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2022-06-07 07:18:27 By : Ms. Allison LIU

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

Editor's note: This is part of a series at featuring some of Utah's coolest cars. If you own a customized vehicle — from sports cars to semitrucks — email with a photo of the vehicle and a brief description for consideration.

DRAPER — Josh Wheeler's passion project started with a misidentification.

While serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Pennsylvania, he saw and loved the lines of what he thought was a Ford Mustang. When he got close enough to see the badges, he read "Toyota" and "Celica" instead. The corrected information didn't change his mind about thinking the car was cool, though.

That was 2005. He completed his mission, went home and kept an eye out for old Celicas.

A 1977 Toyota Celica GT Liftback popped up on KSL Cars in February 2016. It was in Magna, offered for $600 by a guy who acquired it as part of a storage auction. It was rough, looking like it was someone's project who let time and rent get away. Wheeler trailered it home to Draper.

Wheeler said the interior was "horrible" — it was all there, just in a ripped-up pile. On the outside, there were some replacement body panels for the driver's side collision, but the side panel was smashed. So, he got to work.

Since Wheeler worked at a Utah Toyota dealer, he had an inside line on parts: weatherstripping for the doors and small pieces, like grommets. For the rest, he started networking on the internet. Wheeler joined Facebook groups, looking at what owners had done to their cars and vowing to do even better.

He had to hunt for the toughest parts: the seat covers and interior panels. He said he was on an 18-month waiting list to get seat covers made from New Zealand. A guy in California refurbished Wheeler's door panels. He found a source for old factory parts, but it was in Thailand, so every order took a month to arrive.

The extra body panels didn't cover the bashed area behind the driver's door, so Wheeler found a custom panel maker in Canada. After a six-month wait, the panels arrived and didn't fit. Wheeler hustled and found a donor car in Tremonton, cutting off what he needed.

He put down $18,000 at Utah's Factory or Better for the paint and bodywork. His initial plan was to have them cover the Celica in the original Toyota gray, but at the last minute, he switched to a Lexus blue.

Under the hood, it has the factory 20-R engine. Wheeler went through it, upgrading where he could. He said he did his own work except for the machining. He lit up the internals, including bigger pistons, but otherwise kept it basic. In 1977, Toyota claimed 95 horsepower and 122 foot-pounds of torque from the 2.2-liter engine, but the car weighed 2,615 pounds. A 2021 Corolla weighs 3,150 pounds.

It has newer Supra wheels for now, but Wheeler plans on swapping those out for Watanabe wheels from Japan, which will be a six-month wait.

In the meantime, he plans on giving the paint some vitamin D at car shows this summer. If you run into it, make sure to approach from the rear so you can see if his original mistaking of the Celica for a Mustang is understandable, or just led to something remarkable.