The (first) time I borrowed Giancarlo's 1988 Celica.
By Sean Gallagher
Is Giancarlo Casimiro's "Panda Celica".
On Friday, July 25, I had needed a car for the day to drive a friend to San Diego, and Gian was one of the only friends who I was close enough to try asking. Thankfully, he agreed. Well, by that Wednesday, my friend no longer needed a ride, but Gian, having no use for the car that day, decided to let me borrow it anyway.
Panda is a 1988 Toyota Celica GT hatchback, with a 3SFE engine from a Camry swapped in, custom intake, Ground Control coilovers, Eibach springs, a gutted interior, an excessively loud exhaust system, and the most daunting part - a 5-speed stick.
It was bought sometime last year for $1600, and most of the modifications were done, somewhat unprofessionally, by the previous owner.
I had only really driven stick twice before, and never very smoothly, but this weekend I was going to be driving this car, alone, for almost two whole days. And neither Gian nor I are the type of guy who can afford new parts, so God forbid I break anything.
Yet here I was, sitting in this machine alone, having almost stalled three times on the way to drop Gian back at his house.
I stalled pulling away from his house. I stalled again, at least twice, trying to slowly maneuver the car into the narrow track of the $5 car wash without lurching forward at risk of completely destroying the front left suspension. But within the first 10 minutes, I had figured it out, and by noontime I was driving, in my opinion, like a pro. Gian's opinion, when he picked me up, was "much better, but still could be improved". Whatever. He's not a pro himself, and my skills were doing both me and the car just fine, even in heavy LA/OC traffic.
The trick, I learned, was that you have to pause a bit when the clutch catches, then modulate the throttle to take off smoothly. I had always been told just to "let the clutch out slowly while applying throttle", which I assumed meant to let it out at a steady, constant rate. Whether I'm a bad listener or I just never had a great teacher isn't all too clear, but in the end, I can drive stick now.
I won't bore you guys, most of whom probably already know how to heel-toe and rev match, with any more details, but with my nearly two days spent in the Celica, I know enough about it to write a review.
So, what's it like driving an obnoxiously loud, lowered, Initial D Trueno-impersonating Celica?
Not the most practical thing in the world.
But ridiculously fun.
Full disclosure: a friend of mine wanted me to fill his gas tank so badly that he nearly insisted I borrow his car, even when I ended up not needing it anymore. Being myself and addicted to anything with a wheel and pedals, I couldn't resist.
The '88 Celica itself is nothing special. Even in the sportier GT trim, it looks relatively unassuming today. High-profile tires, an almost generic '80s wedge shape, a stubby nose - in fact, in my personal opinion it may be one of the lowest points of the Celica, in terms of design. I love the 80s, and admittedly it may be just bias from knowing it's FWD, but I'd rate this generation Celica maybe a 5 or 6/10. It looks more exciting than a commuter car from the same time period, but only slightly.
However, add some panda makeup, some coilovers, a Yakima roof rack that I've never seen in use, a coffee can-sized tailpipe, some headlights which are stuck open, a JDM hood prop, and some metallic gray XXR 002s poking out, (all the previous owner's work) and you get a much more aggressive appearance. In fact, Gian's Celica is pretty close to perfect in my taste. Maybe different wheels and less offset, a smaller tailpipe and a front lip.
Also of note is the electric tape sad face that the previous owner placed over a ding in the passenger's side front fender. Always makes me smile.
Nevertheless, if you look through the paint and wheels, the boring 80s FWD car is still apparent. While it may trick some dumber people into thinking it's an AE86, Gian and I both know that it's really just a FWD Celica.
Ah, the interior… This car's interior really had no redeeming factors. Not a single one. The previous owner gutted it and removed all of the sound deadening, carpeting, interior panels, and back seats, and the stock steering wheel has been replaced with a cheapo rubber thing that bends when you pull on it. Worryingly, there is no horn, and I do miss the stereo control buttons on the Mazda3 wheel I'm most used to. A huge subwoofer sits where the trunk should be, but no one has yet been able to figure out the wiring (which runs from the battery out the hood, into the driver's door, and along the car's interior to the subwoofer). Perhaps most baffling, the stock front seats have been replaced with a pair from some kind of '90s Civic, which sit way too high and have almost no bolstering whatsoever. I had to sit slouched down in the seat just to see properly out of the car. The wing mirrors don't seem to be adjustable at all, and while the passenger's side provided an okay view, the driver's side was angled down so the horizon was barely visible, but the car had a JDM mirror (the kind that stretches across the whole windshield with several sections), which was disorienting at first but definitely made up for the wing mirrors. Also, the pillars, unlike modern cars, were quite thin and provided great visibility. The windows and locks are all manual, which, as the car is a 2-door, isn't that bad,
Get some decent seats, and that interior score just may be bumped up to a 3!
