Toyota Sports 800 Driven! The Supra’s Grandpappy Was a Hoot

This Toyota sports car predated the Supra, 86, and 2000GT—and it’s still fun to drive today.

Ken Saitowriter, photographer

In 1960s Japan, the economy was finally starting to prosper again, and the idea that an automobile could be more than mere transportation started to take hold. Enter the sports car. Companies such as Honda (S500/600/800), Nissan (Silvia), and Datsun (Fairlady) all launched such models, and Toyota got in on the fun, too, with the Sports 800—without which we might have never seen the Supra, the 86, or even the legendary 2000GT.

What differentiated the little Toyota from its contemporary rivals was its lightness, low center of gravity, and aerodynamic body; it was all about low weight and big fun at an affordable price. The lead engineer of the Sports 800 project was Tatsuo Hasegawa, who previously worked on aircraft. That showed in the prototype of the Sports 800, the Publica Sports, which debuted at the 1962 Tokyo Motor Show with an airplane-style canopy. The concept shared the Toyota Publica sedan's modest, 28-hp 690cc engine. Eventually, the production version would gain a larger, 790cc version of the two-cylinder boxer motor and stump up 45 horsepower.

Quite a few of the Sports 800's parts were shared with the humble Publica, the predecessor to today's Corolla. But despite these roots, the Sports 800 proved itself in motorsports, taking victories in the 1965 All-Japan Clubman Championship Race and the 1966 Suzuka 500km Endurance Race, plus third overall in the 1966 Fuji 24 Hours behind a pair of 2000GTs.

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The rivalry between the Honda S roadsters and the Sports 800 was particularly fierce. The Toyota was longer, wider, lower, and lighter by about 385 pounds compared to the Honda, but was down roughly 25 horsepower and would max out at 96 mph—the Honda could do 100 mph. Enthusiasts saw the Sports 800 as being a bit of an underdog compared to the Honda and the much larger Datsun, which actually played well to the Japanese mindset of hangan-biiki, which roughly translates to "supporting the underdog." Even so, the Sports 800 was every bit a proper sports car.

I was fortunate enough to drive one recently, and the lightness is immediately noticeable. At only 1278 pounds, there's not a lot of mass. In fact, me simply sitting in it added almost 14 percent to the figure. With its naturally low seating position and feathery construction, it feels very much like driving a race car—there's not much between you and the road. It's eager to change directions and does so quickly—sometimes on its own—with the driver controlling things via a sizable steering wheel and a four-speed manual gearbox with no synchro for first gear. It's extremely easy to drive, extremely fun, and, well, extremely hot given the lack of air conditioning. The owner of the car I drove, Yasunari 'Sugi' Sugiyama, says he tries to use his Sports 800s twice per month, although sometimes less during the summer.

Sugi has owned this particular car since 2013, after having been asked to "take care of it" by the father of one of his students during his time working as the president of the Toyota Technical College in Tokyo. He saved this example after it spent years on an island being ravaged by salty sea air. When he bought the car, it was in rough condition—"the entire floor had rusted away"—and undertook a two-year restoration. Beyond the body work, the effort included rebuilding the engine using original Sports 800 parts, which isn't as common as you might think. Many Sports 800s, Sugi says, use more common Publica parts—or even full Publica engines—as the Sports 800 engines are hard to rebuild properly.

Sugi fell in love with the Sports 800 in middle school, when he laid eyes on the concept at the Tokyo Motor Show, and the model inspired him to work for Toyota. After being hired by the company in 1972, he bought his other example from a senior executive and has kept it ever since; in fact, the two Toyotas are the only sports cars he's ever owned. That first Sports 800 also needed work, but his position within the Toyota parts department helped facilitate its revival. In fact, he carried the engine and parts to the fourth floor of his company dormitory room and rebuilt them there. Today, the car now features a deleted bumper, aluminum wheels, an aluminum nose and fenders, a silver painted roof, and door-mounted side mirrors to help the aerodynamics—in accordance with the philosophy of its engineer, Hasegawa-san.

The car you see here is stock except for the addition of TRD wheels because Sugi believes "hubcaps don't belong on a sports car." He also removed the carpeting to avoid it rotting, as Sports 800 roofs tend to leak. He plans to leave this one well enough alone moving forward, but his first Sports 800 is due for a full restoration in the future. The 55th anniversary of the Sports 800 is 2020, and he hopes to show both cars at events in Japan and possibly beyond.

Given its simplicity, it's easy to maintain but parts can be difficult to find. That's where the Toyota Sports 800 Owners Club comes in. Sugi was the president of the 50th anniversary committee for the Sports 800 in 2015, which morphed into the Sports 800 Owners Club in 2016. Through the group, they've expanded and maintained a list of cars and owners throughout Japan. Beyond forming bonds through a shared love of the model, the club's members also help each other track down bits and pieces, or simply lend their expertise. Of the 3057 Sports 800 produced, Sugi estimates a third are still in existence. The registry now encompasses just over 1000 cars, with a few possible duplicates.

The club also aims to foster enthusiasm among car fans in general by hosting events and shows regularly in Japan. During the 50th anniversary celebrations, Sugi drove his Sports 800 to six locations from Fukuoka in the south to Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido, an 1,875-mile journey that he took two months to complete.

The Sports 800 didn't only herald Toyota's foray into the world of sporty cars, it also started the company's deep and long lineage of the breed. The Supra, Celica, 86, MR2, and 2000GT that followed, among others, would go on to form passionate and large fanbases of their own, and they owe a lot to the plucky Sports 800.

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