We do requests on Eighties Cars, whether or not they are definitive ones. A friend of mine mentioned his 1981 Celica in one of the forums I frequent, and that was enough inspiration for me.
“The Ultimate Toyota.”
1981 was the final model year for the second-generation Toyota Celica, which had debuted in 1978. Despite this, there were some significant changes, including a new engine.
The Celica’s new engine for 1981 was the 22R 97 bhp 2.4 liter/144 ci inline four with a two-barrel carburetor. Paired with a five-speed manual transmission, fuel economy was an impressive 25 city/37 highway by the standards of the day (22/34 by today’s standards). Choosing the optional four-speed automatic transmission dropped ratings slightly to 25 city/35 highway (22/32 by 2018 standards). With a curb weight of a little over 2,400 pounds, 0-60 times were in the mid nine-second range—respectable for 1981.
The Celica Sport Coupe was available in ST and GT trim levels. Standard exterior and mechanical equipment on the Celica ST ($6,699 or about $19,900 in today’s dollars) included electronic ignition, power front disc/rear drum brakes, and 185/70R14 steel-belted radial tires (a size still readily available) on 14-inch wheels. Inside, reclining front bucket seats, “cut pile wall-to-wall carpeting,” and an FM radio were included.
Moving up to the GT ($7,429 or about $22,100 in 2018 dollars) added features such as tungsten halogen high beams, styled steel wheels, dual outside mirrors, a dressed-up instrument panel and console, a locking gas cap, and an AM/FM/MPX stereo with four speakers.
Optional equipment included air conditioning, a sunroof, and power steering. Aluminum alloy wheels, a rear window defogger, and cruise control were GT only options.
Celicas of this generation sometimes come up for sale in Hemmings Motor News and eBay Motors, but there were none for sale when I updated this post in July 2021. In August 2020, Bring a Trailer sold a Silver 1981 Celica GT with gray plaid bucket seats for $5,700.
Updated July 2021. In June 2020, Autopolis published a typically thoughtful post on the second-generation Celicas.
6 thoughts on “1981 Toyota Celica Sport Coupe”
I am that friend. 🙂
My 1981, which I bought in 1984 as a lowish mile used car (38k), was listed as a GT, but I found out later was actually an ST. Considering the deal, I wasn’t all that upset…
The asking price of the Celica was $7499 (remember, USED!), but they offered me a princely sum of $2100 for my worn out 1976 AMC Pacer! At least $1200 over book.
My 81 coupe had:
* Steel Wheels
* AM/FM and Cassette
* Rear defrost
* 5 spd manual transmission
* Trunk mounted luggage rack (used only once on a cold day to bring beer home)
I drove it to Florida (from Delaware) twice. Summers 1985 and 1987. Both times, the average MPG was just around 30. I don’t think these engines were all the efficient once they got past 60 MPH. And even in those days, with my Escort and the nature of Interstate travel, did the traffic do much less than 65 MPH. And by 1987, the Interstates were back up to 65, anyway, IIRC.
In general, it was a reliable car, save a propensity to burn valves… which occurred, like clockwork at about 90k miles. The AC system also proved problematic, and it started to overheat. All about the same time. I think a failed water pump gummed up the radiator and the cooling journals.
I ended up putting a 20R head on it, with a mild street cam and aluminum rockers,an Edelbrock intake, Weber 34/36 2bbl carb and a 4-into-1 “Quick-trip” header with an Anza muffler, and a Beck-Arnley performance clutch. Was it fast? Na… marginally quicker, but it did make all the right noises. I wish I had gotten the Weber drill set so I could have jetted it correctly. That was all then…
The car was in two accidents. On mine, the other not my fault. The 2nd one, my fault, required the entire passenger side to be replaced! I also ended up finding a set of 3rd gen Supra mags for it (still 14″). A fresh coat of red paint and the aforementioned truck rack removed. I wish I had a picture of the finished product…
I sold the car in Oct 1990 for $900.00. I had bought a new car in the summer of 1989 and hoped to finish the hot rod project on the Celica, but simply ran out money. The kid who bought it drove it for about 2 years before selling it. The car apparently died for good in 1994. It was listed with a salvaged title in Indianapolis, IN.
I wouldn’t mind finding another one… preferably the Supra version with the I-6. The added refinement would help a lot.
Thank you, Andy, for this wonderful comment.
I have an 81 Celica GT that I bought in 1984. Still have it, but hardly ever drive it. It is the sedan version, white, 5sp manual, light brown cloth interior, AM-FM, and absolutely no mods, wrecks, rips, tears, etc. It has always been garaged. Stand back 10 feet and it looks like new, but has 188,000 gentle miles on it. It has been very reliable. The air cleaner has never even been completely off and still has the original AC compressor, and yes, the AC blows cold. My wife and I brought one of our kids home from the hospital in it after being born in 1989. In 1986, we were marred and drove it 100 miles to the airport to catch a flight to CA for our honeymoon. On our 25th anniversary, we once again drove the Celica to the same airport to trace our steps 25 years previous. The old Celica has been super reliable, has had hardly any work done to it other than routine maintenance, and the body is even rust free except for a couple of insignificant spots. The paint is as good as ever, but a few door dings spoil a pristine look. I have gotten as much as 36 mpg on it when the speed limit was 55 mph. It has always used 2 qts of oil in 3000 miles, but the oil got changed every 3000 miles (now I go by time). I once heard that Toyota over-built the early Toyotas to build a reputation for reliability and quality. I believe that may be the case cause my old Celica has almost been bullet proof. One of these days I will probably list it on eBay. Hopefully someone will buy it who appreciates it. Too bad Japanese cars are not collectable like Mustangs and Camaros.
Thanks for your comment. I actually think that some of these cars are just starting to become collectible.
I have a 1981 Celica gt full convertible that was built by custom coachworks in california. Ive had this car 30 years now. It was a pale yellow but during a restoration it got new paint, interior and new top. She sits in the garage almost all the time. I replaced the carb and had all kinds of trouble but finally got it sorted out. I took it out today after getting the carb right and it runs like it did 25 years ago. This car will be with me until I die. It is much loved. I was 20 when I got it and now im 50.
Thank you for the comment, James. It’s wonderful that you’ve been able to hold onto your convertible all these years.