By on December 14, 2009

a Supra-long nosed Celica

Toyota’s Supra had a rather linear evolution, unlike the Datsun/Nissan Z-car, which lost its way and re-invented itself how many times? Starting out as a soft-sporty coupe with a lazy six borrowed from Toyota’s sedans, it became distinctly sportier and harder-edged with each of its four generations. The final iteration, the turbocharged Supra gen4, has become the stuff of legends and tuners, as in this recent TTAC review. We’re going to take a look at the first three generations this week, so things may start off a little slow, but should be moving pretty quickly by Friday’s wild-looking yellow gen3. Stay tuned!

110 horses under that long hood

CC 8 003 800The Supra started life in 1978 as the Celica XX, a JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) only model, by grafting a 5″ XXL-long front end extension to the Celica, and dropping the venerable 2.0 liter SOHC M-EU inline six. The M series goes back to 1965, and had powered a variety of Toyota sedans, like the Crown and Corona Mk II. In 1979, the renamed Celica Supra appeared on our shores to take up the battle with Nissan’s softified Z car, and Detroit’s emasculated pony cars. The US version came with the larger 2.6 version of the M engine, shared with the Cressida. Despite Toyota’s first application of EFI (Electronic Fuel Injection), it made no more than the JDM 2.0, all of 110 hp.

I tried to find some contemporary reviews of the gen1 Supra on the web, but they’ve all disappeared. I never drove one of these Supras, but my memory tells me that the reviews generally questioned the value of the substantial price increase over the lighter and nimbler four-cylinder Celica. The Supra was a smooth freeway flyer, and most of them came loaded with the automatic, AC, etc. which only added to the front-end mass and dulled its modest sporty ambitions further.

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I do have a major soft spot for the un-Supra Celica of this generation, and we’ll take a close look at both the liftback and the coupe versions of them soon. It was a brilliant and clean design; a true standout of its day. But the Supra’s supra-sized nose, and its other distinguishing trim only messes up a balanced and clean design. I resented the gen1 Supra for that, and the fact that it  brought nothing even remotely ambitious along with the name and price.

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For its final year in 1981, the six was enlarged to 2.8 liters with 116 hp. A Sports Performance Package also became an available option, including sport suspension, raised white letter tires, and front and rear spoilers. The extra six ponies and the SPP hardly turned the Supra into a racer, but it clearly hinted at the direction it was heading in its next incarnation. We’ll take a look at the first step up on Wednesday.

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And thanks to getacargetacheck, here’s a vintage Supra ad:

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40 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1980 Toyota Celica Supra Mark 1...”

  • avatar

    I’ve always wanted a gen-2 Supra. Still the best for combining traditional Japanese aesthetics with eye appeal. First gen, not so much.

    I’m also not sure the third-gen was sportier than the second. So I’d actually make a case that the Supra alternates with each generation. Meaning that the next one will be a soft cruiser.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree; the third-gen Supra was faster, and had more sophisticated hardware (double wishbones instead of struts and semi-trailing arms, for instance), but it was definitely pitched as a cruiser, not a sports car. At least in the U.S. — in Japan, they may have positioned it more as a sporty model, since the JDM had the Soarer, which was a posher version of the same platform.

    • 0 avatar

      The Mk2 was completely forgiving and predictable.  I loved everything about the one I owned but the body was slowly disintegrating when I got rid of it a decade ago. On the other hand, for something decades old that had seen 300,000 km it still drove like it was brand new and never* broke down.
      I drove a Mk1 for a bit and was disappointed, but it was obviously not intended to be a sports car nor was it outfitted like one inside.
      I found a bunch of car reviews on the net years ago in PDF form for the Mk2 and Mk3.  They loved the Mk2 and were a bit more than dissapointed with the heft and sloppiness of the Mk3.  The Mk3 also wasn’t that much faster until they bolted a turbo to it and destroyed the engines reliability (and added even more weight).
      *I am hard on alternators.

  • avatar
    John Holt

    That’s one ungainly proportioned vehicle.

