The origins of the Toyota Sports 800 can be traced to 1955, the same year the Toyopet Crown went on sale. That year, MITI kicked its People’s Car program into high gear, promising incentives to automakers that built kei cars with 360-cc displacement.The problem for Toyota was that it had just launched the much larger 1,500-cc Crown and was scrambling to build a 1,000-cc Corona to compete with the Datsun 210.
The task for a kei car fell to Managing Director Eiji Toyoda, a nephew of Sakichi. Eiji’s original plan was to develop a front-wheel-drive car, the only layout he felt could accommodate the family-of-four requirement of the People’s Car. After numerous failed attempts, Chief Engineer Tatsuo Hasegawa convinced him that the limited technology available to them at the time made an FF layout an impossibility. It was easier and quicker to give it rear-wheel drive.
Furthermore, Hasegawa argued, construction of expressways had begun. Soon the high-speed era arrived, and a car built to MITI’s specs was sorely underpowered. One gets the impression that Hasegawa, a former Tachikawa Aircraft engineer, may have been somewhat of a car nut.
The car Hasegawa eventually birthed was the P10 Publica, released in 1961. Even though the name was a play on the words “public car”, it wasn’t a kei car at all, and the two-door coupe actually had quite a sporty feel. Well, that’s a term relative to 1961 Japan to be sure.
Power came from a 700-cc air-cooled OHV two-cylinder boxer capable of just 28 ps, but total weight was kept just under 1,280 pounds thanks to a lightweight monocoque body and minimal amenities. Power was delivered through a 4-speed transmission (keep in mind that even the 1964 T40 Corona only had three speeds) and a low-hanging driveshaft for better performance. Its suspension was advanced for Japanese cars of that era, with a leaf-spring rear and double-wishbone independent front with sway bar. There was even a convertible version.
With the Publica project finally complete after six years of development, Hasegawa turned his attention to developing a bona-fide sports car. He drew upon his days at Tachikawa Aircraft to help design an aerodynamic, bullet-shaped show car based on the Publica platform. The concept, called the Publica Sports, debuted at the 1962 Tokyo Motor Show. Its styling took many cues from aircraft design, including plastic covers over recessed headlights integrated into the nose and a sliding bubble canopy over the cabin rather than conventional doors.
Even though the name was a play on the words “public car”, it wasn’t a kei car at all
The production version, renamed the Toyota Sports 800, went on sale in 1965. The mechanicals were largely identical to the Publica’s but as the name implies, its U-series boxer engine was increased to 800 cc. With the addition of a second carburetor, horsepower was boosted to 45 ps, which could scoot the 1,280-pound car to a top speed of about 96 mph. Since it was still basically a Publica nderneath, the chassis code was simply UP15, but fans called it the yotahachi ([To]yota 8).
The concept’s jet-plane canopy didn’t make it into production, but Toyota did the next best thing and gave it a removable roof panel. It was, in fact, Japan’s first “targa” top, and even preceded the actual Porsche 911 Targa by one year.
In 1965, a brand-new Sports 800 sold for ¥595,000 (approximately $1,650), which put it slightly above its chief (and only) rival in the marketplace, the Honda S600. With two such capable sports cars, together weighing less than a modern VW, it was clear that they would soon become rivals on the race track as well. Intense clashes between the yotahachi and Honda’s S-car were among the most watched events at Suzuka, the fever growing even stronger when Honda released the S800 in 1966. Many of Japan’s racing greats, including Hiroshi Hosuya, Tojiro Ukiya, and Tetsu Ikuzawa, cut their teeth behind the wheel of a Sports 800.
For such a frequent symbol of nostalgia—it’s made frequent appearances in Japanese pop culture and anime—it may surprise you to know that by the end of its run, only 3,131 had been built. Toyota did produce left-hand-drive versions for export, but as one of the most desirable Japanese cars from the early 1960s, many native ones have been scooped up by collectors and shuttled off to far-flung reaches of the globe. However, the motoring landscape of Japan was changing so rapidly that a sub-1-liter car was soon obsolete. The last Sports 800 was built in 1969.