20/05/2024 10:41 PM

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This LS-Swapped Toyota Celica Is Delicious Sacrilege

From Road & Track

Torrance, California is a place where Toyota used to be, and now isn’t. The company’s North American headquarters were based in Torrance from 1967 until 2016, when they were moved to Plano, Texas. The buildings are still there, but the signage is down, reduced to a few ghosted remnants that still read “Toyota,” when the light hits just right.

Kevin Huth’s 1973 Celica is also a place where Toyota used to be, and now isn’t, at least if you’re the sort who feels the engine is the defining identifier of a car brand. Huth, with fabrication help from Jesse Henke at JH Customs and sponsorship from automotive aftermarket parts manufacturer Edelbrock, took a stock Celica and made it into a retro-inspired racer with a modern American heart. Which is funny, ‘cause Huth and Henke are Canadian.

Never mind, I’m tying strings together here, where were we? Ah yes, Torrance. The old Toyota headquarters, coincidentally around the corner from Edelbrock R&D where the Celica was stationed for its tour of PR duty, seemed like a good first stop on a test drive of this little lemon drop. Would the building collapse in outrage as I dumped the clutch and spun the tires in their bolt-on flares? Was that a little shiver in the asphalt as I revved up the 5.7-liter Chevy V-8 past 19001 S. Western Ave., or just the 500 rowdy ponies jostling for space in the Celica’s tiny engine bay?

Photo credit: Rusty Shackleford

Ah yes, the LS swap, a decision that is boring on paper and giggle-till-you-barf good on pavement. For what it’s worth to you purists, Huth originally wanted to put a Lexus V-8 in the Celica for its Toyota family ties. Then he had a conversation with some of the guys at Edelbrock, guys who were also interested in jamming a modern V-8 in a classic Japanese car, but who had a much longer list of parts that would fit an LS than a 1UZ. A set of CNC heads, a cam, a cross-ram intake, fuel rails, injectors, throttle bodies, ECU, harness, and a round of 3D engine-bay scanning later, and the Celica was Chevy-powered. Just that easy. Let’s get back to giggle-barfing.

Photo credit: Rusty Shackleford

The Celica is fun from the second you see it. It’s yellow, the light, creamy yellow of a proper Key Lime pie, sliced across the middle with the red and orange stripes of an Ivan Stewart trophy truck. More graphics ping-pong across the hood, including a Seventies-appropriate Edelbrock logo that repeats across the rear quarters. Originally it was going to say “Toyota,” but sponsorship comes with obligations. “I don’t mind it though,” says Huth. “At least Edelbrock has a good logo!” He also isn’t tied to it, because while the patina on the yellow body is real, the weathered stripes and lettering were done with an oil-soluble paint that can be removed with solvent when the time comes that Huth no longer wants to be quite so flashy. Not that the car is exactly under-the-radar even without the graphics. It would still have those wide, bronze American Racing wheels, wrapped in whatever Toyo rubber is left on them after this little burnout machine stops spinning—and the flares, and the spoiler with its Gurney flap. And of course, the interior, so plaid and bright that a Seventies uncle in his proudest sport coat would be camouflaged completely in the seat. All you’d see would be a mustache.

Photo credit: Rusty Shackleford

It would be a tight fit for your uncle, were he a big man. When I picked up the car from Edelbrock, the tech told me I’d have to back it out myself, as he couldn’t fit his feet on the pedals unless he took his shoes off. As someone who normally has to bring a pillow to sit on when driving manual cars, I had room to spare, but my poor photographer had to roll down the window to make room for his shoulder. Huth says the tight squeeze was necessary to make space for the engine, which required moving the whole firewall back 2.5 inches, fabricating a new transmission tunnel, and bringing the pedal and steering wheel towards the back of the car. When it comes to a choice between room for engine and room for passengers, you gotta have your priorities in order.

Photo credit: Rusty Shackleford

Assuming you can fit, once in the driver’s seat you’ll be facing a stock style, leather-wrapped dash with modernized gauges by Dakota Digital. The color-matched, yellow-faced tachometer is particularly charming. Things get very race car to the right of the driver, with a billet shifter—relay-style, because the increased length of the Nissan six-speed transmission would put a conventional shifter way back on the tunnel behind the driver, which is an inconvenient place to put a shifter. The shift ball is drilled out for lightness and looks very cool and after a few hours of driving around in California’s sun and traffic it’s like grabbing a heated cheese grater so again, priorities. If the exposed linkages and speed holes aren’t racy enough for you, next to the shifter is a tall drift-inspired hydraulic handbrake, handle wrapped in hockey stick tape, because, y’know, Canada. This car really is an international effort.

The real work to the car is what you can’t see. You get hints of it when you open the hood and see the blue-topped LS with its sprawling fenderwall headers, but Huth says that was all an enjoyable challenge, made easier by modern technology. “The process was pretty fun. I got the car in January and by March I had it completely stripped down to just a rolling shell. We pulled the suspension out and 3D-scanned the engine and all the suspension points, so we could make a cross member and build the front suspension and make sure that motor would fit without killing too much room in the cabin.” He says he doesn’t know why more shops don’t make use of 3D scanning, which, when paired with computer modeling programs and a 3D printer, can make it a breeze to mock up custom parts and then have the final pieces laser cut and ready to weld.

Henke agrees that the 3D scanning cut months off the build time, although he points out that no amount of computer brainpower can make up for human mistakes. “We had a pretty good planning session ahead of time, but we never really did plan for where the exhaust was going to go. So when the time came, we just looked at it, and looked at each other, and said, ‘The headers are coming out the side. It’s going to be such a pain in the ass, but man it’s going to look sweet.'” And it does.

Photo credit: Rusty Shackleford

A big concern with putting a big engine in a small car, and moving all the steering linkages about, is ending up with something that handles like a pig. Again, thanks to 3D scanning, Henke’s team was able to design a custom suspension that corrected for all the changes in weight and angles. It’s based off the muscle car designs by aftermarket suspension company Detroit Speed, scaled down for the smaller Celica. Combined with a disc brake setup from Wilwood, the only piggish things about it are the little snorts of the engine on downshifts, and maybe the fuel economy. JH thought of that too though, and added a larger fuel cell in the trunk. I didn’t get to see that, because the trunk lock is busted out, an uncharacteristic flaw on a car where even the rear window cranks have been redone. “Oh, you noticed that?” said Huth when I asked him. “Oh, right, that,” said Henke. Turns out, in the hustle and bustle of unloading the car for its 2019 SEMA show debut in the Edelbrock booth, someone locked the keys in the trunk. The only set of keys. “We were in the middle of everything drilling out the lock while all these show cars had to go around us to load in,” said Henke. “It was pretty funny.”

Photo credit: Rusty Shackleford

Replacing the lock is on Huth’s list of small upgrades once he gets the car back to Canada. In the meantime though, it’s all mine, and I’m going to do my best to leave stripes all around the former Toyota headquarters. Consider it reclaimed.

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