    • 0 avatar

      Ungainly?  No worse than an early Mustang or the Pontiac Grand Prix in it’s first generation.  That was my first thought seeing it from a side profile; “Hey it’s a Japanese mash up of muscle car and personal luxury coupe.”  Look at that “Supra” badge, it’s almost as classic as those damn Monte Carlo knight+shield badges. 

    • 0 avatar

      The photos here, especially the front 3q and rear 3q, exaggerate its proportions — it’s not that bad, especially when you compare it to some of the design atrocities of the time.

  • avatar

    Very nice condition this one. I came across a similar one but in a nicer colour –

  • avatar

    The contemporary automotive press was extremely critical of the first-gen Supra, calling it about as sporty as the average Buick. It wasn’t a big seller here, largely because it was more expensive than the Celica.
    Interesting note: the Celica on which this was based was one of the first production Toyotas designed by Calty in the U.S.

  • avatar

    Been waiting for a CC on these.  A dog-poo brown ’78 (non-Supra) Celica was my first car back in ’84.  A really fun car, I used to manually shift the three-speed auto all the time, you know, because it was cool.  I also shorted out the entire electrical system trying to install stereo speakers in the back seat.  Put a 3 inch screw right through the wiring harness.  My dad was pissed. 

  • avatar

    I agree with you, Mr. Niedermeyer, the first Supra really made a mess of the Celica’s lines, but as a kid the name really worked on me. I loved the Celica, and when I saw the first Supra, I just knew it had to be impressive. I mean, there was the already awesome Celica, but this one was a Supra, which sounded like “super”, which meant it had to be doubly awesome! The fact that it was slightly more rare than the Celica upon which it was based did not escape my young, car loving mind. A sweet Celica that was super and rare, how could it not be cool? Sometimes being older and more wise really puts a damper on things.

  • avatar

    A friend of the family owned one of these while I was growing up.

    I can remember that Celica’s amazingly high reliability being a frequent topic of conversation.  Its ability to soldier on year after year on North Country (WAY upstate New York) roads was so superior to all other cars we and our friends owned that the car achieved legendary status.

    I can remember speculation that the Toyota must have been a miraculously good car.
    Looking back now I figure it was just a typical Toyota, years ahead of the competition on reliability.

  • avatar

    I love the second photo

  • avatar

    I had about 1/2 dozen friends with these in high school, one being a Supra.  Man that car was dog slow, was nice to drive and great on the highway.

  • avatar

    The side profile reminds me a lot of the Jenson Interceptor. Not that I think either the Supra or the Interceptor were great looking cars but I don’t find either offensive either.

  • avatar

    i really liked occasionally road tripping in these in my college years. very comfy quiet cruizer that was a lot more civilized than the corollas that were standard issue for college students in those years. this was the era of toyota legendary reliability.

  • avatar

    I’d forgotten how many cars back in the 80s were done as hatches.  Actually, it looks more than a little like a shrunken 2-door Rover SD-1.  Of course, not many of those made it over here, and that would have demolised the Supra, if it felt like working that day (which is why you see a lot more Toyotas than Rovers).

  • avatar

    Let us remember this Supra in light of the times. In the late ’70s most cars handled like POS with a too soft suspension. The lines of the Supra were gorgeous in comparison to GM X cars. Also, as stated above, Jensen evoked similar geometry. The nose of the Celica was stretched to accomodate the 6 cylinder and while noticeable, was OK. The car had a much more substantial feel to it than the 4 cylinder Celicas, which were already legendary in durability. The 6 cylinder Supra, before it metamorphosized into a more sporty vehicle, brought in a whole new group of customers, formerly American car purchasers, who were looking for a bigger, V6 equipped car, with that heavier feel. It was also an excuse to get a Toyota without looking like you were cheaping out on a new car purchase. I drove one then and was favorably impressed. Judged by standards of the ’70s, a great effort and a new direction for inroads into Detroit’s customer base. Even today, I think the styling holds up well. Before you comment. lets think how your ’09 dream mobile will look in 2039.

    • 0 avatar

      “gasser” wrote: “…purchasers, who were looking for a bigger, V6 equipped car…”
      Ya think? Too bad for them, then, ‘coz that wasn’t what they got, now was it?
      Hint: Had it been a V, they wouldn’t have needed to stretch the bonnet.

