“It’s a motorcycle with doors.” With these words, Lane Pryce announces the good news that fictional advertising firm Sterling Cooper Draper Price has landed the account for Honda’s new car.
It redlines at 9,500 rpm and only has 57 horsepower. “What?” responds Don Draper incredulously. The Mad Men clearly have their work cut out for them—but maybe they should simply have taken a look North.
Like Hyundai with the Pony, Honda didn’t just show up in the US and start pitching to advertising agencies. Instead, they used Canada as a sort of test market. The Canadian market was small, but relatively open to import, and it provided many of the same logistical problems to overcome that a fledgling car company would have to face in the lucrative US market.
And so, even while the scotch flowed in the private office of some fictional Madison Avenue advertising agency, Canadian customers were already finding out that you meet the nicest people in a Honda.
Further, the car wasn’t just a motorcycle with wheels. It was a tiny jewel of bleeding-edge engineering, a delicate confection created by a genius. The S600 was Soichiro’s masterpiece, and we got it first.
The First American Hondas
It will be the 1970s before Honda gains its first foothold in the US, with the scrappy little N600 compact car. Recently, Honda was able to show off the very first of these machines ever brought into the country, thanks to a combination of happy accident and minor subterfuge.
Fifty early prototypes were supposed to be scrapped after testing in 1967, but the scrapyard they were sent to simply sold a few cars out the back door. When Honda caught on, it ensured the remaining cars were destroyed, but the car bearing serial number N600-1000001 had escaped.
It later made its way to the shop of Californian Honda specialist Tim Mings, who found the car sitting on a trailer in Pomona. He tucked it away for parts in the back of his shop, and only later scraped away the sludge and corrosion to discover how special it was. Honda America then helped fund a full restoration of the car, which they unveiled to much fanfare at the annual Japanese Classic Car Show at Long Beach.
The N600 looks a little bit like a shrunken Civic, tinier even than the first-generation Civics which would be Honda’s first successful import. Production versions got a milder version of an air-cooled two-cylinder engine, making between 36 and 45 horsepower, with later models giving up peak power for a slightly broader torque curve.
Basically, you can think of the N600 as a sort of Japanese Mini Cooper. If that’s true, then the S600 Canadians were able to buy as early as the mid-1960s was somewhere between a Lotus and a Ferrari.
The S600 was a development of the short-lived S500, itself an advancement of the incredibly rare S360 roadster. Each one of these cars represented a name tied to growing displacement, but it was the S600 that should go on a plinth.
At the S600’s heart was a tiny 606-cc all-aluminum engine that featured cross-flow heads with hemispherical combustion chambers, quad carburetors, chain-driven double-overhead camshafts, and needle-roller bearings. Contemporary Japanese rivals usually got an iron-block engine with a single carburetor, built along the same lines as cars the British motoring industry was producing.
However, in the 1960s, Honda was testing their engineering by entering Formula One racing, going toe-to-toe with the best engines the world could produce at the time. Their 1.5-litre V-12 made something like 230 horsepower, and could often leave the rest of the field for dead off the line.
A common theme among Japanese manufacturers is to view racing and performance with deep suspicion at the boardroom level. One need only look to the example of Nissan/Datsun’s Yutaka Katayama, father of the 510 and 240Z, who was essentially exiled to America for his interest in speedy pursuits (luckily, that worked out pretty happily for all of us). But at Honda, a racing nut was in charge of the entire company.
Soichiro Honda is one of the most fascinating figures of the automotive world, an Edison-like genius who was stubborn and highly driven. In most other companies, the accounting department would have taken one look at the S600’s incredibly complex engine, oil-bath chain drive, and feathery 700-kg chassis, and pulled the alarm bells. As an engineering masterpiece, it was basically an automotive Swiss watch. You can’t commute in a watch.
However, Dr. Soichiro Honda was not a normal sort of CEO. He had raced cars himself – being warned off by his wife after a particularly heavy crash – and was obsessed with innovation. Honda is an entirely post-war company, meaning the entire company sprang from the will and invention of a single figure. Dr. Honda famously declared that to build the best car in Japan, he had to build the best car in the world. He also wanted his designs to compete at the highest levels of racing.
