About the second week after beginning my Lemony Snicket-like series of unfortunate events called a career at Primedia (and I use the term "career" very loosely), one of our old-school sales guys, Yamz, kept talking about a project "Seal-i-ka" he was working on. Muddled, I just nodded blankly, pretending to know what he was talking about. And from repeated conversations with me sitting there uncomfortably while putting on an Emmy award-winning performance as a good, but very tacit listener, I managed to glean a few morsels of information. One, this top secret project was a vehicle of some sort. Two, this enigmatic car had a Buick Grand National motor, presumably making it very fast. Three, Googling the word "Sealika" brought up three results, none of which have anything to do with cars. Brain-storming like Katrina, I came up with an ingenuous idea to get to the bottom of this "Sealika" business. I just had to wait for Yamz to talk about the project again."Hey, what'd you do this weekend, Yamz?""I worked on my "Sealika" this weekend...""Hey, speaking of your "Sealika," why don't you bring a picture of it tomorrow, I'd like to see how it looks."Genius! Brilliant! Now all I had to do was wait the 24 or so hours and I'd be in on the Sealika scheme.
The first thing I noticed about Yamz' pictures was, despite the turbocharged GN motor, it was obviously not a domestic. American muscle tends to reek of steroid-filled brawn and this smelled nothing like a stank-ass 24 Hour Fitness locker room. If anything, it had the floral essence of a sakura petal with a sharp kick of wasabi. It was definitely Japanese and it looked buff. A peek at the logo seared into the bumper and I had my Kaiser Soze moment: This phantom was no Sealika, it was a Celica-as in the Toyota Celica.
Bestowed with a newfound appreciation for the old school Seal-, er, Celica, and automotive secrecy, the make slowly dissolved out of my alcohol-impaired brain until my inaugural trip out to the Tokyo Auto Salon more than a year later. Stumbling about the halls of the Makuhari Messe during one of my many lost in translation moments I found Top Secret's booth, where parked next to their V-12 Supra (last month's cover star), was this pristine white beauty.
Co-owned by Top Secret superstar Kazuhiko Nagata, aka "Smoky" for his susceptibility for swelling burnouts, and Taka Ichikawa, Top Secret Director of Int'l Operations, they rescued the rotting '75 Celica a year prior from a junkyard. For slightly more than a roundtrip flight to Japan they adopted the same car both had fallen in love with in their teens. "When I turned 19 (legal driving age in Japan), my first car was this Celica, and ever since then I always wanted to build one," explains Taka. And with the forces of Top Secret on tap, build they did.
Equipped with a decaying 18RG, Smoky and his team of bandits' first task was to overhaul the 2.0L motor and tranny. Once running, a typical mod list consisting of a Top Secret exhaust, oil pan, LSD and shift kit combined with ORC clutch, Blitz spark plugs and wires were bolted on to free up a few ponies. But to find the real James Bond-level top secret stuff you have to go on the intake side. Long gone is the pre-Internet-era carburetor and in its place stands an individual throttle bodied fuel injection system complete with a HKS F-Con and very hush-hush ECU combination, all custom Top Secret.
Continuing the dot-com motif, white 15x8 RAYS Gram Lights shod in Bridgestone 01Rs add some new school flava to the old school car. However, unlike Top Secret's wild Wangan war wagons or drag strip destroyers, the classic Celica was built for street duty, i.e. flossin', so the modifications to the chassis were kept light. Top Secret suspension in the form of coilovers shrinks ugly wheel gap by 5cm and the ballerific Brembos with Top Secret pads and lines add both status and stopping power to the Celica.
The interior was also made to be streetable. No crazy rollcage, custom dash or stripped interior here. Instead, the panels were replaced, restored and reupholstered to look as stock as possible. The few upgrades made were tactfully done: a Top Secret steering wheel and shift knob, Bride seats and fabric replacing the aged factory counterparts. Some of the cabin electronics made the digital leap, with a Defi control unit and gauges pumping out engine parameters and a full Pioneer system pumping out tunes.
The real beauty of the 30-plus year-old car, however, is the car itself. Although Japan is the Land of the Rising Sun, it's also one of intense humidity-and closet pervness, but that's neither here nor there. Take time and multiply it with oxidation and you get the Joan Rivers effect: a haggard shrew requiring thousands in restoration work just to look normal. Lucky for Smoky and Taka, two kilometers away was Top Secret II, their personal cosmetic clinic for the automotive elderly. White scrubs and purple stethoscopes aside, there the chassis was reworked, cut, face-lifted and collagen injected with a Smoky-designed body kit, and painted the signature Top Secret white.
A generation older than Yamz' Toyota, the Top Secret Celica managed to sparkle in an Auto Salon ocean of JDM newness-a nominal paradox considering the proverbial lid blew off this secret the moment the gates of the Makuhari Messe opened.
Owner Kazuhiko "Smoky" Nagata and Taka Ichikawa
Hometown Chiba, Japan
Daily Grind Smokin' it up
Under the Hood overhauled 18RG; Top Secret fuel injection system, individual throttle bodies, fuel injection, intake manifold, exhaust, oil pan; Blitz spark plugs, spark plug wires
Drivetrain Top Secret LSD, shift kit; ORC clutch
Brains HKS F-Con
Stiff Stuff Top Secret coilovers
Rollers 15x8J RAYS Engineering Gram Lights; 185/55R15 (front) 195/55R15 (rear) Bridgestone 01Rs
Stoppers Brembo calipers; Top Secret brake pads, brake lines
Outside Top Secret body kit, white Top Secret II paint
Inside Top Secret steering wheel, shift knob; Bride Strada seats, upholstery; Defi gauges (oil, pressure), control unit
Ice Pioneer head unit, amplifiers, speakers, wiring
Props Thanks to my entire shop staff, ORC, Yashio Factory, Takata, Blitz, HKS, Bride