Rare 1981 Toyota Celica Convertible: Coachbuilt in Beverly Hills

5 stars for 1981 Toyota Celica showroom custom convertible

Toyota’s reputation for disposable utilitarian transportation

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

The Celica that America loved—the 1970’s

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 1960’s, 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 1960’s.

1977 Toyota Celica fastback
1977 Toyota Celica fastback | Source

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.

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Author autocrossing at Texas Motor Speedway in his 1981 Toyota Celica convertible.
Author autocrossing at Texas Motor Speedway in his 1981 Toyota Celica convertible.
Author autocrossing at Texas Motor Speedway in his 1981 Toyota Celica convertible. | Source
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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 was robust and had good torque—used in Toyota trucks through the mid-90’s—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!

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Comments 20 comments

Princessa profile image

Princessa 5 years ago from France

What a great "toy" to have, I can imagine how good it felt to restore it.

Thanks for sharing one of your passions!


rmcrayne profile image

rmcrayne 5 years ago from San Antonio Texas

Nothing like a great toy! I'm so glad you did a car hub!!


Website Examiner 5 years ago

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to review this hub, and for commenting on the review. I did comment back just now, even though I read your comment at the time; an oversight on my part. Great article here! W.E.


Howard S. profile image

Howard S. 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas, and Asia Author

Thanks WE. Since you reviewed the original hub--just last week--I shortened it by moving the middle section to a new hub, Why Toyota Convertibles Were Custom-Built in the Late 1970's and Early 1980's http://hubpages.com/autos/Convertibles-Custom-Buil...


Larry Fetner 5 years ago

Howard, do you have more pictures?

I am currently restoring a 1980 convertible myself done by Grandeur motors out of FLA, I have added a 79' Supra rear end to give it 4-wheel disc, a Supra dash, the 85' rims, and seats from the same 79' Supra, its an original yellow car, and I also found a front spoiler (NOS) and the rear tail panel that goes between the tail lights, I HOPE to have it painted and on the road by the end of the summer. I also buy and sell parts for these as you know they are HARD to find, if you need something check out my store!

Looking forward to seeing some better pics!


Larry Fetner 5 years ago

the link did not come thru my "store" is

at

LUVBLONZ.Webstore.com


Howard S. profile image

Howard S. 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas, and Asia Author

Larry, the link is there now, but probably didn't appear until I approved the comment, and I haven't been paying attention for the past week or two while selling my Lexus SC400, etc.

I mentioned the Grandeur in my other article, Why Toyota Convertibles Were Custom-Built in the Late 1970's and Early 1980's http://hubpages.com/hub/Convertibles-Custom-Built-...

The photos of my article on how to dye auto carpet are from the Toy, but not what you're looking for. I intend to set up a website for it one of these days. At the moment, though, I'm trying to find time to work on my low-mileage 1984 Supra, all original, but beginning to need attention. Right now I need a radio surround because somebody tore mine up trying to steal the radio a while back.

You mentioned the PP. Do you happen to have the special air dam and spoiler that came with? Parts for the convertibles are hard to find, but parts for the standard coupes and hatchbacks are plentiful in salvage yards here. No offense intended, but your prices seem a bit high, especially for the smaller hardware. But it's a matter of supply and demand for those who want what you have.

I think the only specialty parts I have that I stripped off are the aluminum lower body cladding and two American Custom Coachworks emblems. I'm about to get rid of them one way or another so I've got room to work in the garage. I've also got about 8 P-type rims. I run L-type (not pictured) without center caps on the street and P-type when racing. I've also got a new thicker Addco rear sway bar and links that I would like to sell--still in the box.

Thanks for your comments.


