Americans' love for sporty Hondas started in Japan
Servicemen brought high-revving cars home with them
Honda today is best known for its solid and dependable Civic and Accord sedans. But in the 1960s it was small, high-revving sports cars that got Honda noticed outside the motorcycle world.
Hundreds of American servicemen stationed in Japan in the 1960s liked their Honda sports cars so much, they imported them to the United States, the first Honda cars on American soil.
Significance: The high-revving, advanced sports cars, which debuted at the Japan National Auto Show in October 1962, were Honda's first automobiles.
Honda's first cars — the S500, S600 and S800, built from 1963 to 1970 — were two-seat convertibles about 130 inches long. That's about six inches shorter than the Austin Healey Sprite, the smallest sports car available in the United States at the time, and tiny by American standards.
Although those first Honda cars were never offered in the United States, they would help the company prepare for its official entry into the U.S. market. According to a 1999 Honda book, A Dynamic Past, an Exciting Future, the S-series cars taught Honda that:
-- Its motorcycle production system could not be adapted to automobiles because it never would yield the volume or cost efficiencies needed to build cars profitably. New investments would be needed in production machinery designed specifically for automobiles.
-- The company would need plants dedicated to car production.
-- Because cars need about 10 times more parts than motorcycles, relationships would have to be forged with new suppliers.
-- To sell cars globally, the company would have to meet safety and emissions regulations. The S800, built from 1968 to 1970, featured safety glass, recessed door handles, a cleaner-running engine, stronger disc brakes and other modifications.
All this helped set the table for Honda's first official U.S. car export, the N600, in 1969.
Honda built about 25,000 S500, S600 and S800 roadsters. Most were sold in Japan. A few were exported to Europe and Canada.
Brian Baker, a New York classic Honda enthusiast who has bought, sold and restored vintage Hondas since 1981, says roughly 2,000 S-series cars survive. He estimates about 375 are in the United States.
"The thing you have to understand about the S cars is that they were purpose-built originally for the home market," Baker says. "Mr. Honda wanted to provide an exciting car, a sports car, but still keep it within the financial means of the average Japanese worker. That's why it wasn't originally a world car."
A nicely restored S600 or S800 — if you can find one for sale — would cost about $25,000, Baker says. But you would spend a lot of time trying to find one for sale in the United States.
Baker says: "I've spoken to 10 or 12 guys over the years who served in the Navy in Okinawa and Japan. And when their tour was up, they pretty much did nothing more than ask the ship's captain, 'Hey, captain, do you mind if I bring my car home?' And he said, 'Oh, sure, drive it on the ship, and we'll strap it down.'"
Advanced for their time
Today, the S roadsters appeal to collectors for historic and technical reasons. Baker says the cars were advanced for their time.
The S500 and S600, breathing through four carburetors, could be revved to a dizzying 9,500 rpm before they reached the red line on the tachometer. The S800, also with four carbs, could be revved to 8,500 rpm. The engines in all three cars sported double overhead cams, a layout so exotic it was used almost exclusively on race cars. Also, the S cars' crankshafts used roller bearings, advanced for the 1960s.
Some versions of the S600 and S800 produced nearly 100 hp per liter of displacement, something no other production-car engines matched, Baker says. And most of the cars had four-wheel independent suspension.
In 1998, when Honda wanted a car to commemorate its 50th corporate anniversary, it turned to a modern interpretation of the original S-series car and produced the S2000 sports car.
Like its 1960s counterparts, the S2000 also sported a high-revving, powerful engine: a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that produced 200 hp. The S2000, which ends production this year, will be Honda's last sports car for a while, says Honda President Takeo Fukui.
"In the future, we would like to see successor models for both the S2000 and NSX," he told Automotive News. "But in the meantime, the CR-Z and others will have a role to play."
You can reach Richard Truett at firstname.lastname@example.org.