The cars we loved.
Today car enthusiasts are going crazy about Toyota’s GT 86 (Scion FR-S in America) as if it were Toyota’s first sports car. It’s light weight and excellent suspension setup have made it an instant classic. Well long before it, the Celica, Supra and Corolla GTS, there was the Sports 800. The Sports 800 has a long list of firsts for Toyota. Its easy to think that the Subaru sourced flat four was the first use of a boxer type engine in a Toyota. Although the use of a flat four is heavily associated with Subaru and Porsche, its use by Toyota was not without a precedent. The Toyota Sports 800’s 0.8L flat four was used during a time when nearly all mainstream cars used traditional configurations.
It’s difficult to imagine the company who brought us the mighty Supra and redefined the luxury market with Lexus, producing so meager a car. But you have to start somewhere. And start it did. Much of Japans auto industry was just taking off by the time the Sports 800 came to Market in 1965. Toyota like the rest of the Japanese car industry was eager to prove to the West that it could build sophisticated cars with advance technology.
The Sports 800 was derived from a 1961 Publica. The homely sedan had all of 28 hp. The concept shown the following year at the Tokyo Auto Show, called the Publica Sports would not go into production until 1965. Sometimes referred to by its nickname Yotahachi in Japan, it would be more widely known as the Sports 800. Toyota actually borrowed a Nissan designer to pen the Sports 800, as if Toyota who up to that time had only been making the smallest of urban motorized carts and had no experience with sports cars. Actually it did not, as the Sports 800 was Toyota’s first sports car. While the Sports 800 was not as sophisticated as Honda’s S600, due to its simple live rear axle with a leaf spring suspension, it was tidy and was just as fun to drive – if not to look at.
Sold as a two door coupe or roadster, its little engine ranged from 700 to 800 cc with dual carburetors. The horizontally opposed two cylinders unit was in a boxer configuration. To illustrate how small the Sports 800’s 0.8L engine was, Toyota would use a variation of it as an auxiliary engine to power air conditioning units on some of its buses.
The engine’s small size was not so much an issue due to the low weight. With power ranging from 28 to 45 hp, the Sports 800 performance was attributed to on minimal weight and size. It’s typical top speed of 45 mph must have felt like a kids go-cart going down a big hill. Race versions could reach 100 mph. Compared to the Skylines and Fairladys of its day, it may not have been the fastest, but its aerodynamics and fuel efficiency helped it finish many races without needing to stop for refueling. Despite its small size and sub 1,300lb weight, the Sports 800 was not a toy. It used aluminum body panels and thin steel on a uni-body frame. The front engine rear wheel drive layout was regulated by a four-speed manual gearbox.
The Sports 800 was not without its lists of firsts. It was the first production car to use a pull out targa roof that could be stored in the trunk. This was years before the Porsche Targa would popularize the concept.
The Sports 800 was sold from 1965 to 1969. Although a few were left hand drive, Toyota did not sell any of them in the United States, although there are a few registered here. Instead it limited sales to the Japanese home market only. Just over 1,200 cars were thought to have been produced with roughly 120 surviving. It seemed unlikely that the company that killed off all of its serious performance cars would have ever made something so cute and sporting. The arrival of the GT 86 gives hope to the concept of affordable performance cars from the world’s second first largest car company. Maybe there’s room for another car like the Sports 800 in today’s world of airbags, abs and nav guided driving.