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1977 Toyota Celica - History Redefined

Do You Know Import Tuner Roots? Get Set For A Lesson You'll Never Forget

Greg Yamamoto
Oct 18, 2007 SHARE
130_0710_02_z+1977_toyota_celica+rear_view Photo 1/10   |   1977 Toyota Celica - History Redefined

Before off-the-shelf speed parts, the Honda craze of the late '80s and early '90s, and before there was anything remotely termed "JDM," there existed a small group of third generation (Sansei) Japanese-Americans living within the Los Angeles area. These JAs embraced the hot-rod culture, albeit with a twist, and were the forefathers for the import movement. They built Mazda RX-3s, Datsun 510s, Capris, and yes, Toyota Celicas (before they went wrong-wheel drive). They attended get-togethers and carnivals like Nisei Week in Downtown LA or OCBC in Orange County, and car clubs like Paradise Creations, Street Wave, and Shoreline ruled the streets. They built everything, from good ol' American iron to some really fast "imports." Everything our scene is today can be traced back to these guys.

Brian Karasawa is one of these pioneers. Growing up in Long Beach, Brian was introduced to the car culture by his older cousins who built muscle cars. However, by the time he was old enough to drive, he and his friends' interests had turned to something a little different; they wanted to do what was hot in Japan. Crazy racing teams in the motherland were making power with Corollas, RX-3s and Skylines! Back in the day, hot-rodding Japanese "econo boxes" was unheard of in the U.S., but these guys wanted something with their own identity. Something that would be "underground" before underground would ever be considered cool, and fixed up in a way that reflected a mixture of American hot rod and Japanese "aji" (flavor).

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Brian immediately caught the bug with his first car, a '77 RA24 Celica coupe. Since he was a student on a tight budget, and because bolt-on parts were not available, he made the most of his car. He cut the springs, welded on a too-loud exhaust, slapped on some 13x7 Hayashi Command 700s and headed for the local street races, cruises, or hot house parties. Over the years, he and his club, Shoreline Racing, gained recognition as having some of the fastest cars. Like most car clubs of that era, they were hassled by the cops for the cars they drove (sound familiar?), but overall enjoyed the car culture they created without even knowing it.

Fast forward to the present, where Brian caught the bug again and, once again, heard the calling to build. He knew he would never touch a newer Honda or Nissan; instead, he wanted something that had soul and reminded him of his roots-something that represented the epitome of what it meant to have a JA-style car in the '80s. Call this an era project, a car not meant to have coilover suspension or a fuel-injected engine, or even power steering. Not one to toss parts out, Brian rummaged through old boxes he had in storage and found that he still had a set of 44mm sidedraft Mikuni carbs, a 20R Mikuni manifold, a TRD (read: Doug Thorley) header, a 4.3 rear end and a brand new Tilton flywheel. The game, as they say, was on. After hearing a rumor that a friend of a friend had an "old Toyota" sitting in the backyard, Brian drove out and saw a diamond in the rough: a '77 liftback in bad need of restoration and customization. Undeterred, Brian set out on what would later become nothing less than a labor of love.

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After yanking the engine and doing his own body prep work, Brian sent the chassis to Kono's Autobody & Paint in Bellflower, where Brian Kono removed the rust, replaced entire panels, smoothed/shaved/filled the body, and laid down the House of Kolor Sunset Pearl paint. Meanwhile, Brian and his buddy Ken Takenaka began the buildup of a 20R/22R hybrid. This was an excellent way to make more power back in the day, and you did this by taking a 22R block and mating it to a 20R head for its flow characteristics. Brian sent the head out to Rich Kemph Cylinder Heads in San Pedro, where they ported, polished, and installed custom swirled valves, a custom rocker assembly, and ARP studs. Having the head off was the perfect excuse for Brian and Ken to bore the old short block out to 92mm, install Arias pistons (11 to 1 compression) and have the crank balanced. Once the head was returned and mated to the block, Brian installed an Isky 288/480 cam, the dual 44 Mikuni sidedrafts, his Tilton flywheel, a Toyota truck clutch and the infamous "Tri-Y" TRD header.

