Curbside Classic: 1966 Toyota Sports 800 – Humble (But Brilliant) Beginnings

Over the years, Toyota put out a slew of remarkable sports cars. From the Supra to the MR2 and from the 2000GT to the AE86, the Japanese giant has cause to be quite proud of their performance-oriented vehicles. But everything has to start somewhere, and that somewhere was a tiny, slippery, air-cooled and targa-topped piece of bravura called the Sports 800. As beginnings go, it set the bar quite high.

By 1961, Toyota had a pretty decently fleshed-out range. The Crown sat at the top, as it should, followed by the Corona and the new small car, the Publica, provided cheap wheels for the masses. There was also the 4×4 Land Cruiser, the Stout pickup and the ToyoAce truck/van – a lot of products to choose from. It was about time for Toyota to go niche.

Demand for cars was growing exponentially in Japan at the time, and the Plain Jane nature of the Publica did not make much of a dent in it. As soon as it came out, the engineers who had worked on it started toying around with a sports variant, which soon got the go-ahead from the top brass. To design such a novel concept, Toyota even poached Nissan designer Shozo Sato.

The result was the Publica Sports show car, which was exhibited at the 1962 Tokyo Motor Show. The car’s aerodynamic shape, topped by its unique sliding canopy, made it an instant hit with the public, enticing Toyota to press ahead with production. However, the Publica Sports was not exactly oven-ready, and it ended up taking a long time to reach dealerships.

The number one item on the agenda was the car’s lacklustre performance. There were two paths for action in this regard: adding power and subtracting weight. Toyota did both: the Publica’s 28hp 697cc flat-twin was upped to 790cc and 45hp – with one carburator per cylinder, no less.

Weight-wise, the first decision was to ditch the canopy, which was rather heavy, not to mention impractical and potentially hazardous. A detachable roof (not yet dubbed “targa” by Porsche) was chosen instead. Using aluminium for some body panels (doors, roof, hood) and seat frames, as well as thinner steel, further brought the kilos down. The redesign of the car was shepherded by Tatsuo Hasegawa at Toyota affiliate Kanto Auto Works, but most of the original prototype’s character was retained.

The car sat on a shortened wheelbase of just two meters (78.7 in.), but used the Publica’s suspension – double wishbones and torsion bars up front, live axle with leaf springs in the back. Costs had to be kept in check somehow.

The “Publica” name was omitted from the final product in the end, in a bid to give the sexy new two-seater its own identity and a bit more prestige, and it was finally launched as the Sports 800 in April 1965. At a few bills short of ¥600,000, the new Toyota was about twice the price of the Publica it was based on, but still excellent value.

But compared to what? Well, the burgeoning JDM sports car scene, of course. Datsun (top right) had been there with their MG-flavoured 1.5 litre Fairlady roadster for a while. Upstart Honda got in on the action with the S500 in 1963 (bottom right), kicking it up to 600cc by 1964. That year also saw the launch of the Isuzu Bellett GT (top left) – the first Japanese car to use the magic “GT” letters in its name. Finally, exactly at the same time as the Toyota, Hino launched the Contessa 1300 Coupé (bottom left). It really was about time for Toyota to enter this market niche, aiming especially at Honda.

Toyota’s plan was that the Sports 800’s lightness (580kg) and 155kph top speed would enable it to outperform Honda despite the S600’s high-revving jewel of a motor. And at the Suzuka 300km race in 1965 and the 500km event the next year, it seemed that Toyota’s gambit had paid off. The Sports 800 won both outright, as the car’s lightness enabled it to avoid going to the pit for fuel or tyres, unlike every other entrant.

Despite this brilliant display on the track, the Sports 800 had a couple of issues that would hamper its popularity. One was the air-cooled twin, whose high-pitched racket sounded more like a Publica (which it essentially was) or even a kei car (which it certainly wasn’t). Not nearly as sexy as the deeper growl of a Fairlady’s 4-cyl., among others. Another problem was that, despite growth in car ownership, the Japanese market was still pretty small for sports cars – and foreign competition was fierce.

Very few changes were made to the car over its production run. One was the rearview mirror, which moved to the top of the windscreen for 1967. Originally, the upholstery would have been black for all cars, which only came in three exterior shades: red, blue and silver.

For the Sports 800’s first year, Toyota built over 1200 cars. For 1966, the number went down to 700 – and kept going down every year. A few LHD cars were made for Okinawa (then under US rule), but after a small and unsuccessful test run in the US, Toyota decided to abandon all export plans. Toyota called it quits in 1969, having built a shade over 3100 units.

But the modest sales did not really matter. The point of the exercise was to initiate something, to be a trailblazer. And from that point of view, the Sports 800 was a tremendous success, being followed by the legendary 2000GT and its Corona-based junior sister, the 1600GT, in 1967. Neither of these made any business either, by the way, but alongside the Sports 800, they certainly managed to put Toyota on the map.


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Car Show Classic: 1965 Toyota Sports 800 – What If We Make a Sports Car?, by Geraldo Solis