Custom-Built Toyota Celica Convertibles of the 1970s and 1980s

Updated on January 16, 2019
Howard S. profile image

Howard has been an online writer for several years. His articles often focus on the care and restoration of older cars.

Safety Fears Killed Convertibles

Throughout the 1970s, Americans were becoming more safety conscious and were demanding higher standards from the NHTSB. Beautiful chrome bumpers gave way to ugly black rubber-coated foam-filled “railroad ties.” Hood ornaments, side-view mirrors and anything else that might conceivably impale a pedestrian had to be redesigned with that possibility in mind.

Since convertibles have less inherent structural integrity than cars with a solid roof, they came under fire from safety experts. No automaker wanted to invest millions in design and tooling for a car that might be unmarketable when built, so convertibles quickly disappeared from the list of available models, the last American offering being the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado.

American Custom Coachworks, Ltd., produced Toyota convertibles from 1979-1981 Celica coupes in Beverly Hills, California.
American Custom Coachworks, Ltd., produced Toyota convertibles from 1979-1981 Celica coupes in Beverly Hills, California.

Coachbuilders Brought Convertibles Back

Entrepreneurial small business has always found a niche where large businesses can’t be cost-effective. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, numerous coachbuilders in America stepped in to meet the steady but small demand for convertibles. Sometimes they did a one-off Cadillac, Mercedes, or Ferrari for an idiosyncratic individual.

Other times they bought cars in small quantities from the manufacturer, converted them to convertibles and delivered them to be sold in the automaker’s new car showrooms. Many of these were conversions of Japanese cars.

Toyota Celica Convertibles

No car model was more popular to convert during this time period than the second-generation Celica. This is unusual because the second-generation Celica was far less popular than either the first- or third-generation Celicas. It may be that it was relatively easy to convert, from an engineering perspective. Or it might be that Toyota was offering attractive terms.

A small handful of Celicas were converted by the California Coach Co. (1981), Sparlingco (1981) and Grandeur Motor Corp. (1979–1981), the last one producing two-seaters. The two companies that produced them in quantity were Griffith and American Custom Coachworks. Both of them sold their conversions through Toyota new-car showrooms.

Sunchasers have a roll-bar and targa top.
Sunchasers have a roll-bar and targa top. | Source

The Griffith Sunchaser: A Targa-Top

The Griffith Company produced approximately 2000 Sunchasers from the 1980–1981 Celicas, a large enough quantity to be listed in some used car guides. These cars are distinctive because of their targa-top. Replacement soft tops for the rear portion are available from aftermarket suppliers. Sunchaser owners and cars for sale can be located online without much difficulty. There is at least one website that gives a tremendous amount of historical background, although the site has not been maintained for several years.

American Custom Coachworks: A Full Convertible

American Custom Coachworks, of Beverly Hills, California, produced approximately 900 full convertibles. These are 4-seaters, retaining the back seat, and do not have a targa-top or integrated roll bar. A fire at the company destroyed the primary historical records on these cars; all that remains are secondary sources in period literature and the few example cars that have not been sent to the crusher.

Finding a Celica Convertible to Buy

At any given point in time there is usually a small handful of cars offered for sale. Most will be in relatively poor condition, often offered as parts cars for a few hundred dollars. Daily drivers in good condition can fetch $2,000–$5,000. They can be located through internet searches: Google-search "1981 Celica convertible" or "Sunchaser." In popular terminology, the label Sunchaser has come to be used for any second-generation Celica that is topless, whether produced by Griffith, American Custom Coachworks, or the local chop shop, so you will have to sort through the listings to determine which is which.


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    • Howard S. profile imageAUTHOR

      Howard S. 

      7 years ago from Dallas, Texas, and Asia

      Since we're in the process of moving and will have no garage, my convertible is currently for sale. It's an interesting car to see, but not for everyone to own.

    • marion langley profile image

      marion langley 

      7 years ago from The Study

      The celica has always been my favorite sports the lines! I knew they made convertibles for awile but, other than the occasional sighting, I knew little else. Now I'm eager to do a Sunchaser Image Search on Goodle. Thanks for posting...maybe there's one in my future.

    • LeisureLife profile image


      9 years ago from USA

      Yes, everyone should own at least one convertible !

      Nice hub and thanks for sharing!

    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 

      9 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Great hub brings back memories, although I agree that convertibles are less safe than hard tops, the feeling of "freedom" when driving one is quite exhilarating.


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