THE early years of Soichiro Honda’s empire-building are often associated with motorcycles, but in fact the brilliant engineer started in business in his mid-20s repairing American cars and building racing specials. It helps explain how, just five years after its 1959 debut in European motorcycle racing, Honda suddenly turned up in Formula One as a fully fledged constructor.
Honda had built its first production car only two years before.
Initially shown as the prototype S360 at the 1962 Tokyo show, the S500 roadster was a tiny, technological tour de force. Smaller and lighter than rival 1.0-litre British roadsters such as the MG Midget, the S500 produced comparable power from a 531cc twin-cam four-cylinder engine, redlined at a staggering 9500rpm.
Honda upped the ante in 1964 with the S600 (606cc), which added a fastback coupe to the range. Like the S500, it remained unusual in its driveline, with a differential and rigid axle solidly fixed to the chassis behind the seats, taking drive to the rear wheels through motorcycle chains. These were encased within aluminium castings that served as trailing arms, thus giving independent rear suspension.
Export ambitions led to the S800, shown in Tokyo in 1965 and produced in 1966. Again available in roadster and coupe forms, and with an up-spec ‘M’ trim option, the S800 – after an initial batch of 242 chain-drive cars – was made more cost-effective by introducing a conventional, live rear axle.
The engine remained a cracker: 52kW from just 791cc, redlining at an unprecedented 11,000rpm and managing 0-100km/h in an aurally exciting 13-odd seconds. Top speed, with a gentle tailwind, was 160km/h. Road testers praised the rear axle’s superior drive and quietness compared with the earlier chain versions.
Honda had big designs on the US market, but, ironically, its quest to match the performance of lazier, bigger-capacity British roadsters with a smaller, high-revving engine had the S800 branded, completely unfairly, a hydrocarbon horror. The snub may have been instrumental in pushing Honda back to the drawing board to develop the CVCC stratified-charge, anti-pollution engine and the US-conquering Civic.
When S800 production ceased in May 1970, a total of 11,536 had been built – just short of the predecessor S600’s tally.
The prototype Honda S360 roadster was first driven in June 1962 by Soichiro Honda on the company’s new Suzuka circuit
One of Soichiro’s (and Gran Turismo’s) favourite cars was the S800 RSC, which finished third outright in the 1968 Suzuka 12-Hour race
HONDA’S jewel-like 791cc all-alloy four is canted at 45 degrees for a low centre of gravity. The crank ran in three needle-roller bearings and the twin overhead camshafts operated two valves per cylinder.
Four Keihin carbs were fitted.
Max power was 52kW at 8000rpm, while torque peaked at just 66Nm at 6000rpm. Gearbox was four-speed manual. Wheels were 15x6-inch styled steelies.
THE S800 was built on a simple ladder chassis with a steel body.
Kerb weight was just 770kg, owing to the car’s tiny size. Front suspension was independent by double wishbones with torsion bars, the rear by live axle and trailing arms with coils and Panhard rod. Disc/drum brakes and rack-and-pinion steering were quite advanced for the time.
THE tiny Honda makes Mazda’s MX-5, fully 23 years later, look like a Lincoln Continental. The Honda measured just 3.33m long, 1.21m high and 1.4m wide, sitting on a 2.0m wheelbase.
The interior was small, smart and stylish, with prominent instrumentation (including the eye-opening tachometer, cranked all the way up to 11) and three-spoke wood-rim steering wheel.
The Coupe (left) was said to be surprisingly accommodating for taller drivers.
Comedian and legendary car nut Jay Leno says his Honda S600 is his third-best sounding car – behind his Porsche Carrera GT and McLaren F1 4
The S500 wasn’t Honda’s first production four-wheeler; the mid-engined T360 truck beat the sports car to market by four months 5
A rusty white Honda S800 roadster makes several charming cameos in 1986 cult kiddy flick The Karate Kid Part II
1958 Chrysler 300D