Automotive History: Honda S500/S600/S800 – Small, Brilliant and Fast

Honda S600

The Honda S600 is a small and sporty roadster that outwardly does not look too different from an Austin Healey Sprite or Triumph Spitfire. It is, however, much more unusual and innovative under the skin. Perhaps this is not so surprising when you consider the company it came from was one of the most interesting and unconventional (at the time). Its leader, Soichiro Honda, was arguably the most successful among unconventional automotive engineers and leaders.

Soichiro Honda

Our story starts with Soichiro Honda who was born in 1906 to a blacksmith father. As a young boy he was intrigued by the bicycles and other machines that entered his father’s shop. He quickly developed a lifelong fascination with anything mechanical which, despite having only an early grade school education, lead to an apprenticeship at an automotive repair shop. Before long, Soichiro had his own shop and at the same time seriously dabbled in race cars. He both built and drove his own race cars before a near death accident forced him from the driver’s seat.

Honda Benly 19531953 Honda Benly 90cc

Once peacetime returned to Japan at the conclusion of World War II, Soichiro Honda looked to build vehicles that would increase personal mobility. He took advantage of a supply of surplus wartime engines by mating them with existing bicycle designs to create a quick and easy motorcycle. It was not long before motorcycles of his own design were available. By 1954 Honda became the leading motorcycle manufacturer in Japan. Amazingly Honda snagged the top spot globally by 1959. Not bad for someone with only a rudimentary formal education!

1959 Honda X170_01

Honda’s first dabble into the automotive market started with a prototype called the X170. Lacking a proper body, it featured an overhead cam V4 engine of 360cc capacity. In the early 1960s, the Japanese government was mulling over a scheme to divide the automotive business into niches for the strongest of the established players. This drove smaller Mazda to investigate the rotary engine as a way to set its self apart. Honda felt they had to get into the four-wheeled vehicle market before this legislation took hold. The plan never materialized, but it certainly sped Honda’s development process and the first four-wheeler was unveiled in 1962.

Datsun A40

In stark contrast with its Japanese automotive peers, Honda started with a blank slate approach to its first car. Others had licensed or been heavily inspired by European or American design for their early vehicles with the most obvious example being Datsun and their license-built Austin designs. As a result, these cars were extremely conventional and broke no new ground stylistically. The first Hondas, on the other hand, were a radical departure from these often frumpy designs and used technology borrowed heavily from motorcycle design.

Honda_S500.jpg (courtesy wikipedia commons)S500  image couretsy wikipedia

The S500 roadster was powered by an aluminum four-cylinder engine that featured one carburetor per cylinder, dual overhead camshafts, needle-roller bearings and a 9,500-rpm redline. Most other Japanese engines of the era still followed the British pattern of a long stroke, iron block fed by fed a single carburetor. Adding a second carburetor was generally reserved for the sporty models.

s600 engine

Honda’s double over head cam jewel is an amazing contrast considering that some global manufacturers like Rambler still offered flathead engines. Two engine displacements were initially planned with a 354cc 33hp engine to be offered in Japan and a 492cc engine for export markets. The smaller engine was dropped for the roadster after it was refused Kei certification, and power considerations meant the larger engine was bumped up to 531cc and 44hp.

The smaller 354cc engine did not go to waste but instead was installed in the equally radical T360 Kei class pickup truck.

Innocenti Spyder - photo credit - https://www.flickr.com/photos/pyntofmyld/5801386554/Innocenti Spyder – image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pyntofmyld/5801386554/

The styling of the S roadsters was done in-house but was undoubtedly heavily influenced by the small European sports cars of the day. Not surprising since Soichiro Honda owned a hardtop Lotus Elite at the time. The Austin Healey Sprite and particularly the Innocenti Spyder variant are the most obvious inspirations. Even so, the Honda is no mere copy and stands up quite well as an uncommonly clean and attractive design.

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The rear suspension was perhaps even more novel than the advanced engine. Rather than pinching a rear axle from a saloon donor and raising the spring rates for a sporty roadster variant, the S500 had an ingenious take on independent rear suspension. It consisted of a straight axle connected by sealed roller chains to independently sprung wheels at the rear. As well as providing independent movement of each wheel, it does away with camber changes that can cause issues with other independent designs.

honda-s600-frame

This restoration in progress shows the imaginative rear suspension.

s500

The S500 was generally only sold in right-hand drive for the Japanese market although a handful of left-hand drive examples were built. A short time later in 1964, the S500 was replaced by the larger engined, but very similar looking, S600 roadster. Now boasting 606cc and 57hp at 8,500 rpm, the S600 was much more export friendly and can be considered Honda’s first truly mass-produced car. Honda desperately wanted to sell the S600 in the United States market where it had great success in motorcycles. They tested some roadsters in San Francisco where the hilly terrain proved too challenging for the rev happy but weak on torque engine. The S600 was sold in Canada as well as some European countries.

Photo Credit - https://www.flickr.com/photos/rexgray/4660540978image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rexgray/4660540978

The S600 was available as either a drop top roadster with an optional removable hardtop or fixed roof coupe. The drop top weighed in at a feather weight 1,576lbs and the coupe, 1,609lbs.

s600brochure7a_6

Unlike other small sports cars of the period, there was no donor saloon car so all the switch gear, trim and lighting is unique to the S-cars, making a restoration a major undertaking.

s600brochure8_1

Total S600 production from 1964 to 1966 amounted to 13,084 units divided up between 11,284 convertibles and 1,800 coupes.

drums

The gearbox is a four-speed unit synchronized on the top three gears only. Front suspension was handled by a-arms, tube shocks and torsion bars, while lovely looking aluminum finned drums at all four corners took on braking duties.

Photo Credit - https://www.flickr.com/photos/zanthraxnl/4804483141image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zanthraxnl/4804483141

The S800 slowly took over from the S600 during the 1966 model year. Like the name implies, it saw a displacement increase to 791cc. The increased power (now rated at 70hp) allowed Honda to claim 100mph capability for the first time. Subtle styling tweaks like a resigned grill were also included. Again available as a roadster or coupe, the first examples retained the S600’s novel rear suspension. This was soon phased out for a rather more conventional four-link, Panhard rod, live rear axle design. A short time later, front disc brakes replaced the drums at the front.

Photo Credit - https://www.flickr.com/photos/debuck/380525337/image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/debuck/380525337/

The final refinement of the original S sports cars came in 1968 with the S800M. It was well equipped with dual circuit brakes, safety glass, a factory radio, an uprated heater, and flush-mounted interior door handles. Other changes like side markers were added with the intention of selling on the US market, but this plan never came to fruition. The total of all S800 models amounted to 11,536 units when production ended in 1970. The overall production of all S500, S600 and S800 models came to almost 25,000. It would take until the year 2000 for Honda to produce another rear wheel drive roadster with a high revving, high technology engine. No chains in the suspension this time.

Honda S2000