Curbside Classic: ’72-’78 Toyota 1000 (Publica P30) – Going In Circles

One last round for the Publica, one last chance for the model to find relevance in Toyota’s roster. Its contemporary Corona went on a bit longer, while the Corolla is still with us; alas, for the Publica it was not to be. A decent but not great seller in its native Japan, it found much love elsewhere as the Toyota 1000. Have you ever heard the phrase: “Wish I had a Toyota 1000,” with the longing reserved for vintage Minis or 2CVs? Well, I have. A few times indeed. The Publica’s 1972 redress found genuine admiration in a good chunk of Latin America, evoking fond memories and admiration to this day.

The Publica/1000 was one crucial model for Toyota in the region, creating a loyal customer base that exists to this day. The brand’s arrival to Latin America in the mid ’60s coincided with a rising middle class just ready for their first set of wheels, and along the Corolla, the Publica/1000 filled an important role as Toyota’s ‘entry-vehicle.’ Though samples are -finally- dwindling in numbers, the model looms large in local parnace, with its pickup-ute version being the most commonly found (and lusted after).

(From hereon, I’ll refer to the model as Publica in regards of its fate in Japan, while calling it 1000 when talking of its Latin experience).

The Publica’s early days have already been covered by Tatra87, with an earlier P20 in pristine condition. Let’s recap a bit on how we got to the P30; launched in ’61 as a cheap vehicle for the masses roughly following a ‘people’s car’ brief put forth by Japan’s MITI, the early Publica failed to meet much of a market. Along the not-so-stellar in sales Corona T20 launched the year prior, Toyota found itself missing wildly once again while swinging for the fences. It was time for some deep ponderation for the ambitious, yet conservative, company.

Meanwhile, Toyota dealers took to spruce up the austere Publica, raising sales somewhat. The company took notice: the get-wheels-at-any-cost market was already covered by kei cars such as the Subaru 360; if a subcompact was to sell, it would have to appear to offer more than what buyers were paying for. In other words, buyers of low-rent cars hated being seen as cheapskates, while the maxim “Look at the deal I got!” was an appealing one. Lessons that Iacocca knew rather well, but had yet to publish a book.

Under that new approach, the Publica poshed up a bit, offering a bunch of ‘deluxe’ options (more on those later) and fancy trimmings. Sales picked up to decent -if not outstanding- numbers. Variants appeared: a pickup ute, a 3 door van, a convertible and the sporty 800. In Japanese print the model sold as the “1,000 dollar car,” almost the exact Yen to US dollar conversion at the time. Ads invariably showed an affluent middle-class lifestyle; you got a lot for those “1,000” dollars, or so the idea was.

The early Publica’s salesforce feedback helped pave the way for Toyota’s future developments. Early pains suffered, the team behind the model placed lessons learned into the upcoming Corolla and Corona T30, finally finding success. While the Publica’s numbers paled in comparison against both, it did OK enough business to justify further updates. The P30 version appeared in ’69, being sold abroad as the Toyota 1000, and having morphed into a mini-Corolla. It literally sat on that model’s shortened wheel base, carrying much of the P20’s mechanicals: a traditional FR layout, an entry level 790cc air cooled engine, and an optional ‘upscale’ water cooled 993cc 4 cyl.

Unlike Nissan, Mazda or Isuzu (which got Pininfarina, Michelotti, et al., support), Toyota had gone staunchly solo in their styling efforts since day one. While creating not unattractive vehicles, Toyota’s styling at the time had rather eclectic influences. What was taken from where and what, it’s impossible to assess; the early Corona T10 seemed to take from British cues, while putting on some Italianete flair with the following T20. Others see a Trabant on that update. You be the judge.

With the 1966 Corolla, Toyota seemed to take a grab at Italian/European influences, and the P30 Publica basically aped its lines. Except for the fascia, which suffers of modest Exneritis. Pick-and-choose, that was the mantra for a nation still in search of its own styling voice.

What was not in question was the differentiating factor Japanese makes had chosen for their products: reliability. From the moment of its arrival in international markets, the Publica/1000 gained a reputation as a little hauler whose owners could always depend on for trouble-free daily use (it did suffer from rust issues, but who didn’t then?).

In ’72, the P30 received one more restyle, adopting a fastback shape, a revised fascia, and new interior. Exterior dimensions increased modestly, while the air cooled engine got the heave-ho in its native Japan in order to meet upcoming pollution regs.

