Sports 800: Toyota’s forgotten sporting roots

The 1965 Sports 800 isn’t Japan’s first production sports car (the Honda S600 predates it by a couple of years) but it is definitely Toyota’s first foray into a sporting vehicle. With a compact 45hp, twin carbed, pushrod boxer-twin 790cc motor under the bonnet, the plucky little 580kg coupe could be whanged to a Honda S600 matching 95mph. Compared to the Honda roadster, the Toyota car is about 10hp down on power but 80kg down on weight, so the performance in the day would have been competitive. And just like the Honda S roadsters, the Sports 800 was a complete sales flop, only selling 3300 between 1965 to 1969 (to the Honda’s 11,000).

But the thing that people most remember about the Sports 800 are its tiddly, toy-like looks. Even if you see a picture of a real one, it’s exaggeratedly egglike proportions require a double-take to ensure that it isn’t actually a close up of a Choro-Q toy that you’re looking at!

The Sports 800 was begotten from the 1961 Toyota Publica sedan, which was mechanically similar but more prosaic in its specification, having a 28hp, 700 twin instead. The 800 was first displayed in 1962 as the Publica Sports, but didn’t enter actual production until 1965, when it was released as the Sports 800. In Japan its nickname was Yota-Hachi, “Yota” being the last part of the Toyota name, and “Hachi” meaning eight. In terms of styling, it was the work of aeronautical engineer Tatsuo Hasegawa, who designed fighter planes in a previous life and explains the streamlined shape of the 800.

Unlike the Honda S600, the Sports 800 didn’t aim quite so high from a technical standpoint, and for example, the 800 has a simple live rear axle suspended by leaf springs and it only has a four speed gearbox. One innovation however is the lift out targa panel, which predates Porsche’s arrangement on the 911 by some years.

Of course, like any good GrandJDM feature car, the Toyota S800 also has a good David and Goliath racing story. Well, it has one good one….

The scene is the 1966 Suzuka 500km endurance race, and the 800 has absolutely no hope against the Prince Skylines or Fairlady 1600s roadsters. And its natural enemy, the Honda S600 had a much more exotic engine specification and hence could be race-tuned to a far higher level than Toyota’s simple pushrod twin. In practice, the Sports 800s were outclassed. In qualifying, the Sports 800s were outclassed.

But… in the race the rest of the field would have to pit for fuel, while the plucky, Choro-Q shaped Sports 800 would chug by, lap after lap and in fact it finished the whole race without having to refuel at all (the only car to do so) and in so doing….the Hosoya Sports 800 cruised to a win.

But all jokes aside, the record books will show that the simple and rugged, yet light and aerodynamic Sports 800 did hold its own in early Japanese racing, scoring a win in the Japanese Automobile Club race in 1965 against Honda S600 opposition (pic above) at a rain lashed race at Funabashi circuit and coming third outright behind a pair of Toyota 2000GTs at a 24hr enduro at Fuji in 1967.

Today it seems so unlikely that a company as straight-laced as Toyota would ever produce a car as whimsically unconventional as the targa-topped Sports 800, and even more unlikely is the fact that something based on the ultra cheap, basic-transport Publica could actually be raceable. A year after the debut of the Sports 800, Toyota released the slinky 2000GT supercar, a high-end car with a pricetag to match, but you can see some of the cheeky details of the Sports 800 in the later coupe.

One thing is for sure, and that is that it has been a very long time indeed since Toyota made a car that was quite this much fun to look at!

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