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Once the chassis was safely at home, Brian dropped the power plant in and set out to recreate the '80s look. The easy-to-find items, like five-panel Wink mirror, paint-matched Vitaloni Tornado side mirrors, amber sidemarkers, and Tom's corner lenses, were bolted in place and the painful task of finding era-correct parts began-ultimately a chore in itself. Koji and Terry Yamaguchi of the Japanese Classic Car Show were instrumental in hooking Brian up with the "smiley" bumpers and other crazed enthusiasts, like Restored.jp for the "Banana" taillights (Inata-san, in a selfless act, gave them to him for the cost of shipping), and Joji Luz from ToyGarage.com. The old-school enthusiasts at Cabe Toyota also helped out in tracking down miscellaneous hard-to-find parts like weather-stripping and miscellaneous moldings (these guys know their stuff). The entire interior is era correct with a simple setup of Formuling France steering wheel and completely restored carpet, headliner, panels, and seats done by Wahl's Upholstery in Los Alamitos. No crazy 20-something gauges, no flip-up DVD navigation, and no fiberglass molded dashboard here. The last touches were to cut the coils (yes, CUT the coils), bolt on refinished Hayashi Racing Command 500's (14x7) wrapped in Toyo Proxes rubber, and have an exhaust system made to look like they did in the '80s. A Magnaflow muffler with simple "pencil" tip was welded up and installed.

When we saw the completed project at this last Toyotafest in Long Beach we were completely impressed and felt like teenagers scoping out a ride from our glory days (More your days than mine -Rik). This car is perfect in its re-creation of an era, of its trueness to the JA style, and a testament to the builder's vision.

Fast Facts
'77 Toyota Corolla
Owner Brian Karasawa
Hometown Cypress, Ca
Daily Grind Technical Accountant
Power Est. 170 Hp
Under The Hood 22R Block; 92mm Arias pistons, balanced crank; 20R head by Rich Kemph Cylinder Heads, port, polish, swirled valves, 288/480 Isky cam, custom rocker assembly; Mikuni/Solex 44mm sidedraft carbs, manifold; TRD header, custom Magnaflow exhaust.
Drivetrain Tilton flywheel, Toyota Truck clutch with 4:37 geared rear end.
Brains It's carbureted!
Stiff Stuff Cut coils, Tokico shocks, Addco front and rear sway bars.
Rollers 14x7 Hayashi Racing Command 500 wheels; 195/50R15 Toyo Proxes T1Rs front and rear
Outside House of Kolor Sunset Pearl paint, shaved moldings, Japanese "Banana" taillights, amber sidemarkers, Tom's corner lenses, blacked-out window trim.
Inside Factory-restored seats, door panels, trim panels, headliner, and carpet; Formuling France steering wheel.
Props My wife for putting up with my project; Wes Tanaka, Mike Foertch, and Mike Bingham at Cabe Toyota; Koji and Terry Yamaguchi from JCCS; Ken Takenaka and Glenn Nakatani for their muscle; David Kayano for the use of his trucks; Koichiro Kanda for helping translate English to Japanese and vice versa; Troy Sumitomo from Five Axis and Tim Mochizuki from Toyota for their technical support; Bryan Kono from Kono's Autobody & Paint; Rene Cardenas from Wahl's Upholstery; Joji Luz from Toy Garage; Rich Kemph from Rich Kemph Cylinder Heads; Inata-san from Restored.jp; David Wong from Sleeka Spares in Australia; and the Toyota Owners and Restorers Club (TORC) for getting me into this money pit.
Connect cabeperformance.com; japaneseclassiccarshow.com; restored.jp; shorelineracing.com; toygarage.com; toyotaclub.org

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By Greg Yamamoto
6 Articles

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