Steph Papadakis’ 1972 Toyota Celica

steph papadakis 1972 toyota celica
Steph Papadakis’ 1972 Toyota Celica BuildMark Vaughn

If you were around for the rise of The Import Scene in the ‘90s, or if you’re still around for Formula Drift, or if you’ve ever seen any of the 4000 or so Fast and Furious movies, then you know Steph Papadakis. Back in the day, Papadakis was the king of The Import Scene. He and friend Shaun Carlson built a tube-frame Civic that was the first FWD car to get into the 9s in the quarter mile. Later he was first in the 7s, then first in the 6s. In Hondas!

If you chose to believe the legend, he was also the real-world guy upon whom the Vin Diesel character Dom Toretto is based. But he vehemently denies it. Vehemently while laughing. Now, as owner of Papadakis Racing, his drivers have won the Formula Drift championship five times, most recently last year—the last several years with full sponsorship from Toyota.

So it was a little surprising to see him at Newcomb’s Ranch high atop Angeles Crest Highway at the weekly Good Vibrations Breakfast Club, a place with a lot of Porsches. For the hundred or so car enthusiasts who know about GVBC, it’s like church, except it’s held on Friday mornings instead of Sundays. (But just like church, they have donuts!) There at Newcomb’s, amidst maybe 50 or 60 Porsche 911s, a fistful of Corvettes, some Miatas, and a Mustang or three, came Papadakis in his 1972 Toyota Celica.

steph papadakis 1972 toyota celica
Papadakis, dressed for the cold, with his ’72 Celica.Mark Vaughn

What was drag racer/drifter Papadakis doing in an old Celica on Angeles Crest Highway?


“Hey man, what’s up,” he said, displaying the respectful charm he uses to address everyone from teammates at Papadakis Racing, to Toyota execs, to legions of fans, to the occasional car writer whose known him for 30 years.

Indeed, what was up was his 1972 barn-find Celica, even if it wasn’t really a barn where it had been found. It had been sitting in a garage 20 years. I asked him about it, not realizing—until later—that he has explained the car many times already, including in one of his very successful YouTube videos on the car, along with videos of various engine builds. The top-scoring PapadakisRacing video is “2020 Supra B58 Engine Teardown,” which is moving toward 6 million views.

Without hesitation, even though he’s done it many times before, Papadakis launched into another explanation, a true champion among fans and media alike for his earnest presentation, both in person and on YouTube. To get the full story, or rather stories, because there are many, each with technical details, go to the PapadakisRacing YouTube channel, where it’s all explained for you. For me, I just turned on the recorder while he explained things a couple times to a growing crowd gathered around him in the cold winter morning at Newcomb’s.

steph papadakis 1972 toyota celica
The Toyota 18R-G.Mark Vaughn

“My understanding is they kind of finished this (design) in like 1970,” Papadakis said of the car. “That’s when they first came out with these in Japan, which means they were getting inspired in ‘68. So it’s whatever was hot in ‘67 or ‘68.”

To explain, he pointed across the Newcomb’s parking lot to a particularly cool red Camaro, possibly of the same vintage.

“That’s the era.”

Then he pointed to the tires.

“I put fifteens on. It came with 13s but that doesn’t work in LA traffic and LA potholes.”

Then he popped the hood, to the oohs and aahs of onlookers.

“Okay. So none of this is original,” he said.

When the car was new it likely had a Toyota 18R engine, just under two liters and putting out maybe 100 hp, maybe less, depending on your source. But Papadakis had swapped an 18R-G.

“It never came into the US,” he said of the engine. “It was on the high-end GT or GTX Celica in Japan, they had this 18R-G engine. You may have heard of the 2T-G—that was the 1.6 liter and this is the 18R-G which is the 2.0-liter. So in ‘73ish, I think, they had this engine, or ‘72ish, and it made—they claimed—145 PS, no smog, it came with 40 millimeter side-draft Solex carburetors on it.”

That was in the halcyon days before emissions. When they added emissions soon after that, power went down by 10 hp stock, Papadakis said.

“There were a lot of these engines in Japan. And so guys in the ‘80s and early ‘90s were into these cars and imported them from Japan, and they raced these all over the world, especially in Asia.”

The aftermarket took notice.

“TRD and HKS had a bunch of performance racing parts for it.”

Many of which are on the Celica.

“So this has TRD forged pistons in it; it has HKS cams in it; and these larger 44-millimeter Mikuni carburetors on it. It makes 130 hp to the hubs, which is 150 to the flywheel-ish, with that header.”

With a weight of 2070 pounds, front engine, rear wheel-drive, even with a solid rear axle, it’s a recipe for a good time, especially on a road like ACH.

“It’s super fun up here,” he said.

steph papadakis 1972 toyota celica
The hood vents actually disperse hot air from the engine bay.Mark Vaughn

But of course, no engine builder/hot rodder is ever satisfied with everything.

“I’m building another engine for it,” he admits. “(This one is) high compression, so I had to put 100-octane in it. So I’m gonna build another one that’s built around 91 (octane, the highest available in California) but with modern components—I have another core engine. So I should make 170. So that’s something I’m working on.”

It sounds like a spaceship.

“It’ll have short compression height, longer rod, all lightweight, small ring package, modern hone, titanium valves, modern springs, modern cam design, lightweight buckets, that is cam over bucket... They make the BMW super technics, a 38-millimeter bucket for BMW exactly the same dimensions.”

The crank is stock but the new engine won’t all be off-the-shelf componentry.

“Some of the stuff I’ll have to make, like valve guides and stuff like that… the bearings, you can get them from the same company that makes them from Toyota, you can still get them now. So I’ve got some bearings for it—Aisin, they make the oil pump, a brand new one that you can still get. And then you could coat the gears on it. So you get a little bit more pressure and clearances.”

It’s something old, something new.

“Like, it’s a retro-mod engine is what I’m gonna go for.”

Like many things in life, he’ll need some help from his friends.

“I’m pulling favors from all the guys that I know in the industry that we buy stuff for. I’ll still buy this, but I’m like, ‘I need you to design some cams for a set that you’re only gonna sell this set,’ you know? So Mike, the cam guys that we use, Kelford (cams) in New Zealand. They know how to set everything up. I told him some of the specs that are set like, 91 octane, the bore and the stroke, and the range of valve sizes. I can use the range of carburetors. He’s gonna come back to me with a bunch of recommendations.”

This is about as high-tech a ’72 Celica as may exist in the world. But it’s for a good cause, keeping Steph busy in the off-season.

“The whole point is to have fun going slower,” he said. “And then I’ll start (screwing) it up again.”