1979 Toyota Celica LT - Reader Resto

By: Brandon James with Guy Allen, Photography by: Mark Bean, Tegan McCaw

Presented by

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It took a lot of determination to find the right car, but it was worth the trouble says owner Brandon James

 

1979 Toyota Celica LT Resto

This story goes back a fair way, to when I was a kid living in Coffs Harbour. There was a local who owned a yellow Celica, just like this one, and I fell in love with it – it was my dream car. As I turned 16 and was starting to think about getting a licence, I approached the owner to see if he would sell it to me, but he refused. He was going to hang on to it.

Move on some years and I finally get to buy a yellow Celica, the one you see here. It didn’t happen instantly. I was fussy about what I wanted – it had to be a fairly original yellow car with chrome bars and it took from 2008 to 2011 to find what I wanted.

There are two variants of this shape and there aren’t a lot of them around. The first had the chrome bars and went from 1977 to 1979, while the second had square headlights and plastic bars.

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Finally this one appeared in the paper. I rang and the owner who gave me a run-down, promising to send me some pictures and more details. I started to give an email address and he stopped me – he was posting them!

It was worth the wait, the car had only two owners, both mature age, and the second had really only stored it for the previous six years, paying the rego and occasionally taking it for a drive. With just 64,000km, it had full service records, all the books and original keys, and it was easy to track its history back to day one. We struck a deal.

I was a university student at the time, so I used it as daily transport for four years.

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By the end of that time I was contemplating what to do with the Celica. It was starting to get 35-36 years old, with minor rust around back window and petrol cap, and it had some mechanical issues going on. Should I sell it, or go the opposite end of the spectrum and restore it? I was convinced to sell the car. Luckily my partner gave me a kick up the bum, saying if you sell it you won’t get another, and you’ll regret it. We’d both read magazine stories about how people regret selling.

So we decided to strip back to a bare shell and restore it to its former glory, a process that would take eight to 12 months.

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Something that proved really important was I’d started to collect parts when I saw them here and there. We managed to do the whole car in genuine new-old stock, with the exception of a couple of parts we had to make. The NOS pieces included tail lights, grille and headlight surrounds, and were often very difficult to find. A lot of it came out of Japan or USA. In Japan we relied a lot on Yahoo auctions, while Ebay was a major source in the states. Social media was also invaluable – Toymods car club on Facebook is terrific for Toyota owners.

In the end we completely stripped the car, had it repainted through a friend, and slowly rebuilt and furbished it. There really was very little rust – just some pinholes in the areas I mentioned earlier. The engine and transmission, which even now only have less than 140,000km on them, were fine and just needed a freshen-up. I did take the opportunity to fit extractors and a nice exhaust, plus we lowered it just a little on a set of King springs.

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There were a couple of road blocks in the project, with really minor parts. For example we couldn’t get replacement of repro indicator lenses. In the end we found someone near Brisbane – Classic Plastic – who could take our old lenses and use them as a pattern for new ones. It was a great result.

Sourcing rear quarter-window rubbers turned out to be another drama. After months of searching, we found someone in Thailand who was interested in making them, if we could prove there was demand out there for them. My partner Tegan started a Facebook page which took off and we were able to prove the numbers. It was a cat and mouse game for a while, but we eventually got to the point where they produced a prototype set to try out. The proved to be a little too long and, eventually, we managed to get the correct part made – probably for the first time since the car was first built!

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We gave the interior a cosmetic restoration. Fortunately the previous owners took incredibly good care of it. The original cloth on the seats – which is in a colour scheme I call a ‘jersey caramel’ – was in good shape. The plastics were in good condition but the colour was faded, so we repainted them by hand. It was a laborious process where we used a wax and grease remover, a flex primer, then repainting them with a custom-mixed aerosol. There was a bit of trial and error getting the colour right, which we took off the underside of the plastics, where they were less faded.

I went to local upholsterer Cardiff Trimmers to do the door cards. They’re very specific to car, with a vacuum-formed pattern on them. Can we repro this? Apparently we can, but it wouldn’t be as good as the factory item. The issue was the cards were mostly okay, but there were small splits on the upper edges where the sun had got to them.

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In the end, they were restored with the use of some vinyl welding and an airbrush to finish off. It seemed to work!

It seems that it’s always the details that cause the most work with projects like this. The quarter window seals are one example, and another is the wheels. Each spoke needed to be polished back and individually masked to get the new finish back in the rims – a huge amount of hours.

There are a couple of stories worth telling about this car, after Tegan and I finished it. We decided to get in touch with the original owner, who was by now in her 80s. She had bought the car as a 40th birthday present to herself, and never quite forgave either herself or her husband for eventually selling it. She was in tears when we visited with the freshly-restored Celica, and shared some fantastic photos of the day she picked it up from the dealer.

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Remember that first car I saw in Coffs Harbour, the one I tried to buy all those years back? Well we caught up with Peter the owner – he still had it – and got the two Celicas together. Would you believe they are sequential production numbers?

The thing I love the most is not only how nostalgic it is for me and my partner but also the joy that it brings to others. I love hearing the stories and seeing the looks on people’s faces when we cruise down the road. It isn’t simply a unique and retro car but also a lifestyle and an amazing hobby which has bought some amazing new people into our lives who were a great help in supplying parts, particularly my mate Vinnie Fitzy in Brisbane.

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Of course we’ve developed a taste for it. I did once contemplate ‘hot-rodding’ this car with a twin-cam engine and some other mods, but resisted the impulse. We have since taken possession of a rare twin-cam GT, which was rescued moments before it was to be fed to a crusher. That project is underway and we’ll let you know when it’s done… .

 

PICK A CARD

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A bit of vinyl welding made them as good as new.

NIGHT MOVES

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When did you last see such detail in headlight surrounds?

LABOUR OF LOVE

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More pre-paint prepping.

DOORS GALORE

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Rubbed and ready for their fresh coat of yellow.

LIKE A NEW ONE

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The paint job brightened the old Celica.

IN DEMAND

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Tegan fits ‘her’ new quarter window rubbers.

 

1979 Toyota Celica LT Specs

BODY 2-door coupe
ENGINE 2.0 litre SOHC four
POWER & TORQUE 72kW, 143Nm
TRANSMISSION three-speed, auto
SUSPENSION Front – McPherson struts with anti-roll bar
REAR – Live axle, four links with coils
BRAKES discs (f)/drum (r)
PRODUCTION 17,320

 

 

VOTE FOR OUR READER RESTO OF THE YEAR

Vote for Brandon's Celica in the Unique Cars Reader Resto of the Year and you could win one of five $100 Visa gift cards.

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