1972 Honda N600 coupe
1972 Honda N600 coupe. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

By the 1960s Japan’s Honda Motor Company had become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. With this two-wheeled success to build on, the company decided to enter the automobile business. It built its first car in 1962, a tiny roadster whose design was heavily derived from motorcycle technology. This S-series was put into production in 1963.

The little roadster, which went through S500, S600 and S800 versions based on engine size, had good performance for its size but it was too small to appeal to more than a very narrow market niche. A few were sent to North America on a trial basis.

In 1966 Honda expanded into a small front-wheel drive sedan designated as the N360/N600 and powered by a two-cylinder, air-cooled engine. Other models followed, and by 1968 Honda’s annual automobile production had exceeded 185,000.

Honda had exported some cars, but not to North America. When they did introduce us to their cars it was the N600, marketed simply as the 600, which started trickling to the West Coast in 1969. The 600 was a very small basic car that appeared somewhat influenced by the British Austin/Morris Mini.

The 600 and the Mini were about the same size, with the 600’s wheelbase of 1,999 mm (78.7 in.) being just 33 mm (1.3 in.) shorter than the Mini’s 2,032 mm (80 in.). The 600’s overall length of 3,175 mm (125 in.) was a mere (127 mm (5 in.) greater than the Mini. Weight of the 600 was 615 kg (1,355 lb.), the Mini 608 kg (1340 lb). These diminutive two-door sedans could carry four (friendly) passengers.

Both were powered by transverse engines driving the front wheels, but here some differences began to show up. The Mini had a 848-cc overhead valve, water cooled, inline four, compared with the 600’s 598-cc overhead cam, air cooled, inline two-cylinder. The Mini’s four produced 37 horsepower, while the 600’s twin produced 36. Another interesting difference was that the Honda engine used a roller bearing crankshaft whereas the Mini had conventional plain main bearing. Both had their four-speed manual transmissions in the engine sump.

The use of a smooth running four-cylinder engine made the Mini seem more like a “real” car. The 600’s twin was noisy and plagued by vibration. And although the top speed was about the same at 117-121 km/h (73-75 mph), this required the Honda’s little twin to spin at 5,850 rpm, while the Mini’s was turning almost 1,000 rpm lower at 5,000. Neither would be called leisurely, however, nor could these speeds be considered conducive to long engine life.

The 600 sedan was a very utilitarian little vehicle, and in the interests of sportier motoring, Honda soon introduced the 600 Coupe. Although it was designated as a coupe, there were two small passenger seats in the back. It was sort of a semi-hatch, as access to the small trunk was through the top-hinged rear window.

The mechanical specifications were similar to the 600 sedan, with a transverse twin driving the front wheels through a four-speed manual transmission. Suspension was by MacPherson struts in front and a beam axle and leaf springs at the rear. Although adequate, and generally standard fare on contemporary small cars, it was not as sophisticated as the British Leyland Mini’s “Hydrolastic” rubber and fluid suspension that was inter-connected front to rear for a more level ride.

The acceleration of the Coupe was modest, with a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 23.6 seconds (Road & Track 9/72). The top speed of 126 km/h (78 mph) was quite adequate for this class of car. The driver would not likely want to maintain this for long, however, due to the cacophony created by the little engine.

The Honda Coupe was at its best as a commuter car for one or two persons. It was small and easy to park, and would give fuel economy in the 5 to 7 L/100 km (40 to 47 mpg) range. It would also have been ideal as a second car, providing cheap around-town driving, and enough room with the rear seat folded down to easily carry a week’s groceries. Its attractions were low initial price and good fuel economy.

But the pram-like appearance and small size of the 600 Coupe limited its appeal. There would also be the cost of meeting tightening emission standards, and thus Honda decided to withdraw the 600 sedan and Coupe from the North American market in 1972.

The 600 was replaced by the Honda Civic, introduced here in 1973. The Civic was not an evolution of the 600, but an all-new car that would launch Honda onto the international automobile market. Although still small, it was 376 mm (14.8 in.) longer than the 600, which made the interior more suitable for general use. It felt more like a “real” car, with its 1.2-litre aluminum, transversely mounted overhead cam four cylinder driving the front wheels through a four-speed manual transmission, with a two-speed automatic optional.

The Civic’s performance was more than adequate: zero to 96 (60) in 14.1 seconds, and top speed of 147 km/h (91 mph) (R&T 5/73). It could be called a better, more refined Mini.

The Honda 600 sedan and Coupe were Honda’s first foray into the North American market, and it soon indicated to Honda that a bigger, faster car was needed for success here.

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