Driven by Design: Toyota Sports 800
(This article is part of the Driven by Design series.)
In the car industry, if not industry in general, you can always count on a few maxims that will never go out of style: first, sex sells. When talking about cars, this means bodies that are lithe and quick such as those that grace sports cars. Second, if a market segment is brand new and barriers to entry are fairly low, competitors will jump in until it is saturated.
Such were the conditions that yielded the Toyota Sports 800 (or ‘Yota Hachi (Toyota Eight)). In the early sixties, Daihatsu, Datsun, and then Honda had all released their first sports cars (in Honda’s case, their very first car) and Toyota wanted a piece of the market too. So they built a sports car based on their Publica 700 (an economy car)and debuted it at the 1962 Tokyo Motor Show with a few rocket-age details such as a sliding canopy. This detail was appropriate as the 800’s chief engineer (Tatsuo Hasegawa) had worked as an airplane designer during World War II.
The Sports 800 was on sale about three years later, minus the sliding canopy. It did have one innovative greenhouse related touch, but more on that in a bit. The proportions are pure sports car–it has a long hood and short deck with the passenger compartment pushed back, with the doors nearly at the rear wheel-wells. And although the overhangs are a bit long (just a bit) their mass is hidden by the fact that the Sports 800 has a lot of section in plan view (it’s very round). One of the most important things to note about this car is how small it is. As a result of its diminutive dimensions most photos of it are taken from above rather than putting the camera at the belt line or lower. This tends to exaggerate the size of the greenhouse making the car look cartoonish. In person, the proportion of the day-light opening to the body side is quite good.
The same could be said about the stance, which is pretty mediocre: not great but not terrible. One has to wonder why the rear wheels appear so inset. The surfacing isn’t terribly innovative, although the fender flares are nice, but the Japanese were still just learning. This isn’t an excuse but a fact. Some of the details are a bit curious too, clearly pointing to Hasegawa’s previous career and to the car’s aspirations, as they appear a bit aeronautical.
Consider the B-pillar vents and fender-mounted turn signals. If those turn signals weren’t inspired by a Zero’s wingtip nav lights I would be surprised. One of the coolest features of the Sports 800 is the headlamp design that manages to straddle a surface transition and look quite good. It is a futuristic touch that made more traditional cars (AC Ace, any Ferrari to this point, etc…) immediately look dated. Additionally, the front of the 800 foreshadows the 2000GT to some extent. And while it didn’t get a sliding canopy, the roof also deserves a mention as the Sports 800 was one of the first cars to wear an aluminum Targa top (beating the Porsche 911 by two years). Many of its panels were actually fabricated from aluminum using Hasegawa’s background to minimize the car’s weight so that its roughly 45hp mill could push it along more efficiently.
Much like Datsun’s Fairlady and Honda’s S500, this is the sports car that started it all for Toyota. Interestingly, while everyone knows of cars like the Corvette and Lamborghini’s 350GT, the Sports 800 is relatively unknown in the west because it was never exported in any real numbers. But only a few years later, we’d get the 2000GT followed by the Celica, AE86, and finally, the Supra. It may appear a baby sports car in photos, but in person it looks fun, engaging, and every bit a real sports car.
Want to see more of the Toyota Sports 800? Check out our film of a Sports 800 in Southern California.