This year marks the 50th anniversary of Toyota’s first sports car, the 1965 Toyota Sports 800. Though small in size, the Yotahachi, as it became affectionately known, quickly developed a devoted fan base thanks to its ultra light-weight construction, aircraft-inspired styling, and unique removable “targa” roof panel that debuted two years before Porsche’s. To honor this unique automobile, Toyota sponsored two events on successive days, first at its home in Aichi Prefecture and then in the capital of Tokyo.
It’s funny how one random occurrence can have a snowballing impact, such as stumbling upon a Japanese comic book while waiting for your vinyl record collection to be appraised a Tennessee record store. The comic book in question was the now-classic You’re Under Arrest!, and one of the star cars of the series was the Toyota Sports 800, a car which has had a pronounced effect on my life since then.
The latest result of that instance was timing my vacation (from a car museum that has a Sports 800) to coincide with the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Yotahachi. While events are taking place all over Japan this year, my specific target was a two-day event in central Japan in May, with one day at the Toyota Automobile Museum in Nagoya, and the next at Toyota’s MegaWEB in Tokyo. It promised to be a blowout. I had no idea what an understatement that would be.
Arriving at Nagoya Station by Shinkansen, I took the Higashiyama Line to its last stop in Fujigaoka. Instead of hopping on another train or a bus, I decided to splurge a little and arrive at the Toyota Automobile Museum in a Toyota… Crown Comfort taxi.
When I arrived, owners and their cars were being introduced to the crowd by the museum’s Takekuni Saito, head of the Nagoya event. Right away, I was introduced to Yasunari Sugiyama, the main coordinator for both days, and Watanabe-san, my ride to Tokyo that evening. The introduction consisted of shoving me into the passenger seat of his Yotahachi as it was rolling up to the interview spot. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu! A quick interview (in Japanese), a parade lap around the building, and back into the parking lot. After that, I put together my trusty Nikon and went to work.
Two sections of the museum’s parking lot had been set aside for displaying Toyota’s first sports car. There were examples from each year of production, race cars, one-owner cars, restomods, and mythical cars I had only seen in grainy little scans of old photographs. It was heaven.
According to Sugiyama-san, the total number of owners’ cars at the TAM was 89. That does not include the 4 cars Toyota had on display from their own collection. When you consider that only 3,131 were ever built and maybe only 10 percent survive today, the attendance was especially impressive.
One car that caught my eye right away was this heavily-modified race car. Before that moment, I had only seen grainy little pictures of the car, deep in the corners of Japan’s internet. To see that it still existed was fantastic. I missed the opportunity to ask the owner about the car’s history, but have asked Sugiyama-san to put me in touch with him, so I can learn more about the car’s undoubtedly interesting past.
Many of the cars were personalized. Some in small ways, some in obvious ways. Some out of necessity due to the scarcity of parts, and some just because. This silver example wears tasteful custom wheels and a beautiful handmade, hand-painted rear package shelf.
Only 10 percent of the total production was left-hand drive, mostly for the Okinawa market, but some were built for a test run in America back in 1967. Although the exact number was apparently not documented (or the records were lost), the popular estimate is 41 cars. However, after determining that the cars would not sell well in the US, Toyota left them with the dealerships instead of shipping them back to Japan. Some cars did make their way home over the years, and this is one of them. It was brought out by my friend, Dohi-san. Except for the wheels, it’s a twin to the car we have at work.
This vintage race car celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Sports 800 by attending the Goodwood Festival of Speed, which might make it the classiest Sports 800 out there.
Popular interior modifications seemed to be modern radios, navigation aids for dealing with Japan’s notorious traffic, electric fans for coping with Japan’s even more notorious humidity, and timing equipment for running club rallies. The classic stopwatch-stuck-to-the-dash always works.
The occasional light drizzle wasn’t about to keep dedicated Yotahachi lovers from checking out a restomodded example of their favorite car.
The car in question was running modern wheels, headlights, and even air conditioning. The owner even rebuilt the original gas heater and is brave enough to actually use it. (I’m not that brave. During a mechanical rebuild of our car a couple of years ago, I blocked the fuel line to the gas heater in order to disable it.)
Inside the Annex at the Toyota Automobile Museum, Saito-san led a panel discussion with men who were responsible for the design and production of the Toyota’s first sports car. Unfortunately, the lead designer, Tatsuo Hasegawa, passed away in 2008.
To the side of the packed house were three fine examples. A privately-owned 1965 model that was stock down to its bias-ply tires, the gas turbine hybrid from the 1979 Tokyo Motor Show, and a reproduction of the 1962 concept car from that year’s All Japan Motor Show.
Since the discussion was completely in Japanese and beyond my N-level, I used the time to explore the museum and parking lots on my own.
After the discussion panel and the handing out of gift bags, it was time to pack myself into Watanabe-san’s 1968 Yotahachi and head for Tokyo and the Oedo Onsen on Odaiba. But not before some of the museum staff volunteered to pose with the car the American guest would be riding in. And finding a passenger-less Yotahachi to carry my suitcase.
