As promised in my recent double post on a classic car meet I attended in France, here’s one car I saw there that merits its own (little) post. Old Hondas are not exactly my strong suit, so I trust you will be forgiving if anything I write about it seems amiss. But I just had to feature this one, as I really took to it when I saw it, even with its slightly scruffy bodywork.
I’m not sure when Honda started exporting cars to Europe exactly, but it seems they started off with the sexy S800 coupé and roadster, circa 1966. Honda was after all chiefly known as a motorbike manufacturer at the time, so a sports car made sense. It seems the bigger Honda 1300 was not imported, though I’m not 100% sure about that. The front-drive N models arrived on European shores in 1968, having been launched in Japan in early 1967 as the N360, soon followed by the N600.
Honda made decent business in America with the N600, but they struggled in Europe. Sure, it had all the bells and whistles, including disc brakes, optional automatic transmission, significant horsepower (45 hp) – it even looked quite pretty, from some angles. But the local competition from the likes of BL, Fiat, Renault or VW was brutal, and Honda did not have much of a reputation as an automaker yet. The N360 wasn’t sold in the US, but did make it to Europe. It was one of the smallest displacement engines available on a “normal” car, beating the base 2CV (425cc), but offering 33 hp (gross) @ 8500 rpm, which was unheard of 50 years ago and still seems pretty incredible today.
It’s a great shame that Honda couldn’t convince more Europeans to switch to the N. It was without a doubt the best kei car ever made up to that point, and although the notion of a tiny air-cooled twin must have seemed quite exotic in the US, it was still a common enough solution in Europe.
Perhaps it was a matter or targeting the right market. Your average Citroën 2CV or Fiat 500 customer wanted basic transportation, not a high-revving SOHC mill that screamed its cylinders out and propelled you beyond 100 kph. Honda proposed the Z600 from 1971, and that stylish little coupé found its niche in younger urban females. They didn’t exactly set any sales records with these either, but the Z was much more interesting to Europeans than the N.
This is a 1969 French advert for the Honda range. Interestingly, along with the N360 and N600, there was a special export-only 402cc (sorry: 401.54cc) version of it, the N400. How many did they sell? I have no idea. All I could gather was that Honda built over 1.1 million N360/400/600s from 1967 to 1972 and I had never seen one before. I guess most of them stayed in Japan.
And it’s not through lack of trying on Honda’s part. Compared to most European small cars, the Honda’s interior looks positively inviting. They even created an automatic gearbox for their N (a kei class first), which happened to be fitted to our featured car. It seems Honda were angling for DAF customers.
Well, if I were in the market for a 50-year-old 2-cyl. car with only two pedals, I reckon the Honda would make me far happier than the DAF 33. It has a cheerful face, sort of reminiscent of the Peugeot 204 – but unlike the sedate Peugeot or the positively lethargic DAF, the N360 also packs quite a punch for its size.
The Hondamatic was, according to Honda, a 3-speed gearbox. As we can see in the above 1970 French brochure, they enphasized in their literature that it could be used to change gears “manually” — doubtless to reassure the local clientele, who were unused to the idea of automatic gearboxes, especially on a city car. (Editor’s update: apparently the Hondamatic in these N360/600s did have three actual gears, unlike my previous assertion. That’s according to a reliable source, although he did not have access to technical written specs to absolutely confirm it). The Hondamatic was not available of the N400, as far as I can tell, but could be had on the 360 and the 600.
You can keep your Civics and your Preludes – this is the Honda I’d go for. Well, that Z is also quite tempting. I need to study one up close, along with Honda in general. My eternal thanks to Paul, who knows how to tell a 360 from a 600 (it’s all in the grille!) from 50 paces, unlike me. I’ll gladly don the dunce cap and stand in the corner, reading up on ’60s kei cars, for the remainder of the class.