opel Manta had long been out of production. Other brands didn’t even think about corresponding models. And the company was well positioned against domestic competitors such as Mitsubishi, Honda and Nissan. And yet the Toyota engineers didn’t stop improving their product. The goal was to achieve even less weight with even more power. Despite mandatory safety equipment such as airbags and side impact protection, the new Celica was around 50 kilograms lighter than the fifth generation. Even in the base version, 115 hp was available. The Celica GT-Four with 178 kW/242 hp marked the top end of the range. Once again, in addition to the Liftback, a classic Coupé with notchback and a small number of Convertibles were available for the North American market.
American racing driver Rod Millen squeezed more than two and a half times the power of the GT-Four, namely 515 kW/700 hp, out of the engine of his Celica. However, he didn’t use this vehicle in everyday traffic, but in 1994 at the ‘Race to the Clouds’, the famous hillclimb race at Pikes Peak in Colorado. He ended this race with a new best time that lasted for 13 years. Meanwhile, things were less successful for Toyota Team Europe in the WRC. There, the rules set an approximate maximum power of 315 hp, which was to be maintained by air volume limiters on the turbochargers. However, some clever engineers at TTE developed an intake system that bypassed the air volume limiters at full load and thus generated more power. When this fraud was discovered, Toyota was banned for the entire season and the following year 1996 and all points already achieved were forfeited.
Generation 7 (1999 to 2006)
The IAA (Frankfurt Motor Show) 1999 was the venue for the debut of the seventh and, in retrospect, final edition of the Toyota Celica. Its wedge-shaped and dramatic design quickly made it an eye-catcher at the show. Toyota itself spoke of the ‘one-motion silhouette’, i.e. a flowing movement from the front to the rear. Despite the great attention in Frankfurt, sales figures worldwide were lower than expected. This wasn’t only due to the design, but also to the generally shrinking share of sports cars in the registration statistics of these years. After taking its hat off in Germany in 2005, the Celica retired in 2006 on all other world markets as well.
For more than three decades, the Celica fulfilled its mission as a sporty yet affordable Coupé. After production of the seventh generation ended, fans waited a long time for a worthy replacement. Six years later the Toyota GT86 rolled out to the dealers, but it was unable to match the success of the Celica. The seven generations were produced in a total of more than 4.1 million copies, many of which are still on the road.
Images: Toyota, Toyota USA, Toyota Collection