This COAL is perhaps the best example of my ambition and optimism in choosing project cars, leading more often than not to my biting off way more than I could hope to chew. I bought this rare Honda S600 roadster on whim with the intent of making a customized rat rod style roadster out of it. I should have looked closer before committing. While I knew it was well beyond hope of a proper restoration, it turned out to be so rough that it was not even worthy as a parts car. Follow along for (another) tale of cheap project car woe.
I was traveling from Lethbridge to Calgary when I spotted some sort of vintage roadster in appalling condition. As I got closer, I was more than surprised to see it was a Honda S-series roadster. They had been sold in Canada (but not the United States) in small numbers but are very rarely encountered. I took a (too) brief look as it was sitting on private property and called the owner as I continued my drive. He complained that he just put up an online ad and was now getting calls from potential buyers all over the world. He wanted it gone and I agreed to buy it for close to scrap metal value. He would deliver a few days later.
There are two features that make the Honda S600 special: one is the motorcycle-derived 606 cc four-cylinder DOHC engine, and the other is the independent rear suspension via a sealed roller chain drive on each side. Mine was missing both these features. I knew it had an oversize rear axle in place of the original suspension, but I did not yet know how poorly it had been hacked in.
The story I got from the seller was that a young man had converted it into a sort of dragster in the late 1970s. He lived on a farm and had driven it to high school with a Chevrolet V8 and triple carburetors. A radiator had not fit, but he did without given the short distance travelled each way. I unfortunately could not verify this information as the seller would not divulge the location he found the car. I get the impression there were many more vehicles on the property that he had plans to flip.
Since my example was so hacked up, my plan was to build a 1950s or 1960s style rad rod roadster out of it using an inline four-cylinder or small V6 mated to a manual transmission and suspension lifted from a smaller vehicle. The Honda-ness had long been destroyed, but perhaps the body shell could live again.
The first step in any project is always cleaning and assessing what you have just bought. In the case of the S600, what I found was disturbing. As I sucked out layers of vegetation I was horrified to find that many body panels had been replaced with now-rotted wood. Most of the floor boards had been hacked away as had the inner door skins. The vintage go kart seat was merely placed rather than bolted down. Random bits of sheet metal had been cut away or drilled, I assume, in an attempt to cut weight. The story of it being drivable was looking rather doubtful.
In the trunk there was an old Chevrolet generator as well as a small collection of vintage “stubby” beer bottles. Once the wood chips were cleared away, another surprise beyond the lack of a trunk floor presented itself.
I will give you a moment to ponder the two image above. Yes that is a rear non-suspension. The builder, if we can generously call him that, solidly welded in a 1957 Chevrolet rear axle. In the top photo you can see some of the remnants of the mounts for the chain drive.
Up front, things were not much better. The beautifully finned aluminum front brakes were intact, but it looked like someone had at one point cobbled together a crude air ducting system out of radiator hoses and that the front shocks had been welded solid. If you do not have suspension in the back, why have any at the front?
The engine bay revealed more horrors. The inner fenders had been savaged with extremely rough cuts. The firewall had been equally mutilated for engine and transmission clearance. Here is the kicker though; beyond a bit of surface rust, the remaining body was very solid and rust free. I suspect before its Frankenstein-equse transformation, this Honda had been a rust-free car.
I welded in some new metal where the inner sills had been cut, but it all still looked pretty tragic.
To make myself feel a little better, I pulled off the nasty and crude hood blister. I’ll have to be happy enough that I bought a powertrain donor vehicle for cheap.
The Honda S600 had a torsion bar front suspension which, while intact, had been buggered with on my car. It made sense to swap over the donor’s front and rear suspension. A live rear axle conversion at the rear it would be the easiest and most straightforward swap. Given the tight confines of the front, a similar style torsion bar front suspension would be ideal. So my donor would need to be narrow, with a live rear axle, torsion bar front suspension, a modest engine and mostly importantly, a low price. I actually found a candidate which met four out of five of these criteria, but I had to compromise on width which, given the diminutive dimensions of the S600, was almost a forgone conclusion.
Here is a handy size comparison against a standard eighteen-speed bicycle.
My donor was body on frame (next week’s COAL) and so was the S600; with the Honda being in such poor condition, I decided to simply swap the donor chassis under its body. The donor chassis was chopped significantly to solve the length issue leaving a big mismatch in width. In mulling over a solution, I came up with a radical plan. I’d cut the Honda body right down the middle and weld in an extra six inches of width. It wasn’t quite as wacky as it seems since there were only a few places that would need surgery. It was surely easier than than adapting the donor suspension to fit the Honda’s frame.
About this time, I began having serious doubts about how I would register this abomination. It would require a rigorous “out of province” safety inspection as the Honda’s VIN had aged out of the system. I did not feel comfortable using the donor vehicle’s identity, although I suppose a case could have been made for it given I was using its frame. I have heard of hot rod builders receiving months and thousands of dollars worth of grief in the process of getting their creations street legal, and my hybrid creation would be even more of a challenge given it was not a traditional hot rod, nor a mildly modified vehicle.
Another dose of reality hit as I added up the cost of the custom windshield, grill and the thousands of other little details necessary to complete the procedure. I still assert it was all very doable, just not on the modest timeline and budget I envisioned. I did not want another project sitting in the garage for years waiting for ideal financial circumstances–I had already been through that with my Locost project and it was demoralizing. After much soul searching, I decided to call it quits on the S600 before I had sunk any real money into it.
The donor vehicle was parted out which netted me a modest profit, but selling the Honda proved to be more of a challenge. Now that it was cleaned up, the inside made it clear just how much of a project it would be which quite rightly scared away all punters who looked at it. It even made a poor parts car with so few good parts left, let alone the small number of S600s needing any. These little S roadsters tend to be either perfect or complete basket-cases with very few in average condition. I did not want weigh it in for scrap metal either.
Fortunately, I was contacted by a an owner of a S600 whose car had received a Mazda 12A rotary engine back in the 1980s. He fancied it as a parts car and a deal was made. I still managed to lose a modest amount on the Honda, but it balanced out with the donor vehicle profit. I do not believe I had ever been so happy to see a vehicle leave my ownership as I was then. At least I can claim to have owned a very rare Honda S600. Just don’t ask about the details!