  • avatar

    Can’t wait for the Liftback CC Paul! 
    While it was my first car, the reason it came to be mine in the first place is that my uncle, even thought he took maticulous care of it, thought that at 120k and its brake master cylinder dying, the car wasn’t “trustworthy”. Instead he started driving my grandma’s Citation. Which blew it’s engine at roughly the same mileage. So the Celica sat in a garage for years until my parents made an offer of $500 for it. The rest is industructable Toyota history.

    Glad to see not everyone’s 80’s yota is disintigrating. Mine has a few furry guests due to it being parked in a pasture but I drove it thought the winter last year and other than it’s hose clamps & duct tape repair quirks, it’s still fun.

    BTW, how did the supra owner keep those wheels so shiny?

  • avatar

    I might be the only reader of TTAC that actually had experience with this car when it was new.  My father purchased a brand new 5-speed Mk1 in the fall of 1979.  To properly judge this car you need to remember what was available at the time.  Aside from the also new for 1979 280ZX there weren’t any other reliable, well-built cars you could buy for $10,000 (a lot in those days) that had electronic multiport fuel injection and a stick shift.  Yes, the handling would not compare favorably today, but it easily outhandled anything from Detroit.  Oh did I mention it had a 5-speed just like the Europeans (the Americans still mostly offered 4-spds)?  Aluminum alloy wheels were available as was cruise control and a sunroof.  Power windows were standard along with a very comfortable corded velour upholstery (much nicer than the 1980 stuff shown but not as durable).  This car was about comfort with decent handling.  Niedermeyer makes light of the straight six, but I can attest that it felt much more powerful than any 20R Celica 4-cylinder.  And, as importantly, it was smooooooooth.  And not growly like a Celica 4-cylinder.  There were plenty of reasons to buy this car over the Celica if you had the cash.  The Supra, like our Cressida, was extremely reliable too.  Alternators and water pumps seemed to need replacement at around 75,000 miles.  Rust eventually became a problem around the sunroof.  The blacked out anodized paint below the hatchback window eventually peeled off our car.  Looks like they may have solved that problem by 1980 if the car in the photo is any indication.  Ateupwithmotor is correct about the Mark I being designed by CALTY.  Many of the designers were former GM designers (I remember reading) as you can see some influence from the old Chevy Monza hatchback.  Here’s a rare commercial of the Mark I: 

      Regarding the Mark III which I also owned, you can see from this commercial that Toyota definitely pitched the car more as a sophisticated GT, not a “cruiser:” 

    Overall, the Mark I was an excellent car.  I wish Toyota would create a new one more like it than the boy-racer but faster Mark IV.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Thanks for your comments and the commercial. I’m going to embed that in the article. I wasn’t that harsh, was I? I’m a purist about design, and I would have felt better about the gen1 Supra if it actually improved on the Celica’s design. Realistically, that wasn’t possible. But its virtues as a highly reliable cruiser are undeniable.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    I remember when these were new.  Thought they were good looking then and I guess I still do.  The car in these photos looks like it has held up very well through the years.

  • avatar

    What I remember about the Supra, it wasn’t inexpensive. Fully loaded it could sticker for over  $9K. I got a 1980 Z28 for $8200.

    • 0 avatar

      I recall a contemporary review of either Gen I or Gen II in one of the major rags (R&T or C&D) and if I’m not mistaken, the cover proclaimed “A $10,000 Japanese Car!!!!!”….
      My how things have changed.

  • avatar

    The guy downstairs had one of these. It’s all about the times. No, it wasn’t a rocket, but the engine was smooth, build quality was making the Toyota legend and when he fired it up the dash made you think you were in Akihabara town. Full fibre optic backlights, multiple instruments, bright, colourful and made any American dash look sick.

    I remember many a time he would rush to get his keys to show a newbie the interior display. No drives, just the light show. It’s funny now but back then, it impressed the hell out of a lot of people.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Somebody mentioned the Chevy Monza/Pontiac Sunbird/Buick Skyhawk/Olds Sunfire….compared to those, in EVERY waythe Celica and the Supra were a decade or more ahead…, yes, these were CLASSICS of the time.

    I also liked the Corolla Liftback of the same vintage.  That is when Toyota made their bones… they seem to be resting on their laurels….

