N600 was a really small first step
'Every outing is an adventure,' one reviewer wrote of an early 36-hp Honda sold in the United States
But it was a start. The N600 demonstrated that the Japanese automaker, best known as a motorcycle maker, had automotive ambitions.
A decade later, in 1979, Honda sold 353,291 cars in the United States.
The N600 was a tiny car, even compared with the Big 3's compacts. In an era when bigger was perceived as better, most drivers viewed the N600 as a joke.
"It was small, really small," said Rick Case, dealer principal and CEO of Rick Case Automotive Group, which has stores in Florida, Georgia and Ohio. The N600 was just 18.9 inches longer than today's two-seat Smart car from Mercedes-Benz.
Case currently has Honda, Acura, Mercedes, Smart and other brands. He started as a Honda motorcycle dealer in 1965 and obtained a Honda auto franchise in 1972.
At the time, car magazines compared the N600 to Britain's Morris Mini Minor. Both cars had wheels pushed out to the corners of the body to expand interior space. And both had a transversely mounted engine with front-wheel drive.
The first N600s carried a $1,295 sticker price and tipped the scales at only about 1,100 pounds. The all-aluminum alloy engine was capable of 9,000 rpm. Forty mpg was promised.
That first N600 had a significant shortcoming. It was imported in 1969 without a heater, said Tim Mings, owner of Merciless Mings, of Azusa, Calif., which specializes in N600 restorations. Honda limited car sales to Hawaii in 1969 as it engineered changes to make the N600 acceptable for the continental United States.
Horsepower initially was boosted to 45 for the United States from 31 hp for the Japan model. Although the increase enabled the car to hold 80 mph on a Los Angeles freeway, it created a serious problem.
"They quickly realized that at 45 hp, they would blow up pretty quick because in America you can get on the road and hold it wide open from coast to coast," Mings said. "They detuned them to 36 (hp), and that made them stick together."
U.S. reviews were mixed when the 36-hp car went on sale in 1970.
A November 1970 Road & Track road test said the body "is taut and rattle-free, and the ride is surprisingly good."
But a review about a year later by the same magazine was critical.
"For the low price and high mpg, you get a rough, noisy ride and minimum speed for maximum effort. Every outing is an adventure, figuratively equal to crossing the ocean in a rowboat."
The N600's life here was limited. Imports ended in 1973, when the car was replaced by the Civic.