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Beams-Swapped Celica Liftback is One of NorCal’s Best Kept Secrets
BY Mike Maravilla //
June 29, 2023
@openinanewtab
Photography: Drew Manley
@cooledcollective
  • Since 2017, Secret Factory has taken its passion for vintage Japanese cars and helped others restore or create their restored dream cars.
  • Secret Factory is a five-person, not-for-profit shop that relies on a collaborative passion, a nuanced eye for rare parts, and old-fashioned determination to keep it alive.
  • This 1976 Toyota Celica Liftback is the happy result of an eight-year-long shop project amidst juggling day jobs, other projects, and life.

It may sound strange to say it now, but not a lot of people in Sacramento were familiar with the Japanese car scene less than a decade ago. It was strange for Tom Johnston and Rob Navarro, too. They were both avid JDM fans for some time, Tom taking a more acute interest in the vintage fare and Rob honing his focus on the drift scene. Despite those differences, the pairing’s JDM fandom led them to open Secret Factory in 2017 — a not-for-profit shop that allowed their passion for sourcing rare Japanese parts, restoring cool JDM cars, and fabricating custom solutions to come together.

COOL ATTRACTS COOL

Ultimately, when you do things that you’re authentically passionate about, you’re bound to attract others who feel the same way. Tom is the only one who is technically full-time, but Secret Factory has operated more like an artist collective, of which there are five total members. Aaron is a high school auto shop teacher who, combined with Rob, are both wizards in the fabrication realm. Quan initially came in because he needed some work done on his Z, but he was ambitious to learn, so he stuck around. John is a mural artist, which always comes in handy to make a shop look rad.

The skill set, in its totality, is impressively complementary. And just as much as cool attracts cool, existing skills have also created new ones. Pretty soon, Secret Factory evolved from a haven for rare Japanese parts and restoration into a destination for common (and not-so-common) swap kits and engine harnesses. Eventually, there were instances where it just couldn’t find parts, which led Tom and the collective to use CAD to develop components themselves. Six years in, Secret Factory can tout a handful of carbon parts that help move its customers’ car journeys along. It’s an incredible progression, one that has even evolved to include fixing up custom cars to eventually sell.

BEYOND JDM

Looking around the shop today, the JDM ethos is still heavily apparent, but there are plenty of other cars that lay in the queue for Secret Factory’s treatment. Between customer cars and Secret Factory’s own ambition, the shop is a real melting pot of taste: a Rally Sport Camaro, an LS-swapped E36 M3, and an AMC Javelin share the same air as a pig-nosed S13 coupe, a Datsun 510 Bluebird, and a 190E Cosworth.

Indeed, there are more projects than there is time — a storyline that we’re all too familiar with — but nevertheless, the collection that Secret Factory has amassed (between parts and cars alike) is enviable…not just because of scale, but because of rarity.

THE SECRET’S OUT

Although it was admittedly tough to choose, Secret Factory’s 1976 Celica Liftback had to be one of my absolute favorites. In 2015, this Celica began, as most projects do, with several needs and a longer list of aspirations. Still, it at least drove on its own power and soon made a comfortable home inside Secret Factory’s confines. The familiar 4AGE was yanked in favor of a more potent, modern Beams engine with a bit of boost. Since the motor was out, it was a good excuse as ever to repaint the car from white to this lovely green, period-correct hue you see here.

Prepping the chassis to do this was no small feat — bodywork was an immense undertaking since it was outside of Secret Factory’s usual repertoire, but the commitment was worth it. A set of Volkswagen Rabbit fenders were mated to custom metal flares with a little help from a friend, Nick Destfino. The job ultimately taught the team a lot in the process — they admit the Celica helped them hone their own welding skills a ton — and they are now better equipped to tackle similar endeavors moving forward.

The rest of the car proceeded in a similar “while you were in there” type of fashion. Although nothing was truly ever perfect, there was something new to discover and improve upon every weekend.

THE SWEET SPOT

Since the project was very much a slow burn, it allowed Secret Factory to really dial in the car’s intent. Too often, projects like this start as ambitious “race cars”, but over time (and as we get older), the reality is that we enjoy 90% of our projects on civilian roads. As such, the Celica’s temperament shifted — polyurethane bushings were fitted to give the old chassis a bit more precision without the harshness of full solid inserts — and the power was upgraded to roughly 350whp to help it more than keep up with modern machinery. AE86 coilovers, tie rod ends, and front sway bar helped further dial in the driving experience. A Techno Toy Tuning x Wilwood brake kit (also from the AE86) equipped with Hawk Performance pads helps bring the car to a halt.

Although the car was repainted and modernized underneath, the rest of the car retained a great deal of patina and with it, a generous helping of personality. Period TRD buckets positioned you right in front of Momo steering wheel and an 11,000rpm TRD tach of a similar era. Analog gauges, save for the Innovate wideband, were fitted to echo all of the Celica’s vintage touch points. I love the Secret Factory shift knob, too.

By this point, I’ve failed to mention that Secret Factory is also a dealer for Hayashi Racing and Watanabe wheels. The former sets the Celica off perfectly and thanks to the aforementioned flare work, the car can accommodate a 14x8J-6 up front and a 14x9J-19 out back.

OLD IS THE NEW NEW

Whenever I come across shops and cars like this, I can’t help but spend the next handful of hours diving through classifieds for a vintage car of my own. There’s something inexplicably cool about old cars — the way they look, the way they drive, and certainly how connected you feel to them — something that brand-new ones will never be able to capture no matter how good software gets. The price of entry might be just as much (if not more) than modern examples, but as Roger, the salesman from Gone in 60 Seconds would say, “You would not be a self-indulgent wiener, sir…You’d be a connoisseur.”

And that’s exactly what these guys are, connoisseurs I mean. There’s absolutely no pretense here — everyone involved is doing it for the love of the machine — and they have single-handedly helped us car enthusiasts cherish these vintage examples for longer than they probably thought they’d be on the roads. Secret Factory’s mission is something that a lot of us have talked about doing, but never have. So cheers to you guys for allowing us to live our vintage dreams vicariously through you.


Tom Johnston | 1976 Toyota Celica Liftback

Exterior:Custom metal flares made with VW rabbit fenders, shaved rear marker lights, rust repair, rear apron holes, Toyota army green paint by Barnie Bumble, modified Datsun BRE “spook” front chin spoiler, JDM smiley bumpers, JDM “banana” tail lights, JDM Toyota Publica front side markers
Interior:Black interior from another Celica (with uncracked original dash), original TRD bucket seats, old TRD tachometer, Omori water temp + oil pressure gauges, Tomei boost gauge, Innovate Motorsports wideband, custom roll bar, Secret Factory shift knob, Momo steering wheel 
Engine/Drivetrain:3sge Beams swap, custom turbo setup with Borg Warner EFR 7163, tuned with Link g4 storm by HybridWorks, engine harness by Mark at Panic Wire, ID1000 injectors, tomei fuel pressure regulator, custom fuel lines and intank EFI pump setup with AEM 320lph pump, narrowed Ford 8.8 LSD rear with customized AFCO 4 link and white line panhard bar, car completely rewired with custom chassis harness 
Brakes/Suspension:Megan Racing AE86 coilovers, Megan Racing AE86 tie rod ends, TRD AE86 front sway bar, Techno Toy Tuning x Wilwood AE86 front brake kit, stainless steel brake lines, Hawk Performance brake pads
Wheels/Tires:14” Hayashi Street type ST: 14x8 et -6 front, 14x9 et -19 rear

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