    Also, Paul….if you can find an early Maza 626….of the same era.  Another example of Great Nipponese design…

  • avatar

    Shortest comment ever: Want.

  • avatar

    I am so happy to be living in this day and age, in terms of cars anyway. Sure, there are some truly beautiful cars from the past, and they stand out. But the normal, everyday cars that people drove were SOOOO UGLY. It’s nice to know that companies have finally seemed to understand that style sells. If your car is ass-ugly (Pontiac Aztec), no one is going to buy it. I pity the people who had to decide between this old Supra and an old Z…

  • avatar

    My friend had a new Gen1; I had a Gen1 Scirocco.  We traded for a day.  Thank God we didn’t trade for keeps.

  • avatar

    Wow………talk about coincidences!  I saw one of these earlier today for the first time in 10 years driving through an intersection I was stopped at.  It was in beautiful shape, and was an attractive burgundy color.  I couldn’t help but stare at it as it passed by ( in the snowbelt, these cars are a rarity ).
    I remember liking these cars when they came out, but I secretly desired the Gen II.  Could never have bought one back then, as my dad ( a UAW man ) would’ve kicked me out of the house.
    Looking forward to the next write-up.

  • avatar

    I owned a 1981 Supra from new. For three years all it needed were oil changes. I never went back to American cars. I wish I still had it.

  • avatar

    I had a new in 1980 Supra.
    The first Supra I ever drove was the one I rented from Hertz in San Francisco and that experience sold me in the car. Not to mention I also liked the styling that set it apart from the standard Celica.
    Coming from a 1977  Chevy Malibu I found the Supra to be a fairly hot automobile. With the fuel injected six that kind of made it high tec in an era when most cars were still struggling with carburetors and their associated emission controls.
    My Supra was burgundy with the tan leather interior and fully loaded with every option available that year. This was the first car I owned that had a sunroof and that alone in Southern California  made the car a dream to drive.
    Only needed oil changes in the period of time I owned it.
    If I could find another Supra in good condition like the one I had I would buy it in a minute.
    Thanks’ for the memories, Paul

  • avatar
    Jack Baruth

    The first-gen Supra features heavily in Updike’s third Rabbit novel, <i>Rabbit Is Rich</i>.
    I’m a fan of these cars: they are distinctly Japanese in the same way that modern Toyotas tend to be distinctly miserable.

  • avatar

    My 2nd year college roommate had one of these. I drove it often and remember it as a very fun, very affordable, very reliable little GT car. The interior was excellent for the era (hi has leather) and the performance, while nowhere near today’s range, was impressive compared to its peers.

  • avatar

    Paul, here’s one of the articles on the Mark I I’ve been looking for: “Supra versus Supra” (by Tony Swan when he was at Motor Trend) which compares the Mark I and Mark II. I can’t find the other one from Car & Driver in 1981: “Regal versus Supra.” The Regal was probably the Mark I’s natural competitor.

  • avatar

    I know the last post here was 4 years ago but i felt i should say something about the MK1 Supra. Having owned both the Celica and Supra variant of this body style i feel i have a unique perspective to offer. I drove an 81 Celica in High School and loved that car. It had the 22R 4 cylinder in it but it got me around just fine. I was always taken back a bit with hits proportions as i felt the front was a bit stubby. That didn’t stop me from buying a red 1980 when i saw one come available. Years later after the Celicas were long gone, i decided i wanted the Supra variant as it offered a bit more refinement. I wanted the power windows, multi-port fuel injected 6 cylinder motor and other additions that came with the Supra. It’s true the Supra won’t win any races in its stock format but it’s a great driver with plenty of pull to get you down the road. The elongated hood was one of the main reasons i wanted this car. I thought it looked better proportionally. I can see that aesthetics are a truly subjective thing. I have my 1980 set up with MK2 wheels and fatter tires to even out its looks. I also have rear and side louvers and the addition of a front air-dam. If the car isn’t all that fast is sure looks fast standing still. In conclusion the MK1 Supra is an undervalued car. It’s a great driver that can be modified with the larger MK2 motor for some better performance. It’s going to be a sought after car someday. There aren’t many left driving our roads.

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