That being said, once you figure out how to see out of the thing, the car is a joy to drive. Throttle response is immediate and direct, and the little power the car produces is delivered with no hesitation. Toyota's valve timing means that the throttle seems to really open up around 3000 rpm, and while it might not pull hard, it does pull decently until redline. Honestly, I'm not sure if it's faster than the Mazda3 (stock, 2.3, automatic) I daily drove or not. My guess is that it's a little slower, but due to the stick shift, the exhaust noise, and the lack of insulation, it feels faster.
I did not brake hard in the car. The brakes were adequate for normal driving. But I did notice them squeal a few times. Actually, I'm not even sure if the car has four wheel discs or not. But obviously, new brake pads are in order.
Gian had mentioned that the car needed new shocks, but I never believed him. Who knew that a car this low could bounce around so much? The first thing I thought after I figured out how to launch smoothly and could no longer blame myself for the car's jerking and bucking was, "this car definitely needs new shocks". That being said, the ride was actually a lot smoother than I expected from a lowered car. I guess not all suspensions are rock-hard. Or maybe the crappy Civic seats were just too soft for me to notice.
The car had a power steering leak, but was light enough that I could still turn it with one hand. It was slightly out of alignment, and the way the suspension was set up made it feel kind of… weird, but overall steering was very communicative, and I could feel every bump and groove in the road through the steering wheel. Just the way a car should be. Sadly, I didn't get to hit any canyons. Next time!
The clutch recently went out, which means that it is still relatively new. Once I figured out how to modulate it, shifting was a joy. The third to fourth gear snick was always especially satisfying, and gear placement felt natural. I only misshifted once, from 5th to 2nd instead of 4th, and the transmission handled it fine. The one problem was that reverse would get downright scary, with the whole car shaking if the clutch was let out the wrong way. Probably partially my fault, but Gian knew that reverse was a problem.
Honestly, the car's detachable aftermarket stereo has an aux jack, a USB connection which works with my iPhone, radio, and a CD player, which is more than I need (I'd be happy with just an aux jack). In addition, Gian's fixed the previous owner's botched push-button start mod, which was hidden behind a speaker cover and hanging from wires, so that it's now built into the dashboard. Push-button start - a surefire way to make you feel like you're driving an exotic car. There's also cool '80s things, such as a key which won't come out of the ignition without pressing a button on the dashboard first. However, besides the cheap stereo, there's really nothing else. Sadly, the headlight motors are broken, so no playing with those. No GPS, no Bluetooth connection, no car phone. But do we really need any of those? Driving is about feeling a connection to the car and road… Besides, everyone nowadays has smartphones. Who even buys GPS units anymore?
But the car itself, with its loud, brash appearance, is its own toy. Other cars revved their engines at me. At least one cop followed me. Just a few blocks later, a 370Z raced me for a mile down PCH in Long Beach before pulling onto the 710 (I lost all 3 stoplight drag races terribly). With a car like this, people notice, for better or for worse, and you will always be more aware of yourself and your surroundings.
As mentioned before, the subwoofer is dead weight for now. The remaining speakers can definitely be adequately loud, but the bass-deprived audio coming from them sounds laughably weak. Ice Cube saying "Hello" sounded almost feminine.
That being said, the exhaust system sounds surprisingly good. It doesn't sound cheap or trashy or like a lawnmower. When the throttle opens up, it even has a nice throaty sound. It is way too loud, but the car almost sounds like it's not running when coasting in neutral. Windows up, windows down - not much difference. It may be a little too much, but overall I love the ridiculous exhaust note.
Gian bought the car, if I remember correctly, for $1600. Maybe $1900. Possibly $1200, but I don't think it was that cheap. Either way, that's almost the cheapest you can get for a running car, and for one this cool? Good deal to me. Even with all of the previous owner's carelessness. Even with the annoying Civic seats. Even with the few hundred dollars spent so far in repair and maintenance.
Long live cheap '80s sports coupes.