I’m still discovering the wild world of kei cars, so this might be premature, but I think I found the best of them. It has oodles of style, it’s FWD, it has a banger of a tiny 2-cyl. engine, it has a cool name and it’s very, very orange. Meet Honda’s funky Z, a little car with a big story to tell.
Honda was the upstart carmaker that didn’t follow the rules. Nobody saw them coming, but once they emerged, it was impossible to stop the momentum. Consider this timeline: having made it big as a motorcycle firm, Honda started four-wheeler production in 1963 with a 360cc pickup and a 500cc roadster, moved quite logically into Formula 1 the very next year, followed that up with a 700cc station wagon for 1965, launched their FWD kei car in 1966 and topped it off with the “big” 1300cc saloon by 1969.
But did they stop their hectic growth there? They most certainly did not. The N360 kei car got a substantial facelift for January 1970 that was a foretaste, styling-wise, of what was to come.
In October 1970, the Z360 was unveiled. And perhaps it’s not obvious from a 2023 non-Japanese perspective, but it was a definite innovation: the personal luxury coupé, that most ‘60s of inventions, was now available in miniature format. Nobody had really done that before, but it was about to take the JDM by storm.
When I say “nobody had really done that before,” I mean done it on purpose. It so happens that the first four-wheeled Mazda, the R360 (1960-66, top left) was pretty much a proto-PLC-kei crossover, but it was more of an experiment than a deliberate niche-creating tactic and it hadn’t really influenced anyone. On the other hand, once Honda showed everyone the way, many followed in 1971-73, including Daihatsu (top right), Mitsubishi (bottom right) and Suzuki (bottom left).
Technologically-speaking, the Honda was above the fray. It featured a frantic little air-cooled parallel twin driving the front wheels producing 31hp with a single carb and 36hp (@ 9000rpm!) with twin carbs for the higher-trim Zs. Honda’s very own three-speed auto was available as an option, but the 4-speed manual was standard, that is until the sporty GS with its 5-speed (a first on a kei car) and front disc brakes joined the range in early 1971.
The suspension was relatively simple, being a MacPherson strut up front as a leaf-sprung beam axle at the back, but quite effective. Rear seats were very tight, just like in big PLCs. The Z’s show-stopping party trick was the TV screen-like rear window / hatch, inset in chunky black rubber. I understand the Japanese enthusiasts call this distinctive feature the “diving mask,” synecdochally using this term for the Z360 itself.
The Honda Z was given the usual trim declensions (MY 1971 shown above), but those changed pretty quickly over the years, making the range a little difficult to navigate. For as we will see shortly, the Z360’s rather short (1970-74) production run was not a straightforward affair.
Our feature car is a ’72 model GL, which was a 36hp GS with somewhat simplified trim. But said 36hp did not come from the same twin as before, because Honda were going through a period of relative internal turmoil at the time, leading to some pretty radical decisions.
If you compare this front end to the yellow Z360 factory photo seen earlier, you might notice that the grille is different here. That’s because the Z was actually moved from the N360 platform to the new Life platform, which came with a water-cooled twin.
Yes, the Z was just over a year old when it was gutted and re-jigged to fit completely different underpinnings, though the power output (and most of the styling) remained as was. What precipitated this bizarre bit of seppuku was the end of a long internal struggle between proponents of air and advocates of water, as far as cooling methods were concerned. Company founder Soichiro Honda was firmly in the air camp, and most of his engineers were vehemently aquatically-inclined.
What tipped the balance was the air-cooled 1300, which did not perform as well as hoped. Honda’s engineers proved to their boss that a water-cooled engine would have been better suited, quieter, less smelly and easier to manufacture, and was the best way to meet upcoming emissions regulations. To emphasize the point, some senior engineers went as far as going on strike, despairing that the CEO “did not understand thermodynamics.”
Soichiro Honda eventually admitted defeat, apparently being swayed by a fellow decision-maker who asked him if he was an executive or an engineer. Honda reluctantly realized he was the former, so he let go of his obsession and let his team work for the good of the company. And as a result, the N360 (which was embroiled in its own safety-related scandal, to be covered in a related CC sometime) was nixed and the Life replaced it. But the Z, which had started a promising career both at home and abroad, carried on.
For yes, the Z was one of the few keis that was exported, albeit usually with a 600cc version of the air-cooled twin. As many as 15,000 were shipped to the US, but some also found their way to places like France, the UK or, as we can see above, Australia. The 600cc twin was never switched to water-cooling though. Nor, as far as I can tell did the final iteration of the Z make it to most export markets.
In November 1972, the Z360 went under the knife yet again and became a hardtop coupé. For those keeping track, that was the second major change in two years. But after that date, development was far more muted. Indeed, Honda had just launched the Civic, and that car’s explosive success was about to dramatically alter the carmaker’s range.
On the JDM, Honda were selling the lowest grade of Civic at ¥400,000, while the Life retailed at ¥350,000. I’m not sure what the Z360 hardtop cost when new, but it would have been somewhere between those two, i.e. not exactly cheap. Given how the Japanese economy was going and how hungry export markets were for the Civic, Honda decided to end the entire kei car program and focus on what sold like hotcakes. In June 1974, the last Z was made and soon the whole 360cc range went extinct – and stayed extinct for over a decade.
All variants, iterations and export models included, the Honda Z only tallied just over 40,000 units. A modest result, to be sure, but the niche that Honda discovered was a game-changer. Without the Z, there would have probably been no Suzuki Cappuccino, no Autozam AZ-1, no Daihatsu Copen. The Z360 ushered in a sense of fun and style in a segment that direly needed them. We all need a little funk, sometimes. And orange. There’s always room for orange.