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Rare 1981 Toyota Celica Convertible: Coachbuilt in Beverly Hills

Howard is a DIY guy who usually sells a car in better condition than he bought it. He prefers older and foreign cars.

The 1981 Toyota Celica convertible in all its glory.

The 1981 Toyota Celica convertible in all its glory.

The first cars that Toyota Motor Company sold in America did not sell well because they were underpowered; Toyota had misjudged American car buyers. The Japanese were quick learners, however, and kept correcting their mistakes. By the latter 1960s, Japanese cars had developed the reputation for being well-constructed cheap transportation. They were popular among commuters and students.

The Celica That America Loved: The 1970s

Toyota wanted to move upscale into the lucrative and sporty pony car class. In 1970, they introduced the Celica at the Tokyo Auto Show, but it was not introduced in America until 1971. Compared with the Corollas of the 1960s, it had more power, better handling, and stylish pony-car looks. It was a 2-door 2+2 coupe with a short deck—a smaller cousin of the Mustang, Camaro, Barracuda, Challenger, Firebird, Javelin, AMX, Cougar, and other pony cars that had become so popular from American automakers in the late 1960s.

1977 Toyota Celica fastback

1977 Toyota Celica fastback

The Celica sold well, going through minor changes that extended its first generation run through 1977. In its last two years, a fastback model was finally offered in America that earned the nickname of “baby Mustang” for reasons that were obvious to anyone who compared design features of the two cars. The first generation Celicas today have a cult following, with none more coveted than the 1977 fastback.

The Celica That America Ignored: 1978–1981

By 1978, the Celica was ready for a major facelift. The second generation Celica was largely based on the previous drivetrain and suspension, but had entirely new sheetmetal. The handling was slightly improved, but it was heavier, which affected performance. The 22R engine, used in Toyota trucks through the mid-90s, was robust and had good torque, but it lacked horsepower and responsiveness.

Moreover, the Celica had lost its pony-car image. Gone was the slight bulge in the rear fender, so characteristic of pony cars. This body design was never popular, so Toyota quickly moved on to the third generation, introducing it in 1982. The 1978–1981 Celicas were treated as disposable, such that there are fewer of them on the road today than of any other generation of Celica.


Safety Fears Spawned a Niche Market

As Americans became increasingly safety-conscious in the late 1970s and early 1980s, automakers stopped manufacturing convertibles. This opened a niche market for coachbuilders, with at least five companies converting Toyota Celica coupes to produce about 3,000 custom Celica convertibles.

Conversion by American Custom Coachworks in Beverly Hills, California.

Conversion by American Custom Coachworks in Beverly Hills, California.

One of 900 Coachbuilt Convertibles

American Custom Coachworks, Ltd., of Beverly Hills, California, produced approximately 900 full convertibles. A fire at the company several years later destroyed primary sources of historical records. All that remains is secondary sources in period literature and the few example cars that have not been sent to the crusher.

Refurbishing and Racing “the Toy”

I obtained the Toy, as I affectionately refer to this Toyota, from a neighbor. He was the original owner, having bought it new from the dealership. When I got it, it was in sad shape, needing tires, wheels, top, seats, paint and minor body work. At least the engine and drivetrain were in good shape, despite more than 220,000 miles.

Over a period of three or four years, I gradually smoothed out the dings, debadged it, blacked-out the chrome and had it repainted and reupholstered. I upgraded the seats and wheels to mid-80’s Supra (a popular upgrade for these cars), removed the California smog controls and air conditioning (in a convertible?) and chased down all the rattles and squeaks. Apparently, chopping the top off moved the center of gravity far enough forward to throw the brake bias off, so I installed a brake proportioning valve, which makes stopping much safer.

The Toy is now a fun little runabout, especially in fall and spring weather. I also enjoy autocrossing it, which you can see from the pictures here. All of the numbers and sponsorships are on magnetic backing, so ten minutes turns it back into a traffic-stopping errand-runner and daily driver. I never fail to get comments and questions about the Toy. It is surprising how many men who think they know a lot about cars can’t even come close to guessing the country of origin, let alone the make and model! What a hoot!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.