Curbside Classic: 1970 Honda N600: From Rolling Acorns Mighty Hondas Grow

(first posted 1/13/2014)     Your 2050 Honda i600 solar-electric personal transportation pod automatically glides into the Biodynamic-Vegan Taco Loco lot and parks itself. On the way inside, you pass the static display of a dusty 2010 Honda Pilot with a flat tire sitting by the front door. Your seventeen year-old son stops in his tracks, looks at it with bewilderment, and asks if you really drove around in one these big, ugly, two-ton carbon-spewing behemoths forty years ago. Will you mumble something incoherently about times being very different then and tell him to hurry along, or will you stop, gaze admiringly and wax eloquently about your distant but ever-so-vibrant Pilot memories?

This scenario is for you younger readers; you still have the freedom to make your future memories. Us oldsters are stuck with our Honda memories forever. Although with today’s mega-Hondas like the bloated Moby Dick-mobile Accord Crosstour, it’s hard to believe that our memories aren’t playing tricks on us. But it’s true: a little over forty years ago, Honda established its beachhead in the US with a 1200lb, 600cc hot rod kei-car.

It’s equally hard for me to believe that it was almost that long ago since I drove one. But not only is the memory intensely vivid, it obviously left a lasting impression: I drive the smallest-engined bento box available on these shores. But even it looks huge next to a 600. Enough preambling; let’s fire up the synapses for a virtual drive:

If you’ve ever ridden a vintage Honda two-cylinder bike, the sound and palpable vibrations of the 600′s air-cooled OHC vertical twin-pot will be intimately familiar. At speed, the arrhythmic palpitations courtesy of Honda’s 180-degree crank become deafening. On a bike, that kind of gets blown away by the air speed. In a 600, it’s trapped inside a tea canister-sized tin box with no loose tea inside to absorb the sound. Car and Driver measured 90dB—with the defroster fan on—an all time record high.

The one I drove (a friend’s) probably exceeded 100dB: the stock exhaust sacrificed to a pot hole was replaced with a clamped-on glass-pack and short piece of pipe found lying in the street; recycling at its best. The pipe exited in the vicinity of the driver’s inevitably-open window, but most of the frantic exhalations never made it past the crude joint, because the glass pack’s diameter was twice the 600′s drinking straw-sized exhaust.

The un-muffled staccato reverberating off the high rises in Westwood made sure we were “seen” in traffic, a good thing when driving something smaller than an original Mini. And a permanent testament to Soichiro Honda’s ability to make small engines rev rings on in my tinnitus.

The N600 was a big-engined version of the Honda N360; in other words, the kei car version of a 427 Nova. It first appeared in 1969, about the same time as the legendary Honda 750 four superbike (why didn’t Honda put that engine in the 600?). Among other things, the N600 and CB750 shared the same downward trajectory in horsepower over their production lifespan, a sacrifice to the altar of tractability for a less-peaky torque curve. The early 600s packed 45 horses; highly impressive for the times and engine size. That herd of Kisos came thundering at 7,000 rpm; maximum revs were 9,000 rpm. Very motorcycle like indeed, right down to the dog-clutch un-synchronized transmission.

It was good for a fifteen second 0-60. Don’t laugh; that was better than most small cars of the time with engines two to four times larger. And it would top out at eighty. But that was a dangerous speed because you’d be scanning the floor for the integer that must have fallen off the speedo in front of the numeral 80 based on the sound, fury and other sensations generated. Things happen quickly when there’s only 78 inches between the front and rear wheels, even if the lane seems twice as wide as it needs to be.

As it’s been said oft before: few things beat driving a low-power small car flat out all the time. No wonder we’re desperate for electronic toys to stave off terminal boredom behind the wheel of our 350 hp isolation cocoons idling along at two-tenths of their potential.

Later versions had a more civilized 36 hp @ 6000 rpm, and a genuine automotive-style transmission. Even an automatic was available. Honda was trying to remake the 600 into a friendly city car instead of a sports-car fix on the cheap ($1295; $7K adjusted).

Honda N600 ad UK

But even the 36 hp version would still leave a stock Mini in the dust. That is if you could find one since they were never all that common in the US back in the day. But Honda sold enough 600s to become the twelfth largest import brand within three years. And the 600s held up to the beating they inevitably got. Even English car magazines gave the nod to the 600 over the Mini.

Honda N600 engine-horz

One of the myths commonly perpetuated on the internet is that the N360/N600 engine was from from the CB450 motorcycle. As these two shots make quite apparent, that obviously wasn’t the case (literally). The 450 was a DOHC engine, the 360/600s were SOHC. And just about everything else on them looks different, although it is possible that some aspects of the 450 engine were adopted for the car engines. A bolt or two?

Honda S800

Honda’s first foray into the training-wheeled world started in 1962 with the S360, their Lilliputian sports car prototype. That led to the production S500, S600 andS800 (above). The latter is a cult classic that packed 70 horses—enough to move it over a hundred miles per hour.

Honda 1300 sedan

In 1968, Honda unveiled a bombshell: the brilliant but complex 1300 sedan. With an air cooled DOHC 1300cc engine whose 116 horses inhaled through 4 Keihin carbs, it blew away any existing conceptions of what a small sedan could aspire to. And it literally blew away BMW’s much-more expensive 1600/2 ti, the highly celebrated top dog in that field back then.

Honda 1300a

The coupe versions of the 1300 have achieved near-mythical status.

CC 45 042 900

But neither the S series sports cars nor the 1300 were officially imported to the US. Honda was still building production expertise and capacity and wasn’t going to be rushed until it was good and ready. That also explains the 600′s detuning; Honda built its US motorcycle dynasty on the basis of its “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” ad campaign. So the product had to be people-friendly, too, inasmuch as a kei-car could be. Well, the 600 succeeded in that regard way beyond the Subaru 360, which was completely insufficient for US standards. Did the only two kei cars ever imported predict the future for their respective makers?

Z600 Coupe

Well, Subaru’s next act, the boxer-engined FWD 1000 was a highly advanced and slick little number, which set the pattern for all future Subies to come. But while Subaru had to rely on Malcom Bricklin to cobble together a very iffy dealer network, Honda had friendly and clean motorcycle dealerships in every town across the land to sell the 600 and its coupe variant, the Z600 (above). But that was all just the springboard for the Civic invasion to come, along with car-only Honda dealerships/licenses to print money. (1973 Civic CC here)

That’s the N600’s story I have to tell. But if you want to spend day immersing yourself in period reviews and ads of the 600, spend it at this site. It’ll help you refresh all those memories when you encounter a Honda 600 on the way to dinner tonight at Taco Loco. You wouldn’t want your seventeen-year-old to think you missed out on something like the 600. And it’ll give you both something to think about, and possibly remember, on the drive home in your 2010 Pilot.