Canada’s little Toyota Publica is long gone, but not all forgotten

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Photo by Brendan McAleer

No, the Toyota Publica doesn’t look like much. Under the hood is a scant 28 horsepower. There’s not much forward-looking technology to admire, either. Rear-wheel drive and an air-cooled flat two-cylinder were ancient tech when the car launched in Japan in 1961. The little runabout seems delicate, and compared to the average car of its time, it looks like a toy.

But it’s not a toy. It’s a Toyota, a nameplate that’s now synonymous with quality and reliability. The UP10 Publica was one of the first Toyotas to arrive in Canada, starting in the mid-1960s. While it wasn’t the biggest or fastest thing out there, it helped establish a foothold for the brand’s lasting success story.

This particular Publica is a 1966 model, with the two-speed Toyoglide automatic transmission. The badges shout that it’s the Deluxe model, though there’s not much luxury to be found. For instance, there’s no radio. Perhaps such confidence comes from the onboard heater?

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Brendan McAleer

The Japanese motor industry at this time was only just beginning to establish itself in the market, and most onlookers laughed at these first tottering steps. You could buy a Datsun pickup in Canada in 1964, but only if you went to an independent dealer. With a bit of persistence, you might also be able to get your hands on a Honda S600, but you’d have to find a motorcycle dealership that had one, and good luck getting it serviced later on.

Starting in 1964, Toyota began selling cars in Canada through a distributorship agreement with Canadian Motor Industries (CMI). There were four models available: the Land Cruiser, the Crown, the Corona, and the Publica. In that first year, some 755 vehicles found homes in Canadian driveways. Publicas made up only a fraction of that amount. Few have survived.

By Japanese standards, the UP10 Publica was a pretty good car. It was developed to meet the standards of the Japanese Ministry of Trade’s national car vision. Established in 1955, the notion manifested as a set of guidelines that looked to put Japan’s economy on wheels. A proper family car, the specifications said, should be able to seat four comfortably, hit 62 mph (100 km/h), get 71 mpg (3.3 liters/100 kms), and have an engine displacement of 500 cc.

Toyota’s engineers examined the various “people’s cars” of the world, and hit upon the Citroën 2CV as a worthy candidate for imitation. The practice of copying European designs was common at the time, and indeed early on Nissan built Austins under license. In this case, Toyota’s engineers elected to abandon the then-new technology of front-wheel drive, but they retained a two-cylinder boxer-engine layout with a 700 cc displacement. Suspension was double-wishbone up front, leaf springs in back. Despite the Publica’s small size, it was at least roomy.

1966-Toyota-Publica-700-logo
Brendan McAleer

Name aside, the Japanese public failed to embrace the Publica. Its bare-bones equipment offerings were anything but aspirational. Even so, Toyota elected to include the Publica in the handful of export models it intended to bring to market in Canada.

Vast and cold, with a spread-out population that often needs to cover large distances for services, Canada seems an unlikely home for the Publica. It was sold under the UP10 moniker, and it was less popular than the slightly larger Corona sedan. However, a few people looking for thrifty and reliable motoring took a gamble on the little Toyota.

One such man was William “Bill” Pasincky Sr. A Hungarian immigrant who had escaped the Soviet takeover of his country, Pasincky arrived in Fort Erie, Ontario, with just 87 cents in his pocket. He worked hard enough to establish his own service station, and in 1964 the entrepreneur counted himself among the first Toyota dealers in the country. On the same day he staked his life’s savings of $3500 for the franchise, he found out that his wife was pregnant with their first child.

Today, Bill’s Toyota in Fort Erie is Canada’s longest-running Toyota dealership, although Bill Sr. has stepped back from the helm in the last couple of years. It remains a healthy family business in the hands of his two sons, Bill Jr. and Mike Pasincky.

As Toyota Canada grew over the years, however, the UP10 Publica was largely forgotten. Those few Publica owners drove their cars until they were used up, and then, presumably, sent them off to the scrap yard. The related Sports 800, the nimble little Yota-hachi, has become collector sports car that’s revered by fans of Toyota’s history. The Publica is a footnote.

Except this one. Restored in the early ’90s, this 1966 Publica was preserved, parked indoors at a Toyota dealership in Courtenay, British Columbia. It spent several decades in the showroom, on display, away from the elements.

When the dealer closed down, the car changed hands, eventually passing into the ownership of Tim Holodryzuk. Holodryzuk is one of those car enthusiasts who doesn’t place limits on the kinds of cars that excite him. He owns a Dodge Omni GLH, a Honda CRX, a Buick Grand National, and a drop-top 5.0-liter Fox-body Mustang.

It was, ultimately, not a great fit. For one thing, Holodryzuk lives about an hour north of Whistler, British Columbia, up where the roads are mostly owned by fast-moving full-size pickup trucks. It’s no place for an elderly 28-hp Japanese sedan with a two-speed auto. Furthermore, parts availability for the Publica is virtually non-existent, and Tim likes to drive his cars. He decided to sell the Publica on Bring A Trailer so that it might be displayed somewhere as a significant piece of Canadian automotive history. It sold for $9800.

Before the auction closed, I drove up to meet Holodryzuk and see the Publica. We started it up and pulled it out into the snow for a few photos. The crimson paint glittered brightly against the white background, a Canadian Christmas card scene from 1966.

The Publica looks cheery and determined. A hopeful car that represented a big risk, entering a new market on the other side of the world. Though it ultimately wasn’t by the grace of this pint-sized people mover, Toyota’s gamble still paid off.

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