This Toyota Celica Liftback GT Beautifully Couples Japanese And American Design
Photography by Alex Sobran
The swan song of the Toyota Celica was off key. The last generation of the model is likely to this day one of the most disconnected cars in terms of function and form—dressed like a machine destined for spaceflight or else a part of Speed Racer‘s supporting cast of cars for the Mach 5 to test its gadgets on, the dramatic styling only emphasized its anemic engine that sent what little power was available through the front wheels. The result resembled a kit car someone built to honor a child’s drawing of the Batmobile. Sort of harsh, but not wholly unfounded either, because what better company for an F40-ized Fiero than a naturally-aspirated four-cylinder that pulls a bunch of scoops and wings around by the front wheels? At least the Pontiacs were RWD…
The Celica name doesn’t deserve these kinds of connotations though, and the final iteration is certainly not the one to remember the line by. Going back to the timeline’s early years should provide quick proof of such. While the Celica’s debut form in 1970 was clearly influenced by the high-haunched muscle cars coming from America back then, the arrival in 1973 of the fastback body variant, dubbed the “Celica Liftback,” only went a step further. With a pronounced belt-line that rises over the rear wheel arches, vertical taillight strips, a bulged hood, optional rear glass louvers, C-pillar venting, and round headlights set below the hood’s hang and above a chrome shelf of a bumper, it doesn’t take too much of a squint to see a Mustang Fastback playing dress-up.
At the time, Ford seemingly chose to be flattered rather than infuriated by the Toyota’s styling, raising little to no objections. And it’s understandable as to why that was. To start, there’s the fact of the matter that when the Liftback came to US dealerships for model-year 1976, the kinds of Pony cars echoed in its bodywork had since been replaced in Ford’s model lineup by a new, less brutish version. In response to the oil crisis, Ford decided that the Mustang’s second generation would eschew power for practicality, and so in an amusing turn of events, the Mustang II actually came to embody some of the essence of the Celica. So, Toyota takes design cues from Ford, who in turn adopt a similar focus on practicality and fuel efficiency. It’s likely that very few of those bemoaning the more modern Mustangs’ available inline-four know that the first of the breed to have a one-handed cylinder count is now over forty years old.
Enough about Mustangs though, because this Celica’s owner has crafted a distinct identity for his car thanks to a bevy of well-executed aesthetic and mechanical upgrades. Jeff Yee lived for years with the intention to one day build his ideal vision of the Toyota that he’d taken to decades ago, and after varying degrees of passive and active searching over time, finally landed on what you see here, sort of. It didn’t look this way from the get-go. Aside from wearing the same handsome shade of Chevy blue, Jeff’s journey with the car began with it in a markedly different state. This is not a rotisserie rebuild story of shoe-sized rust holes and multiple restoration shops though, but rather one of an individual who’s taken a perfectly good car and built it to the next level.
The car’s exterior wears the most noticeable of the modifications Jeff’s carried out on his Liftback, where it features the more svelte JDM bumpers on the front and rear in place of the style-killing safety kit worn by US-market cars. You’ll begin noticing a theme very soon, as another impactful visual change comes from the conversion to Japanese market taillights, known as “banana lights” in Celica circles. Though the lenses and bumpers alone are worth nearly as much as an entire US-spec Liftback, the transformative process continued on with an engine swap. It’s important to mention here that the imported Celicas in America only came in “GT” trim level, leaving the most desirable variants to be found in their home country. Not content with the stock inline-four (the single-cam 20R motor that came in US Liftback GTs), Jeff sourced an example of the increasingly rare twin-cam JDM 18R-G to power his build. Replete with twin side-draught Mikuni carburetors fed by stout intake trumpets, the result is a beautiful bay lying in wait underneath the reverse-hinged hood, and a wonderful mix of intake noise to balance out the new exhaust’s heavy breathing.
The 18R-G power plant has not escaped its own set of modifications either. The original 2.0-liter displacement has been bored out to 2.2, and new forged Arias pistons fill out the extra space inside. Rare, original TRD cams have also been sourced for up top, and the after receiving some components from the machinist, Jeff reassembled the hopped-up lump using ARP bolts and studs. The souped motor has also been treated to a correspondent upgrade in its ignition system.
Now fitted with a perfectly period-and-brand-correct drivetrain, Jeff set about making sure it was put to the pavement properly. To achieve the hunkered, planted footprint of his Celica, he’s converted the front suspension into a coilover setup with stiffer Tokico shocks for tighter and more direct input that helps bring the chassis of the car in line with the work done to the engine. The rear drum brakes that came standard have been replaced with more competent discs as well. The final piece of this tastefully tuned Toyota (and the only originally planned change to the car besides a light bit of lowering), is the attention-grabbing, but not -hogging, set of deep dish multi-piece wheels. Each fender is filled out by a 15×7.5-inch SSR Reverse Mesh wheel, and though installing upsized wheels on vintage cars can be a risky visual gambit, these suit the car well. Mesh designs from the likes of SSR and Hayashi go hand in hand with classic Japanese cars, and while that’s true here as well, the deep lips are particularly helpful in hinting at this Celica’s beefed-up mechanics.
After waiting first for the right car and then for the right pieces to fall into place, Jeff Yee’s patience has paid off, and the full package is a testament to the benefits of thoughtful modifications, to being patient, and to the too-often overlooked Toyota Celica.