1967 Honda S600
1967 Honda S600; photo by Graeme Fletcher. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The Honda Motor Co. is relatively new in the automobile business. The company showed its first car, a tiny two-seater roadster, at the 1962 Tokyo auto show. Production began in 1963.

Honda had reached this point from modest beginnings. After the Second World War, an ingenious automobile mechanic named Soichiro Honda began fitting war surplus gasoline engines to bicycles. He formed the Honda Motor Co. in 1948, and since transportation was desperately scarce in Japan, his little Hamamatsu-based company grew and prospered. It was soon manufacturing its own engines, and launched its first motorcycle, the Dream, in 1949. Honda would go on to become the world’s largest motorcycle maker.

By the early 1960s Honda’s small displacement motorcycle engines were the equal of the best in the world, which it proved by winning the famed Isle of Man T.T. (Tourist Trophy) race in 1961.

When Honda entered the four-wheel field its motorcycle heritage was readily apparent in the first Honda car. The little roadster was powered by an aluminum, four-stroke, double overhead camshaft, inline four-cylinder engine breathing through four side-draft carburetors. The crankshaft ran in roller bearings, common motorcycle practice but unusual in cars, and required an intricate built-up crankshaft. The spark plugs were in the centre of the hemispherical combustion chambers.

Engine displacements were 360 cc and 492 cc, and the roadsters were known as the S360 (S for Sport) and S500; the smaller engine was intended for the home market. The 492 cc S500 spun out 40 horsepower at 8,000, and by the time it went into production it had grown to the 531 cc and 44 horsepower. Its 84 horsepower per litre was a heady figure for an automobile engine at that time.

Power was fed to the rear wheels through a five-speed manual transmission (a four-speed was later used), but not in the usual manner. Rather than a conventional rear axle unit, Honda chose to mount the differential solidly on the ladder-type frame, well ahead of the rear-wheel centreline.

This differential drove two jackshafts with sprockets on their outer ends which transferred the power to the rear wheels through chains enclosed in cases. This layout allowed rear wheel coil spring independent suspension using the enclosed chain cases as trailing arms. Front suspension was by A-arms and torsion bars, and steering by rack-and-pinion.

The Honda was a little car even by small sports car standards of the day. It had a 2,006 mm (79 in.) wheelbase, which was 38 mm (1.5 in.) shorter than the diminutive Austin-Healey Sprite’s. And its over-all length of just 3,302 mm (130 in.) was 203 mm (8 in.) shorter than the Sprite’s.

Engine displacement was soon increased to 606 cc for the S600, which put out 57 horsepower at 8500 rpm. A coupe was added to the line in 1965.

Performance was respectable for its class. Road & Track (4/65) recorded a zero to 60 mph (96 km/h) time of 17.8 seconds for the 744 kg (1640 lb) S600 roadster, which was a half second faster than the 1.1-litre BMC Sprite. Top speed was 145 km/h (90 mph) compared with the Sprite’s 137 (85).

Engine size was increased once again to produce the 791 cc S800, a 161-km/h (100 mph) car, which was introduced at the 1965 Tokyo Auto Show. A few S800s were built with the chain drive system before the change was made to a conventional rear axle.

The Honda Sport was imported to Canada in small numbers, but not officially into the United States because it failed to meet U.S. emissions standards.

The Honda’s performance came from its high revs, with very little power available below 3,500 rpm. Although the Sprite, with its engine buzzing along at 4,000 rpm at 100 km/h (62 mph), wasn’t exactly an easy high-speed cruiser, it sounded absolutely relaxed compared with the Honda. The S-600’s little four had to spin at an extremely high 6,100 rpm at 100 km/h (62 mph). At its 145- km/h (90 mph) top speed, it was turning an astronomical 9,100! The banshee wail of the engine announced the approach of the little Honda Sport long before it appeared.

Production of the S800 continued through to 1970 when other priorities took over at Honda. The company had soon realized that it needed to get into more mainstream cars and in 1966 it added a little two-door sedan, the N-360. This grew to the N-500 and N-600. Other family models followed quickly, culminating in the watershed Civic in 1972, the car that established Honda on the world market.

Although its first automobile was a sports car, Honda didn’t get back into the real sports car business for a long time. It had its sporty Prelude, of course, but its return to a genuine sports car was the 1989 introduction of the high-tech NSX from its up-scale Acura division.

For 2000, Honda introduced the car that recaptured the spirit of the original S-series, the Honda S2000. It is light and nimble, and its 2.0 litre, twin overhead cam four developed 240 horsepower at 8300 rpm, or 120 per litre. It harks back to the essence of that high-revving original.

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