When Toyota introduced the Publica in 1960, I’m sure the Japanese automaker never thought that it would become a future classic, as well as restomod platform. The Publica was the Japanese giant’s smallest car at the time, and was made as a sedan, station wagon, coupe, convertible, and pickup, all of which never had more than three doors. Yes, it’s a dinky little thing at just 3.65 metres long and would grow a bit in time to come and be called the Starlet.
However, this Publica isn’t just any old econobox as it’s a restomod of sorts. Owned by Malith Dassanayake, it’s the first car he bought. 7 Sri 434 started life as a Doctor’s ride, and was sold to another Doctor before ending up in Malith’s hands, and as Malith is a Ph.D holder, it seems destined to be owned by Doctors. It’s a third generation KP30 manufactured in 1976. The P30 series ran between 1969 and 1978 and introduced the 993cc 2K in-line four-cylinder engine, which this car retains, unmodified. Outputs were 45hp and 48lb-ft when new in case you’re wondering.
However, from the pictures, you can see that Malith’s done a bit of customization. Firstly, the black wheel arches are definitely not stock Toyota, nor are the 13-inch 108pcd Alleycat Rally Special alloys that they frame. These are wrapped in Nankang NSII Ultra Sports tires for extra grippiness. A custom-made retro buffer lip is present, as well as some heat shielding keeping the Cherry Bomb straight-through exhaust from causing damage to the rear bumper.
If you’re thinking that there’s some trickery done to the engine, that’s where you’re wrong. The 2K remains bone stock, with a higher speed fan installed to improve cooling under higher rev driving. There’s also a custom front strut bar, GAB adjustable coilovers, and custom-made stiff shocks for the leaf-sprung rear. The transmission remains the factory four-speeder, sending drive to the rear wheels via the stock differential.
Climbing aboard reveals some more customization, albeit tastefully done. The trigger switch panel for engine starting is most prominent in the centre console, and the driver sits on a Cobra bucket seat with Tomei 4-point harness. It’s all necessary, as Malith has driven this car at multiple events, including the classic ones at Mahagastotte and Kukuleganga. He’s also added separate gauges for oil temperature, oil pressure and battery voltage, plus a small rev counter that sits directly in your field of view. The standard Toyota steering wheel remains, but the pedals are Sparco. Creature comforts for the 21st century include an AC and Pioneer CD/radio head unit with AUX and USB. The interior is also the only place you’ll find a TOYOTA badge on this car, apart from the Japanese script on the engine.
What’s it like to drive? Malith invites me to take the wheel and I don’t wait for him to ask a second time. From inside, the exhaust sound dominates, even at idle, reminding you that it doesn’t like to stand still for too long. Once you’re off, you can drive it as a daily runner, and it seems satisfied with 2,500rpm gear-changes, and second gear near-standstill starts. Malith has taken the car on the expressway as well where he says it sits comfortably at the posted speed limit. Show it an open road, though and this is where things get interesting. The unassisted steering is very easy to operate, and the engine happily revs up to around 5,500rpm which you feel is the natural change-up point for spirited driving. The speedometer steadily winds its way up the dial to an indicated sixty and beyond miles per hour, helped by the low kerb weight of around 700kg. There’s ample noise inside – not overpoweringly loud, but busy. It’s a very raw sensation, reminding you what cars were like before the digital era. You feel things through your fingertips, your feet, and your butt.
When the time to shed speed inevitably comes, you need to give the brakes a decent shove, as that pedal acts unassisted on four drums. Nevertheless, you soon get the hang of it and the sport tires mean you won’t easily lock up the wheels – no ABS, remember!
Malith regularly drives this car, as he finds it to be the best option during the current fuel scarcity situation, especially where 95-octane petrol is hard to find, and what’s claimed to be 92-octane is clearly subpar. These old engines are perfectly happy with much lower octane ratings, and happily purr away. He’s not the first person I’ve come across who’s parked their newer cars in their garages and brought out the golden oldies for daily running. Are we headed the way of Cuba in time to come?