Cel­ica GT

This old skool Lexus V8 turbo’d Cel­ica was built in Amer­ica but re­fined in the UK.

Fast Car - - CONTENTS - Words: Joe Par­tridge Pho­tog­ra­phy: Matt Richard­son

Ja­panese car man­u­fac­tur­ers were pur­su­ing quite an ob­vi­ous strat­egy in the early 1970s. With the in­ten­tion of break­ing into the North Amer­i­can mar­ket (and thereby open­ing the door to other global op­por­tu­ni­ties), they had a bit of re­think among their var­i­ous de­sign studios and hit upon an in­ge­nious line of think­ing. Amer­i­can buy­ers were no­to­ri­ously pa­tri­otic, at a time when Detroit was hys­ter­i­cally pro­lific. So if Ja­panese brands were to con­vince Amer­i­can con­sumers to buy their cars, they needed to de­sign them to look a bit more Amer­i­can. And it kinda worked – take the first­gen­er­a­tion Toy­ota Cel­ica, for ex­am­ple. Here was a car which took the proven Ca­rina sedan plat­form, and clothed it in a body that was clearly crib­bing from the Ford Mus­tang’s lec­ture notes. The lift­back model, which ar­rived in 1973 for the Ja­panese mar­ket and ’74 else­where, was par­tic­u­larly shame­less: it stole the ver­ti­cal-bar tail­lights, the C-pil­lar lou­vres, the up-and-at-’em pro­por­tions… but all shrunken down to Ja­panese di­men­sions. In­stead of a hulk­ing V8 un­der the bon­net, Toy­ota of­fered a range of buzzy lit­tle four-pots. It’s a minia­turised bon­sai in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the full-fat mus­cle car for­mula.

Toy­ota was aim­ing to poach US con­sumers with Amer­i­can­ised styling, but what Amer­i­cans re­ally love is V8 en­gines. So that’s what this one has. It is, in essence, the ul­ti­mate Cel­ica lift­back.


All of this be­gan as the brain­child of an Illi­nois­based en­thu­si­ast by the name of Mike Ges­selle.

Back in 2013, he’d spot­ted the shell rot­ting away in a field, and had dragged the non-run­ner out for the princely sum of $1,000. The plan from the start was to shove a V8 in it, but he had quite an oblique solution to ap­ply here: while an era-ap­pro­pri­ate no­tion might have been to stick a 1970s Ford V8 in there, Mike wanted mod­ern re­li­a­bil­ity and, more im­por­tantly, mas­sive, mas­sive horse­power. So he de­cided to go Ja­panese, as be­fits a hair-rais­ing Toy­ota build. He bought him­self a 1997 Lexus SC400, hoiked out the 4.0-litre 1UZ-FE mo­tor and all the wiring, and spent the next cou­ple of years fig­ur­ing out how to make it all work hap­pily in the old-school Cel­ica. A mod­ern man­ual gear­box was drafted in, work­ing with a cus­tom prop back to a nar­rowed Ford axle (com­plete with LSD), hang­ing off a gor­geous one-off bil­let 4-link setup with Pan­hard rod. Oh yes, and there’s the small mat­ter of the turbo… the en­gine runs a Turbo Tech­nics snail with Tur­bosmart waste­gate, to turn that ben­teight from cruiser to bruiser. With that all hooked up neatly, he then spent a year per­fect­ing the body­work and get­ting it to a state where it was as much about the show as the go. The car be­came quite well-known on the State­side show cir­cuit as a re­lent­less tro­phy win­ner, and Mike put around 9,000 miles on it on the road as well as smash­ing in some 11-sec­ond quar­ters on the strip. The Cel­ica had ful­filled its Amer­i­can dream.

How­ever, as is so of­ten the case, the project needed to be moved on in or­der to make garage space for the next big thing. Mike ended up sell­ing the car to a young guy who im­ported it to Eng­land. Un­for­tu­nately the project proved to be a lit­tle too much for this eager buyer, as the list of jobs that still needed do­ing and ele­ments which re­quired re­fresh­ing meant that he was a lit­tle out of his depth, and so he ended up putting it up for sale on an auc­tion site. Be­ing such a niche propo­si­tion, it was tough to find a buyer, and the car lan­guished in the clas­si­fieds for a while, the price low­ered and low­ered again… at which point Trevor Cow­ell si­dles into our story. Here was a man built of the right stuff to take the Cel­ica for­ward. As boss-man at TJ Mo­tors in Sur­rey, his skills are as­sured, and his cre­den­tials are im­pec­ca­ble: “I’ve been mod­i­fy­ing and play­ing with cars my whole life,” he smiles. “I have a col­lec­tion of clas­sic Amer­i­can cars, in­clud­ing a 900bhp su­per­charged Ca­maro and a tricked-out 1970 Pon­tiac GTO Judge. Why did I fancy a Cel­ica this time? Well, I’d al­ways liked the shape.”

