Curbside Classic: 1980 Toyota Celica Supra Mark 1

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

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!

The 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.

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.

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.

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

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Getacargetacheck Getacargetacheck on Feb 01, 2012

    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.

  • Toyktdlgh Toyktdlgh on Jan 21, 2016

    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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