Automotive History: Honda’s Wild 9000 RPM Mid-Engine T360 Pickup Of 1963

Remember all the endless recent speculation as to whether Honda would someday build a real RWD pickup? Well, they already did, in 1963. In that inimitable Honda way, it stood the world on its collective ear: DOHC, four carbs, 30 hp from 360cc at 8,600 rpm and a top speed of  60 mph. As an antidote to the mild-mannered Hondas sent our way in the ’70s and early ’80s, like the first-generation Prelude, the T360/T500 trucks were anything but boring–and the story of how these eminently practical little trucks ended up with the engine from Honda’s crazy little S360 sports car is a wild tale only Honda could spin.

In the early ’60s, Soichiro Honda was ambivalent about entering the automobile business. However, in 1961 Japan’s all-powerful MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) forced his hand by advancing a bill aimed at limiting the number of domestic car manufacturers. Honda lobbied against it, and lost. The solution? Get into car production, and fast.

Soichiro’s vehicle of choice was the S360, which became the production S500. It was a buzz-bomb of a roadster, with an engine that only Honda, with its motorcycle racing experience, could have built then: A four-cylinder, four-stroke, four-carb DOHC design with a 9,500 rpm redline that belted out 44 hp. At a time when the finest European production sports cars, like the Porsche Super 90, proudly generated 50-55 hp/liter, the Honda’s near-100hp/liter was simply revolutionary.

Nevertheless, a serious question remained as to the actual volume in which such a sports car could find buyers. Happily, the  ebullient, right-brained Honda was fortunate to have a very pragmatic sidekick, Takeo Fujisawa, who convinced him that there was indeed a real market for light trucks. And thus, in a most unlikely marriage, did one of the world’s highest-specific-output sports-car motors end up in this milestone T360/T500 truck–a feat whose modern equivalent might be putting the S2000 roadster’s engine into a workhorse truck like the Isuzu NPR.

And thanks to Honda’s remarkable ability to make engines that held together, it was a perfectly successful and reliable little beast, especially the difficult driving conditions at that time: Japan’s first freeway was still being built, and most country roads were in very poor shape.

Honda even built a Snow-Cat version to take on winter driving. In terms of development, early-sixties Japan was  comparable to the China of some years ago. While the kinds of vehicles being built may be similar, it’s unlikely we’ll be crowing about Chinese mini trucks 40 years from now.

These little trucks came in two versions: The 360cc, 30-hp T360, designed to meet Kei-car requirements, and the slightly longer T500, with the larger, 38-hp engine from the S500 and a dollop of extra torque (a word seldom associated with these little screamers). Anyway, Honda did the right thing by building the T3-trucks, since just 26k-or-so S-series sports cars were sold. Not long after that, Honda entered the passenger car market with a more pragmatic Kei-car sedan, the two-cylinder N360 / N600, which were duly memorialized in this Curbside Classic.

There are at least two web sites containing much in-depth info on these and other early Hondas. We’ll do another piece on the S500/S600 down the road, but if old Honda trucks are your thing, check out all the old brochures at hondasportsregistry.com, and this nice write-up at japanesenostalgiccar.com. (Images courtesy of those sites).