As the Japanese worked tirelessly on their way back from the war, they also worked their way through merely mobilizing the masses all the way to give them some flair. Nissan fired the first shots with their Datsun Fairlady/Sports lineup, followed by Honda with their chain-driven S500. Toyota also got their own small car off the ground, and it’s considered so good they’re still working on it.
The first glimpse of what eventually would become the Sports 800 was shown in 1962 as the Toyota Publica Sports concept. Like most concept cars that eventually made it into production, most of the design language was there, but there are a couple of radical details. Chief among which was that bubble top. But the engine fitted on it was also worthy of note. A 700cc Boxer twin mated to dual carbs. It was the same engine fitted to the normal Publica and only produced 28 horsepower, which even on something as small and light as this wasn’t enough. It was never going to work on that form, no matter how much everyone with sci-fi on their mind wanted it to. First order of business, the roof.
One of the best things about writing for CC is that I end up learning tons of new and extremely interesting stuff. For instance; did you know that the first vehicle with a Targa top was British? Porsche would take the idea and slap the Targa name on it for their own, perhaps more successful, 911. But the first vehicle to ever have a removable roof section while keeping a full rollbar behing is the Triumph you see above. The TR4 Surrey Edition. Considering they offered a 1991cc engine as a no-cost option for sub 2-litre racing, you can see why they would like to make their cars that tiny little bit safer. Toyota took that idea and worked with it. The sports 800 itself beat the targa to production by a year.
As far as the engine is concerned, it was an evolution of the U engine fitted to the concept, internally known as the 2U-C. It was still an air-cooled twin with dual carbs, but now it displaced 790cc and produced 40 Horsepower, or 70% more than the one in the concept car. This, combined with a petite weight of only 576kg (1,268lb) thanks to the use of aluminum on body panels and the seat frames meant a top speed of 100MPH. The same as the much more powerful Honda S800.
The U-Series line of engines was retired after the 2U, the engine itself was produced until 1976 and used as an Auxiliary engine to run the Air Conditioning on the Dyna Coaster buses of the time. But recently Toyota has come along a new Boxer engine. The 2.0-liter in the GT86 was designated 4U-GSE, bringing the series back and adding yet another heritage nod to the car itself.
The total production run between 1965 and 1969 was of 3131 units. Most of them were kept in their native Japan. But our featured model, caught by Jim Klein at the 2009 Japanese Classic Car Show in Long Beach, CA is a very special model. One of only about 300 that were made in left hand drive. Toyota was studying the viability of the Sports 800 stateside and brought some of them for test drives. I don’t know the results of these test drives, but I’m guessing they weren’t very successful because the Sports 800 was never officially imported to the United States. The costly lessons of the Crown in the American market were still fresh on their heads, so they may have also just decided to play it safe at the last minute. Meanwhile, in Japan, the Sports 800 was loved and earned the nickname of “Yota-Hachi”.
On the e-mails that Jim and I exchanged he emphasized his disbelief at the petite size of the 800. It may be 20 inches longer (140.9) and two inches wider (57.7) than the original Mini, but the wheelbase is shorter by two inches (78.7) and lower by seven (46.3). It’s not the sort of thing you want to drive if you’re going to be surrounded by trucks. Or Full-size sedans for that matter. But its small size and light weight meant it was a good base for alternative energies.
In 1979, Toyota Took a Sports 800 and got rid of the engine and gearbox to replace it with a 30HP (And we’re back to the power figures of the concept) gas turbine. The Toyota Sports Gas Turbine Hybrid that resulted worked like a Diesel-Electric locomotive or the Fisker Karma. The engine itself wasn’t connected to the wheels, rather to a generator, and then to the electric motor that actually powered the wheels.
And in 2011 students at the Toyota Technical College in Tokyo presented this, a full-electric Sports 800, called the Toyota Sports EV Twin. Twin means it has two electric engines. Thanks to the lithium-ion batteries the weight has done up a bit (700kg), but the top speed remains at 100MPH and a maximum range of 62 miles.
The sports 800 never had a direct successor, the 2000GT sold at the same time or any of the sports cars that followed afterwards were too big and had other market in mind. The closest I can think of was the MR2. In the Japanese market you also had the Suzuki Cappuccino, which owes more than a little to the 800 as far as styling and approach is concerned. But despite having no heir, it was still the first of what would become four decades of uninterrupted sports cars. With the GT86 bringing forth a second wave of them(although it hasn’t been selling quite as well as Toyota hoped) it might be more than a heir to the Sports 800 than we imagined.