Toyota kept pushing the model ‘upmarket,’ with a Hi-Deluxe version carrying a 1.2 engine and front disc brakes. The interior came with a ‘Monte Carlo-like’ (or Rolls Royce-like? Who’s cribbing who?) fake-wood instrument cluster, and more ‘deluxe’ trimmings. No longer a ‘cheap car,’ the Publica was positioned as an ‘entry-vehicle;’ a first purchase for a recently wedded couple or a single young professional.

Japanese actor Koji Ishizaka was the model’s face in promotionals, a popular star of Taiga (period) Dramas. A sporty ST version was offered. Sultry looking -and funkily dressed- Japanese men didn’t come with purchase, though.

While the P30 ’69-’71 Publica/1000 sold in Latin America, it was the restyled ’72 that found wide acceptance. What was Toyota stylistically thinking with the little car is a mystery for the ages, as it looks both dopey and sporty, with a cute fastback topped by a bit-too-tall greenhouse. Clean European flanks play against slightly-fuzzy detailing, the latter par for the course for Japanese models at the time.

Regardless of my feelings, the model found a devoted public in Latin America. Both my wife and closest friend never fail to mention how much they want one when coming across a sample. In a recent outing, another acquaintance brought up the same subject expressing similar feelings. Meanwhile, the little 1000 ute is still commonly found in local car repair shops, a perennial stalwart, ideal to carry spare parts around town (Unlike the sedan, the little ute remained in production all the way to 1988, adding to the nameplate’s lore).

Like most economic Japanese cars of the period, performance wise the 1000 is nothing but average. Whatever fond memories locals have are anchored on the model being their family’s first purchase. Such memories are indelible and first impressions are crucial; along the Corolla and Corona, people found a car that was economical and dependable, earning devotion for the brand. Toyota’s are not known as passionate vehicles, but devotion and loyalty can be just as deeply felt.

In spite of its dimensions and basic packaging, the model acquitted itself well with young families at a time when buyers aspired for less and luxury had an entirely different meaning. I should know, as the 1000 should’ve been a COAL of mine; it was my family’s first car after arriving to El Salvador in 1976. Our poor Publica didn’t make my COAL list due to my recollections being so distant I fail to relate much with the vehicle.

That said, Mom’s introduction to Toyota was via the 1000. Whatever drove her to the brand I’ll never know, as she was never good in explaining her decisions (such lagoons to be filled!) It’s true that her last vehicle in Puerto Rico was a Datsun 1200, and that trouble-free ownership had sent her to the Japanese fold for good.

So, a Toyota was to be our next family car. Moving from one nation to another always being an expensive proposition, meant our purchase would be an ‘economical’ one. With that in mind we arrived to Autopalace, an art-deco infused facility where Toyotas were sold. While Mother and Father dealt with the salesman, I attended more important matters; as a very clean burgundy Volvo PV544 stood silently by the dealer’s entrance. I was transfixed by its sight, and I kept circling around it in childish awe for what must have been an hour or two. The car’s image is seared into my mind to this day.

With finances forcing us into 1000 ownership, the only question was a matter of color: choices were white and a kind of deep blue I’ve only ever seen on Asian cars (Hyundai and Kia trucks use it to this day). While I preferred the blue, Mom chose white; a decision she regretted throughout all the little car’s ownership: “Gosh, it just looks dirty all the time!”

Other than her constant complaining of the car always looking soiled, not much happened with it during our ownership. Not car based at least…

At purchase, on our way back home, with Mother behind the wheel for the first time in a foreign nation, she came across something she had never seen in US soil: The ever-intimidating, impossible-to-figure-out mystery of the roundabout!

If you pictured Chevy Chase in European Vacation, points to you! You know what follows, swap genders and have my riding-passenger Dad much more agitated: Once Mother managed her way into the roundabout, she just couldn’t figure out the elusive-secrets that could get our little 1000 out of the loop. Father frantically waved his hands, pointing helplessly ahead, and saying the obvious -yet inscrutable- “Just get out… you just get out, out!”

Buses honked, cars passed us in annoyed manner, while Mom just kept going aimlessly in circles. Finally, after 3 or 4 loops, she managed to decipher the quantum-physics of lanes that ‘are and aren’t,’ finally getting us out of that pickle. She was almost in tears by ordeal’s end.

Lucky for us, Salvadorian roundabouts are tiny. Had we been in Madrid or Mexico City we would still be there to this day. Nope, forget Mexico City; she would’ve never managed to find her way out of the dealer on that one. Come to think of it, I don’t think I would either.

