Rare Drop-Top: 1981 Toyota Celica Convertible

While we’ve seen a few examples of the Celica Sunchaser appearing on our desks at Barn Finds over the years, drop-top conversions produced by American Custom Coachworks Ltd are far less common. This is surprising because the company rolled a reasonable number out of their factory. This car presents superbly and would ideally suit a buyer searching for a smaller convertible with a bulletproof drivetrain. It is located in Lakeland, Florida, and has been listed for sale here on eBay. Bidding on the Celica has been pretty subdued and has pushed the price to $5,300. However, this figure remains short of the seller’s reserve.

American Custom Coachworks Ltd was a company located in Beverly Hills, California. The company’s primary focus was producing drop-top and limousine conversions of Cadillacs and Lincolns for motels, resorts, and private buyers. They also turned their hand to other types of conversions, as we find on our feature car. Various sources indicate that they produced 900 examples of the Celica Convertible, and in my opinion, the finished product was a rung above what we’ve seen with the Sunchaser. The American Custom version lacks the integrated roll bar that featured on Sunchaser, which many people feel is cumbersome and clumsy. This Convertible is finished in its original Code 391 Red with a Black soft-top. The overall impression that it makes is positive. The paint holds an impressive shine, while the soft-top looks tight and faultless. The owner doesn’t note any issues with rust, and there are none visible in the supplied photos. One weakness with many cars from this era is the tendency for plastic trim to deteriorate after extended exposure to UV rays. Toyota was ahead of the game on this front, and their offerings tend to survive in better shape than many of their competitors. That is the case with this Celica because the trim and plastic are flawless. The wire basket wheels are a later addition, but they are period-correct for any car produced in the early 1980s.

When we turn our attention to the Celica’s interior, I have to work pretty hard to find anything of which to be critical. It looks like there might be some slight carpet wear under the driver’s feet, but that is one of the few flaws. Someone has swapped out the original radio for a radio/cassette player. Otherwise, this interior is unmolested and in excellent condition for a car of this age. It isn’t an interior that comes loaded with luxury options, but apart from the cassette player, it features the usual wide array of gauges and ice-cold air conditioning. The interior might be spotless, but the shifter poking through the console leads us to what I find to be the most disappointing aspect of this Convertible.

Lifting this Toyota’s hood reveals an engine bay that appears to be virtually factory fresh. It also houses the 2,366cc “22R” four-cylinder engine that is hooked to a 3-speed automatic transmission. It seems that the original owner liked their touches of luxury because they ordered this classic with standard power front disc brakes and optional power steering. That auto is something that disappoints me because the 22R’s modest power output of 97hp can’t be exploited in auto form. It would make the car a breeze in heavy traffic and a competent highway cruiser, but it wouldn’t be a bitumen burner when pointed at the ¼ mile. Leaving that disappointment aside for a moment, it appears that the car is ready to be driven and enjoyed by its next owner. The owner doesn’t indicate any mechanical issues. With a mere 44,508 miles on the clock, this bulletproof drivetrain should have many years of reliable motoring left to offer its next owner.

American Custom Coachworks Ltd operated from 1953 until 2003. Their principal focus was on top-end models like Cadillacs and Lincolns, and at their peak, they rolled around 2,000 cars per year out of their factory. The Celica Convertible was something different for the company, and they eventually built around 900 examples. This 1981 model looks like a real gem and seems to need nothing beyond a new owner seeking a wind in the hair motoring experience. There’s no denying that colder weather is on the horizon, but as sure as night follows day, that will eventually give way to the Summer sun. That is when this Celica would come into its own, so in the best tradition of the Boy Scouts, this could be your opportunity to subscribe to their motto and “be prepared” for when those days arrive.


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  1. Bluetec320 Bluetec320 Member

    It’s a shame that someone turned this into a “Pep Boys Special” with those wheels and that chrome tape (or whatever it is) on the lower doors.

    Like 4
  2. KC John

    Fun little weekend ice cream car if the reserve isn’t crazy. I agree she’d be more fun with a manual transmission. And I gotta say it.. only pretty with top down. One ugly roof.

    Like 11
  3. wjtinfwb

    You don’t see many of these anymore because sawing the roof off a unibody car turns it into a 4-wheel Slinky. The structural rigidity that comes from the roof cannot be replaced with some angle iron welded into the rockers. The car shakes itself apart in normal use. The Griffith conversion used the basket handle as a way to try and tie the car together, as VW and Oldsmobile did with the W-body Cutlass convertible and the Rabbit/Cabrio convertibles. It helps but is nowhere as rigid as the hardtop version. These and the Griffiths also leaked water like a sieve and rusted from the inside out if not stored indoors. In this case, pretty is just skin deep.

    Like 2
  4. Ralph

    Thank you! Most of these and the other convertible conversions are death traps. They have No structural integrity left after the top is chopped off. There is a reason we never see them anymore, they either rusted away as they leaked like a sieve, or were parked by many owners who got the crap scared out of them. Nothing reveals a cars weakness’ faster than an emergency maneuver at speed. Sorry but these are nothing but 3,500 lb paper weights.

    Like 1
  5. Ward William

    If it was a 5 speed and not a slushbox, I’d be all over it like a fat kid on custard.

  6. Stevieg Member

    I had a Chevy Celebrity convertible made by Hess and Eisenhardt. They did a wonderful job strengthening the chassis. There was very minimal body flex. I wish I still had it.
    So it is possible for the engineers at these conversion companies to get it right. That doesn’t mean they all do, but I just gotta assume that they do. Otherwise you would think the cars wouldn’t be allowed to sell. Let’s face it…uncle Sam does keep an eye on us.

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