Leaving the museum, we started off with a small pack of Sports 800s headed for Tokyo. We had fun taking turns passing each other while drivers and passengers in modern cars marveled at our classic machines. But as cars pulled off into parking areas one by one, it wasn’t long before we were going solo.
The four-hour drive through Japan’s scenic countryside was surreal, like living inside of a movie, making the contrast with our nighttime cruise of Tokyo’s famous C1 and Rainbow Bridge all the more dramatic.
A cold beer, a big meal, and a hot soak in a tub (even if it was public) were in order. I needed to refresh and recharge, for tomorrow was an even bigger day.
Bonus photos below:
Chris Nicholson keeps the cars running at the Lane Motor Museum and is founder of YouShouldVisitJapan.com.
very nice coverage sir! The Yellow and white race liveried example is quite interesting…it warrants a small write up.
Thank you! I fully agree with you about that car, and have already reached out to the owner for more information.
Rewind 30 years…
Hey we need an S800 expert to see if any of the same cars attended both..
I can think of 4 or 5 people who were at both events, but I don’t know if they owned the same cars for both events or had changed cars over the decades. There were a few people in attendance who had owned their cars since new or nearly new.
Chris, thank you sir! The story was perfect, the pictures are awesome and I am very envious of your journey. I am trying to put something together to get over there as well. I hope you were able to get some goodies as well. Thanks again!
James, thank you so much, sir! Let me know if I can be of any assistance in your journey. And if you’re there while I’m there, then at least a dinner together is in order.
There was much swag for registering. One of the items was a special plaque bearing a replica of the car’s body plate. It is even stamped with the car’s chassis number!
Thank you for this wonderful write-up Chris. It brought tears of joy to this Toyotageek. Several times I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out with Dohi-san and going for some drives around Utsunomiya, but your trip from Nagoya to Tokyo takes the cake. Like James, I am envious of your journey, and would have given my first born son if I had one, to be there for this year’s celebrations. To see so many Yotahachis in one place must have been a sight to behold. The 2000GT may be the most famous and most expensive Toyota Sports car, but the Sports 800 is by far my favorite. Domo arigatou gozaimasu!
Thank you very much for the kind words. Dohi-san is a genuine pleasure to hang out with, and I hope one day the three of us can cruise around Utsunomiya together. Especially if there is a gyoza stop involved.
While I agree with you about the 2000GT and the Sports 800, I have to add the disclaimer that I’ve yet to drive a 2000GT. It’s difficult to imagine any car putting a bigger smile on my face than a Yotahachi though.
I was gonna be pissed if there were no navy blue Yotahachis with gold wheels at either of those meets.
Now you just know that Miyuki-chan’s Yotahachi had to make an appearance!
(That’s my favorite combination for the Sports 800 too. I wonder why…)
Here in NC, there is a toyota junkyard ran by an old toyota mechanic called Toys Unlimited. He actually has a LHD 800 shell theren unfortunately rusting away, mainly because I’m sure he wants too much for it.
Where is that guy located? I’m from central nc and have had plenty of people mention him when I ask about old yotas. Only one person actually told me the location but I’ve forgotten.
Great story, Chris! My favorite is the silver one with black steelies. Something about that sleek and simple look. Also, they rarely seem to appear in white, and yet here’s a whole row of them!
Thank you Ben. It was a pleasure. I was also stunned to see so many white ones. One will pop up on a Yahoo Japan auction once in a while, but that many in one spot was a shock to the system. 🙂
Awesome coverage! I love these cars and agree that they tend to be overshadowed by the 2000GT. Glad they’re properly celebrated. Can’t wait for the next part, especially about that race car. It looks wild, kinda like an endurance racer?
Thank you Dave. Unfortunately, I won’t have a spotlight on the yellow and white car ready for the next installment. But I do hope to have more history and information from the owner soon.
Chris, just great write-up & awesome photos! Wish I am there to witness this incredible event. I am from Malaysia & one of the very few to own a Yotahachi here. Mine is RH drive.
Thank you David. I wish you could have been there too.
Tremendous coverage, of a great event! The sound of all those flat-twin must have been fantastic. I think I’ve only ever seen four or five Yotahachi together at once, so this looks pretty spectacular.
Deep blue over gold spoke wheels looks pretty neat…
Thank you! The sound was great not only on the expressway, but also bouncing off the walls at MegaWEB in Tokyo the next day.
Awesome! I miss my 67′ LHD car – too many projects though with a LS400 and AE86 race cars already in the garage!
Dave, I remember seeing your car online (many) years ago. It was one of the first Sports 800 I found online, and really helped to generate my interest in the car. I think we even exchanged a few emails way back when.
For those interested, we will be holding a small 50th anniversary gathering at this year’s JCCS.
If you own a Sports 800 or know someone that does, please join in on the celebration. It may not rival the gatherings in Japan, but my hope is that it will be the largest gathering in the USA to date.
Je suis Français et je viens de récupérer une Toyota S 800 en bon état et qui a la particularité d’être une rare conduite à gauche. J’aimerai avoir des renseignement sur les clubs et les revendeurs de pièces pour ce modèle.