The Honda RA272 racecar debuted in 1963 and won its first race in Mexico in 1965. In 1964, an enterprising Japanese journalist named Shotaro Kobayashi followed the racing team around Europe in a white-on-black S600 roadster, cheering at races and hammering the little Honda from Monaco to Spa. His exploits didn’t escape notice, and Honda even had a backup car secretly sent over in reserve, to avoid any potential public relations disasters should Kobayashi’s machine breakdown.
Further, Europeans spotted the car out and about at the races and, used to small-displacement machinery, the S600 gained a foothold overseas, a small but loyal fan base it still enjoys today.
And at the same time, any Canadian F1 fan could have put a bit of this high-strung technology in their own driveway. You simply had to share Soichiro’s dream, and head down to your local Honda motorcycle distributor. A few did.
A Father’s Honda
Pete Pryma bought his Honda S600 Coupe from the Fred Dealey motorcycle store in Vancouver in 1966. An engineer in the telecommunications field, he’d always been fascinated with mechanical devices and engines, and he enjoyed building electro-mechanical puzzles. He’d even built simple early electronic logic games, including one based on the old goose, grain, and fox ferry puzzle.
The little white Honda sports coupe seemed quite out of character for the buttoned-down engineer, but it became part of the family anyway. Jules Pryma, who inherited the car from his father, remembers sitting behind the wheel in the garage as a small boy, imagining himself out on the open highway. Pete drove the car for just a few years, but didn’t have the time to keep the highly-strung little Honda in tune, so the car had sat for decades.
A 1966 French-language Honda S600 magazine ad
As a sort of tribute to long hours spent working in the garage together, Jules began the restoration process not long after his father’s passing in 2002. As he worked, he discovered why his dad had always cherished the car.
“My father was a very practical man,” Pryma says, “But as I started taking it apart, I began to understand why he’d liked this car so much.”
The restoration was a lengthy affair, taking some four or five years to complete. The problem wasn’t so much condition—the Pryma’s S600 had just 25,000 miles on the odometer, and still even had plastic on the panels. The main issue was struggling to find parts.
On Vancouver Island, expert Mercedes-Benz 300SL restorer Rudi Koniczek is blunt: “Parts are pure unobtanium.” Rudi and Company has restored some of the finest classic machines in the world, but even with his extensive global network, finding parts for Honda’s little moment of genius is incredibly challenging.
Pryma credits the growing advent of the internet with making the small S600 enthusiast community more accessible. By trading parts around and leaning on other S600 fans for support, he managed to scrape together the hard-to-source rubber pieces for the S600, and finally get the car assembled. He’s shown it at several car shows, including the recent Vancouver Supercar Show, where it sat proudly alongside a 1977 Honda Civic and a rare Australian Honda Coupe 9. His next project is a Honda S800.
Honoured at last
Back at Rudi and Company, two right-hand-drive Honda S600s are undergoing restoration. Koniczek recently sold off two of his Canadian S600s, both originally found in a field in Saskatchewan; both will stay in the local area. The S600 is rare, with just over 10,000 examples produced worldwide, and there aren’t too many cars remaining.
However, thanks to rising classic car values, Soichiro’s little machine is finally getting the respect it deserves. Led by the Toyota 2000GT, now a million-dollar collectible, classic Japanese cars have swelled in value over recent years. The best performing machines from an investment perspective are always the icons, cars like the hakosuka Nissan Skyline GT-R or the Mazda Cosmo Sport.
Together with the Toyota, these cars represent the essence of the Japanese automobile, and while the S600 is the smallest of them, it’s their equal in stature. Like the 2000GT, it is beautiful. Like the Skyline GT-R, it’s born with true performance pedigree. Like the rotary-powered Cosmo Sport, it represents engineering that’s unafraid to take risks.
The S600 is a wonderful machine. It’s deserving of legendary status. And Canadians got a crack at it first.