During our 3 years of ownership the car never broke down; it was a headache-free tiny machine. Mom’s only maintenance-imbued complaint was that it ‘consumed’ too much oil. Hard to assess how much this was an issue; with her stingy nature, a quart a year would be ‘too much’ oil.

Talking about stinginess, I think our 1000 lacked that ‘decadent luxury’ known as radio. Yes, thus was the nature of perceived riches back then. Here was studious Toyota taking salesmanship lessons: by providing entry-level models with multiple options, there was no way in casual passing to know how ‘low-rent’ your ‘low-rent’ ride really was.

Yes, a little 1000 could be optioned to the rafters if one wished to. Choices to splurge on? a 1.2 mill, radio, 2 speed wipers, cigarette lighter, fake wood instrument cluster, heater, additional gauges, dual mirrors, radial tires, heated rear window, and even a lusty 5 speed shifter (from ’76 and on). You know, ‘luxury.’ Or your little 1000 could be a stripper, modest as could be, and no one would be the wiser. An enticing proposition for the fragile human ego. Why buy a radio when you can hum the tunes? Better save for some radial tires instead. Or not.

Regardless of options, the rear seat was -not surprisingly- a bit of a tight fit. Although with the slim Japanese -and Latin- physiques of the time, these cars were promoted as 5 seaters. Not that it mattered much to my little Brother and I, it was spacious enough for us two. Especially at a time before the advent of seat belts.

The one dim memory from those days? The rear wheel humps intruding into the back seat area; it was enough of a hump that I would try to use them as pigmie-sliders (by trying to sit on the top of the hump and slide down). And nope, as small as I was the idea never quite worked. Not that I ever stopped trying.

For some reason, Toyota never bestowed the 1000 with a back lift gate, even if seeming tailored for it. The concept was still a relative novelty, though quickly becoming the norm in compacts around the world. It took Toyota some time to accept the idea and the 1000 stuck to a conservative small lid. It was efficient enough, though.

Other Toyota ‘luxury’ fixations at the time were jaunty looking gas caps. Our post’s carries an aftermarket one, but the original, with delicate flap sticking out, gave it a bit of distinctiveness. Or so my childhood-self thought. Finally, the plastic ‘gills’ were another Toyota gimmick of the period.

Here’s another dim childhood memory, the 1000’s grille emblem. A recollection from the times we bothered to wash our ‘won’t-last-clean-too-long’ little white one. For the longest time I was utterly vexed as to what it meant: A stylized Toyota ‘T’ (look, they were childhood memories)? Some kind of bull? Something cool and aggressive perhaps?

Japanese marketing at the time -and to this day- is a rather convoluted matter; similar models sold through multiple dealer networks under different monikers, with multiple options and detailing. Different themes are pushed through advertising, with multiple eye/ear-catching slogans and gimmicks. Most of these never make it abroad, but occasionally a few odd bits remain here and there; like the 1000’s grille emblem.

Not being able to speak Japanese, period ads and Google Translate are the best I can do to satisfy my since-childhood  nagging curiosity. Apparently, the “1,000 dollar car” selling line was tossed away with the P30’s arrival, and a new legend came up: “Highway Antelope!” Or so Google Translate says. The animal must have some rather cool attributes in Japanese lore; agility, sturdiness, etc. Mazda’s Bongo van is named after a type of antelope as well, so Toyota’s inclinations were not that out of the Japanese mainstream.

Regardless, even by the mid ’60s Toyota had already learned how to present itself in international markets. Antelope references never made it to Latin America; good thing, as it would’ve come out rather oddly.

Back in Japan, a coupe version was launched as the Publica Starlet in ’73. Looking rather jaunty and sporty -though still lacking a back lift gate-, the model quickly became the biggest seller of the Publica range. Thus, the nameplate’s fate was sealed.

By ’78, the Publica moniker disappeared, with the new Starlet taking fully over. Coming with yet more options, a lift gate and a 5 door variant, the model found its stride as Toyota’s subcompact. It remained in the company’s lineup for the next 20 years.

We did love the Publica/1000 in Central America. On the web, nations like Peru and Ecuador seem to share the love as well, with owners waxing poetic about them. No matter, the few thousand sold in Latin America paled against the tens of thousands of Corollas and Coronas sold around the world. With the Starlet selling in brisk numbers and earning a stellar reputation for the brand, the Publica’s demise was a sound business decision. It only took Toyota a few spins around the block to get its ‘entry-level’ models right.

More on the Publica:

CC For Sale: 1968 Toyota Publica (P20) Deluxe

Cohort Classic: Toyota Publica Ute (P30) – Cute!