The seller had brought the V8 Cel­ica to TJ Mo­tors to see if he could get it run­ning right, and Trevor liked what he saw. Cu­rios­ity got the bet­ter of him and he started dig­ging deeper through the car – and the more he looked, the more ex­cited he grew. The over­all qual­ity of the work was im­pres­sive, and de­tails like the bil­let 4-link and be­spoke bil­let in­ter­cooler were works of art. He sim­ply couldn’t re­sist mak­ing an of­fer. And just like that, a new chap­ter in the car’s story be­gan.

“There were a lot of de­tails I thought could be im­proved upon,” he re­calls. “This started with low­er­ing the rear and rais­ing the front, di­alling out lots of neg­a­tive cam­ber, and re­mov­ing the wheel spac­ers for a more clas­sic look. I also fit­ted a cou­ple of muf­flers to the 3.5-inch ex­haust sys­tem as it was way too loud!


The mod­ern af­ter­mar­ket steer­ing wheel was re­placed with a wood-rim item for a more retro vibe, with the col­umn raised to fur­ther im­prove legroom, and Trevor set about cast­ing a wide net to track down the var­i­ous in­te­rior trim pieces that were ab­sent. He also bus­ied him­self rip­ping out all the crumbly old sound dead­en­ing and re­plac­ing it with 21st-cen­tury ma­te­ri­als, and fol­low­ing that there was a lot of wiring to do: var­i­ous things weren’t work­ing prop­erly, in­clud­ing the horn, front side­lights, re­verse lights, in­te­rior lights, wash­ers, and as­sorted warn­ing lamps.

“I have ev­ery­thing work­ing as it should now,” he says. “An­other thing to ad­dress was the fact that there was no hand­brake, so I’ve fit­ted a hy­dro unit to the orig­i­nal lever. And there’s been a ton of lit­tle jobs to keep busy with – sort­ing wa­ter leaks, per­fect­ing and im­prov­ing as I go.”

The most sig­nif­i­cant change Trevor has made is to fit a whole new en­gine. It’s still a Lexus 1UZ-FE, but this one’s an early 1994-spec thick-rod mo­tor, and he’s mated it to a stronger W58 Supra man­ual ’box. The full turbo gear was swapped over, and is joined by AEM wa­ter-meth in­jec­tion – it’s good for 500bhp, which is a hell of a lot of grunt for a car that weighs in around 1,200kg. “This setup should be good for 750bhp one day, when the demons come call­ing,” Trevor grins, some­what scar­ily.

The whole car is a feast of fancy de­tails, with one par­tic­u­lar favourite be­ing the su­per-ob­scure tail­lights. These are as rare as rock­ing horse dung, be­ing JDM units only is­sued from 1973-75 – the previous owner fit­ted these, and Trevor’s tinted them to match the men­ace of the rest of the car. This pro­vides a proper mus­cle car vibe, some­thing neatly ac­cen­tu­ated by the Dodge Viper paint. Of course, the most fun thing about this bon­sai Mus­tang is that most peo­ple have no idea what it is. “No-one seems to have a clue what they’re look­ing at when I’m out and about in it,” he laughs. Al­though Trevor’s do­ing his best to rem­edy this: hav­ing been put in touch with the car’s orig­i­nal builder, Mike, the two are now in reg­u­lar con­tact. Mike had set up a Face­book page for the car – search for ‘GT77’ – and Trevor is now the page ad­min, shar­ing reg­u­lar up­dates and in­for­ma­tion to ed­u­cate a new gen­er­a­tion about this spec­tac­u­lar old-school cu­rio. This Cel­ica is es­sen­tially an am­bas­sador for Toy­ota’s orig­i­nal con­cept: global pro­lif­er­a­tion was the aim and, with a lengthy stint in the States be­ing colour­fully fol­lowed by a new life in the UK, that’s pre­cisely what it’s achieved. A baby mus­cle car with a Ja­panese flavour. ■

“” The full turbo gear was swapped over, and is joined by AEM wa­ter-meth in­jec­tion – it’s good for 500bhp

The Cel­ica sits on 7.5x15in front and 8.5x15in rear Watan­abe wheels

Trevor swapped out the old MR2 seats for low-mounted buck­ets

Lights, cam­era, ac­tion…

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