Toyota Celica Convertibles Custom-Built in the 1970’s–1980’s
Safety fears killed convertibles
Throughout the 1970’s, 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.
Coachbuilders brought them back
Coachbuilders resuscitated convertibles
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 and there is an obscure, but active forum thread dedicated to Japanese convertible conversions from this era.
Toyota Celica convertibles (besides MR2 & S2000)
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. But there were two companies that produced them in any notable quantity, Griffith and American Custom Coachworks. Both of them sold their conversions through Toyota new-car showrooms.
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, and 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 and integrated roll bar. A fire at the company several years later destroyed primary sources of historical records. All that remains are secondary sources in period literature and the few example cars that have not been sent to the crusher.
Finding one 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.