Though it may look a little unusual now, the Toyota Sports 800 was the first production sports car ever made by the Japanese marque. This means that it’s the great-grandfather of the 2000GT, Supra, Celica, MR2, AE86, the modern GT86, and even the Lexus LFA.
The cleverly designed Sports 800 featured a lightweight body with a number of lightweight alloy panels, it had seating for two, a removable targa top roof, spritely handling, excellent fuel economy, and a top speed of 94 mph. It even claimed a few motorsport victories in Japan in the 1960s.
The Toyota Sports 800 was first unveiled as a concept car at the 1962 Tokyo Motor Show. The concept, called the “Publica Sports,” was designed by Shozo Sato, a renowned Japanese industrial designer, and Toyota engineer Tatsuo Hasegawa – a former WWII aircraft designer.
Above Video: This episode from Below The Radar covers the rare Toyota Sports 800, including a rundown on the history of the car and some driving footage.
The concept car was based on Toyota’s Publica, an affordable and economical compact car somewhat similar in philosophy to the modern Toyota Corolla. The Publica Sports concept garnered significant attention, paving the way for Toyota to develop a production version of the vehicle.
Toyota began full-scale production of the Sports 800 in April 1965, with the first vehicles reaching customers in May of that same year. The production model retained much of the design and styling of the Publica Sports concept, featuring a sleek and aerodynamic body with a low and wide stance.
One key change from the earlier concept was the roof and doors. Whereas the Publica Sports had a fighter aircraft style sliding canopy roof (likely inspired by Hasegawa’s aircraft work during WWII) the production car had two standard doors and a removable targa top roof – one of the first cars with this feature.
Powering the Toyota Sports 800 was an air-cooled, two-cylinder boxer engine with a displacement of 790cc. This tiny engine, designated the 2U-B, was derived from the Publica’s 697cc water-cooled twin-cylinder engine.
With the help of dual carburetors, more displacement, and a higher compression ratio, the 2U-B produced 45 bhp, a significant increase over the Publica’s 28 bhp. The engine was mated to a four-speed manual transmission, driving the rear wheels.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Toyota Sports 800 was its lightweight construction. The car’s outer body was made primarily of aluminum and the inner unibody shell was made from a thinner gauge steel, which helped keep the overall weight to just 580 kgs (1,279 lbs).
This lightweight design, combined with the car’s good aerodynamics and it’s small but peppy engine allowed the Sports 800 to achieve impressive performance and fuel efficiency by the standards of the time, with some owners claiming as much as 73 mpg.
The Toyota Sports 800 was produced in limited numbers, with only approximately 3,131 units built between 1965 and 1969. Despite its limited production, the Sports 800 achieved considerable success on the racetrack.
In 1966, a pair of Sports 800s participated in the Suzuka 500 km endurance race, with one of them finishing first in the race’s fuel economy category.
Later in the 1967 Fuji 24 Hour race the Toyota impressed the world with a one-two-three finish, with a Sports 800 finishing in third place after a pair of Toyota 2000GTs.
The Sports 800 also took a victory in the 1965 All-Japan Clubman Championship Race, a remarkable feat given the surge in homegrown compact sports car competition in the 1960s.
Interestingly almost all of the production examples of the Toyota Sports 800 were built in right hand drive for the domestic Japanese market. It’s believed that roughly 300 left hand drive versions were made for use in Okinawa, a Japanese island that hosted a large US military base and as a result tended to prefer left hand drive cars.
40 of these left hand drive cars were exported to the USA for evaluation by American Toyota dealers and it was generally felt that the car was too small for American roads and likely wouldn’t sell well. Toyota agreed and left the 40 cars there for the dealers to keep, not long after this in 1967 the Toyota 2000GT would be unveiled, with styling clearly influenced by the earlier Toyota Sports 800, and it would be offered for sale in the USA.
The flat-twin engine configuration used in the Sports 800 was largely overlooked by Toyota in the decades after the car left production in October of 1969, that was until the Toyota GT86 was unveiled in 2013 featuring a flat-four engine co-developed with Subaru.
Looking back at the incredible number of Toyota sports cars released over the decades it’s remarkable to look back and realize that the Japanese automotive behemoth’s very first sports car was such a small and unusual affair. Just 10% of the original number are thought to survive, and almost all of them remain in Japan with a few exceptions.
The car you see here is one of the original right hand drive Japanese-market cars that was imported into the United States very recently, in February of 2023 in fact. It’s finished in silver over blue upholstery with a color-matching removable targa top, vertical front and rear bumpers, 13″ alloy wheels, and 165/60 Bridgestone Playz tires.
There’s clearly some patina, particularly on the inside of the car, as well as some bodywork issues that would need to be addressed, so this should probably best be viewed as an historically significant, drivable project car.
It’s currently being listed for sale out of Portland, Oregon with a tool kit and a clean Washington title on Bring a Trailer. If you’d like to read more about it or register to bid you can visit the listing here.
Images courtesy of Bring a Trailer.
Articles that Ben has written have been covered on CNN, Popular Mechanics, Smithsonian Magazine, Road & Track Magazine, the official Pinterest blog, the official eBay Motors blog, BuzzFeed, Autoweek Magazine, Wired Magazine, Autoblog, Gear Patrol, Jalopnik, The Verge, and many more.
Silodrome was founded by Ben back in 2010, in the years since the site has grown to become a world leader in the alternative and vintage motoring sector, with well over a million monthly readers from around the world and many hundreds of thousands of followers on social media.
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