Larry 5 years ago

Hi Howard, I am glad you have plentiful parts, on the EAST coast (at least for me) we have nearly nothing...or I can't seem to find anything that is not rusted or stripped to the bare bones. I wish I could find some good stuff, items on your side of the world might be cheap and plentiful, but just shipping them costs a small fortune, like a trunk lid!!! so yes, some of the prices are a little high, but since I have 2 Celicas and 1 Supra, I am not in a hurry to get rid of anything I could possibly need! hahaha

I just purchased a nice 1981 Sunchaser, 85K miles, white with blue interior, that I would love to find some extra parts for, like the griffith latches for the top, so if you see or know of spare parts for these, lmk, I'd like a set of the interior lights on the B pillars, and probably a decent spare targa to just "have"!

and would love to come across some NOS sway bars and racing springs for this and my 1980 Supra.

and yes I did pull the front spoiler off (on my Supra now) and I sold the rear spoiler, and lastly the remainder of the car.

good luck!!


Larry 5 years ago

OH,

lmk what you want for the addco bar (if its a rear one)

or front even, I might get it if the price is right! hahaha

ttys

Larry


Howard S. profile image

Howard S. 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas, and Asia Author

@Larry Fetner: It isn't clear to me whether I can contact you personally through your website. Email me (upper right under my photo) and we discuss the anti-roll bars. It took me a few days to get around to digging up the pricing, specs, etc., but I'm ready now.


tlail 5 years ago

I have a Cal. Coach converted 81 Celica. I am interested in any original badges you might have and not need or want. I, also have a 1981 Celica Sedan I'm thinking of parting out. I live in Va. if anyone's looking for parts the car has no rust, glass intact all original; motor has no compression. :-(


Howard S. profile image

Howard S. 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas, and Asia Author

I have all of the original parts that I removed when "updating" the car. I'll email you about the badges.

A truly rust-free car of that year is very unusual. If that's the case, and depending on the condition of the interior, I suggest you replace or rebuild the motor. It could be worth more that way.


James 5 years ago

I have a turbo manifold, downpipes, feedtubes, and most of everything else to turbocharge a 22r. If you are interested I will sell the whole setup cheap.

Ps. I have a 1981 celica done by ACC too


Howard S. profile image

Howard S. 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas, and Asia Author

James: Please email me (link at upper right) details, price, location, what's missing for turbo, whether it's from the truck or aftermarket. Photos might help, too.

What is the condition of your 1981 Celica convertible conversion? Just curious.


Larry 5 years ago

sorry Howard, this page does not email when a reply is sent, and I check it every so often, by email is gus_28212@yahoo.com if you want to contact me or you can look me up on facebook, I have a website for 2nd Gen CElicas,

but for now its been mostly about the convertibles!

if you or anyone wants to join....

its www.facebook.com/groups/183373338401459/

talk to you later!

Larry


Howard S. profile image

Howard S. 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas, and Asia Author

This car is now for sale because I'm moving and won't have a garage anymore.

http://www.ebay.com/itm/201040079464


Vickie Bragg 2 years ago

Thank you Howard for this article. We have a 1981 Toyota full conversion with 177,000 miles. Runs great but needs a new top and seals. Can you recommend a place to purchase these?


Denise 22 months ago

Thank you for this article. I own one of the 900 full convertibles produced by American Custom Coachworks, Ltd., of Beverly Hills, California. My 1981 Toy has only 76,000 miles. My father purchased the car when my sister and I were teenagers and I was fortunate enough to inherit it. I am, however, looking to sell my Toy and am needing to gather information on how to go about pricing and selling it. Do you have any information you might share?


Howard S. profile image

Howard S. 18 months ago from Dallas, Texas, and Asia Author

Denise, contact gus_28212@yahoo.com for pricing advice and membership in a Facebook group where you could advertise it.

I sold mine last year for $1500, though it was worth about $5000. I was moving and simply ran out of time to find the right buyer. There are a limited number of people who can garage an inexpensive convertible and drive something else on rainy days.


Carol 17 months ago

I purchased my 1981 Toyota Celica Convertible in 1992. It still looks great and runs great. It is white with a blue interior. I wonder how may of the 900 convertibles produced by American Custom Coachworks, Ltd. of Beverly Hills, California are still around and running.

Thank you Howard for the information in your article.

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