CC For Sale: 1968 Toyota Publica (P20) Deluxe – Not Cheap, But Certainly Exclusive

The T87 family went to Okinawa last month, chiefly because it was the furthest we could fly while still being in Japan. International travel was not easy in April 2021 (and it still isn’t now, in many places). I figured the chances of finding CCs down there would be slim, and I was right – there wasn’t a lot to catch the eye. With one notable exception, which happened to be for sale.

I spotted this second-generation Toyota Publica at a used car showroom in Naha, the capital city of Okinawa. If you’re looking for something a bit different for Cars and Coffee, this would certainly be a contender.

The poster in the windshield has all the requisite info about this great little deal. The important ones are “S 43” – the 43rd year of the Shōwa era, a.k.a Hirohito’s reign, which started in 1925 and ended in 1989 – and that big red 218 number. That’s the price, as it’s followed by the man symbol (which means 10,000) and the Yen character. So it’s ¥2,180,000 (at the current exchange rate, just under US$20,000) for this piece of ‘60s nostalgia.

The Publica was Toyota’s smallest car. The first model bearing that name, the P10, came out in 1961 with a 700cc air-cooled flat twin. It was a pretty conventional car – front engine, RWD, three-box design – but it didn’t exactly start out that way. When Toyota started work on the Publica, back in 1955, the plan was to go for a Japanese version of the Citroën 2CV, though Toyota probably would have gone for a more modern look and steered clear of fabric tops. But a 500cc twin and FWD were definitely on the cards.

Coincidentally, the all-powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) came up with a surprisingly similar set of parameters for their idea of a “people’s car.” There were a few additional provisos, such as that the price should be ¥250,000 maximum, manage 100,000km without a major repair or that the top speed should at least reach 100kph. Toyota were keen, negotiated the unit price to ¥400,000 and pressed ahead with their plan.

After a number of 500cc FWD prototypes were made and tested to a premature death, Toyota revised their plans quite dramatically. The 2-cyl. engine grew to 697cc and delivered its mighty 28hp via a 4-speed manual (no synchro on 1st) to the rear wheels.

The car made it to Toyota showrooms in June 1961 and… didn’t do well at all. Toyota had striven to keep the price below the ¥400,000 mark by making the Publica P10 (above) as basic as possible, but it wasn’t a kei car. Those were even smaller and were capped at 360cc – but they were a lot cheaper, too. A small car like the Publica still needed to allow for a few luxuries, or what was the point of owning one?

By 1962, Toyota had received the message loud and clear. The P10 range was broadened to include a van / wagon and customers could opt for a Toyoglide 2-speed automatic, but most of the extras were still installed by the dealers rather than the factory. This changed in 1963, with the advent of the Deluxe sedan and the Convertible. Finally, a bit of pizzazz was added to the showrooms, leading sales to start taking off. A pickup version rounded up the range in 1964.

Toyota also thought of using their new flat-twin for performance – after all, it worked for Panhard and BMW, so why not for them too? They designed a wild-looking Sports coupé (above) as a one-off and displayed it in 1962. It took a few years and quite a few changes, but the S800 eventually appeared as a production car and became the only real competitor to the brilliant Hondas of the era.

In 1966, the Publica P20 was unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show (above). The whole range was updated to this new P20 spec, which was pretty easy to do as in effect it was a mere evolution of the P10 with a wider grille and horizontal taillights.

But the most significant update was the engine, which grew to 790cc and 36hp (except the convertibles and the new “Super” sedans, which received the S800’s 45hp twin-carb motor). The base price for the Standard trim sedan went down to ¥359,000 – rater symbolic since the Yen was pegged at ¥360 for US$1. The Publica was the “$1000 Japanese car.”

Toyota subsequently managed to squeeze out on more vehicle of the Publica: the CoE MiniAce minivan/truck joined the range in late 1967. The P20 was replaced by the completely new (Corolla-based) P30 in April 1969, though the flat-twin was still available in Japan on Publicas and MiniAces until stricter emissions controls killed it in 1976.

Our feature car sports the popular Deluxe trim. Luxury is a relative term, but there is some of it there, if one looks hard enough. Externally, one can point to the side trim, brightwork on the windshields and windows and the full-size hubcaps. Bling, bling and more cheap bling – that was the extent of the operation. No sunroof, no fog lamps, nothing too costly.

But inside, there were more substantial improvements. The Standard cars were quite the penalty boxes, hence why they sold poorly. From this viewpoint, I guess the extras aren’t necessarily self-evident…

From this wider angle, we can better see the Deluxe’s pièce de résistance: a radio set! But also those B-pillar straps and the ability to crack the rear windows open a bit. Sheer decadence.

The rear seats would have been deemed entirely acceptable for Japanese adults back then. Plus, you got an individual ashtray for your trouble. In those days, they were usually very slim and few were over 160cm tall. Maybe that was due to all that smoking. This had changed a lot, especially the average height, so the rear quarters of the Publica would probably no longer be seen as sufficient nowadays.

But then, the noise emanating from under that hood, closer to an angry moped than a car, might also feel a bit jarring to our 21st Century sensitivities. Air-cooled twins were still popular in Europe when this car came out – Citroën, DAF, Fiat and NSU were still making them; in Japan, Honda were the other main proponent of this solution for non-kei cars (e.g. Honda N600).

So, is anyone tempted by this pristine-looking piece of Toyota’s history? As long as you’re not in a hurry and don’t mind a certain amount of decibels, it would make for a great conversation starter. Assuming it starts, obviously – it looks very nice, but I haven’t heard or seen it run. I’ll leave you to mull these considerations over with a story from raconteur, wordsmith, keyboard artist and CCommentor extraordinaire Mr Justy Baum, whose absence has been cruelly felt of late, taken from a comment in a 2018 post by Johannes Dutch.

Years and years ago, barely 18 y. old, travelling in the country with a car-nut best mate and his very sweet granny, we advanced behind an old behatted fellow driving what must be the only such Toyota in the country (it wasn’t sold here). It too was white, but in my memory, it looked older than this [P30]. Me and car-nut mate were straining to read a badge, nothing said. Gran, front passenger, peered too, probably in polite confusion.

“Pube-licker”, she pronounced after a bit. “What’s a pube-licker?”

Stunned silence. Complete inability to respond. A Very Large Laugh was being held in, for both of us. Tears began to form on mate’s face, which itself slowly turned into a tomato and then a roaring fire.

“Pube-licker,” she repeated, musingly, to fill the silent non-response. “Funny name, that.”

I was safe in the back. I couldn’t be seen.

“Sure is!” I squeaked, and collapsed sideways out of view , utterly out of control with silent, screaming laughter, fitting, unable to breathe. From the drivers seat, I could hear the occasional sniffle, then cough, then a loud blurt. The car, (a Passat), kept twitching from side to side just a bit. I could see the drivers seat runner shaking involuntarily from my bent over viewpoint.

“Who makes pube-lickers?”, she said to the strained silence.

“God does, I s’pose!” I hissed, especially so Gerard would hear but dear gran wouldn’t.

“Ooh, are you ok Gerard?”, says gran.

Oh my, he wasn’t. How he wasn’t! And how we ever got to our destination alive, I’ll never know.

— Justy Baum, May 2018