Honda Packs Big Ideas Into the Small S600

The word “genius” is bandied about pretty easily these days, the internet having the unique effect of turning people into self-contained PR teams for their own pet causes and interests, where hype and one-upmanship are held as virtues rather than the cheap and petty tactics they were once regarded as. That being said, Soichiro Honda was inarguably a true mechanical genius, gifted not only with an innate and God-given understanding of his field, but also with a child-like inquisitiveness and fearlessness that allowed the company bearing his name to pursue wildly unconventional solutions to persistent problems. This brave and liberal attitude towards experimentation brought about numerous engineering breakthroughs (as well as spectacular failures, most of which never made it to production), the shadows of which still cast long three decades after his departure from company involvement. In this mold the Honda S600 was cast.

Released in early 1964, the S600 was Honda’s first mass-marketed car, and was heavily based on the previous S500, of which only just under 1,400 were made during an 11-month-long production run ending in 1964. Offered as a roadster or a less-common coupe, both were tiny with dimensions similar to those defined by Kei car regulations, but were not actually of that class. Brimming with fascinating and imaginative engineering wrought on a miniature scale, the S600 was heavily inspired by Honda’s contemporary work with motorcycles and Formula 1 racecars.

Its motor, for example, was a 606 CC four cylinder roughly the size of a large loaf of bread—not that remarkable on its own until you consider that it was crammed with twin cams, hemispherical combustion chambers, four itsy-bitsy side-draft carburetors, and needle roller bearings for crank and big end support. Of course, it was all aluminum. Redlined at 9,500 RPM more out of a lack of puff above that point than out of preserving the reciprocating internals, it could actually turn over 11,000 times every 60 seconds without trouble—typical production four cylinders from the time were lucky to achieve half that speed. Its 57 HP (nearly 100 per liter) was channeled through a four speed of typical Honda butter smoothness and scientific instrument accuracy, enough to move the little 1,600 lb. machine to 90 MPH. How that twist was put down through the rear wheels is where things get really wacky.

Aft of that slick little four speed, power is sent to a chassis-mounted differential just forward of the rear wheels, where it’s split in two and then transmitted by left and right trailing arms each containing a sealed drive chain—absolutely brilliant in an utterly Martian kind of way. Apparently the chains make some very interesting noises when driving along, adding another layer to an already rich mechanical orchestra—Jay Leno says his is the second-best-sounding car he owns, after his Carrera GT and McLaren F1 which he ties for first.

Contemporary reports indicated it handled well, with flat cornering taken with a neutral balance, but with somewhat soft spring rates and with the final degree of sharpness and adjustability on offer by many of its European competitors strangely absent. A merely competent chassis, then, but who cares when the oily stuff is so sweet and exotic?

Today S600s and their replacement, the S800, are both highly collectible, with good examples slowly approaching mid $20k territory—even basketcases now command several thousand dollars, though the cost of employing one of the handful of mechanics on Earth capable of rebuilding their little magic-box motors would heavily outweigh any imagined advantage of buying one on the cheap. As far as performance for the dollar goes, there are far greater bargains in Vintagesportscaristan, though perhaps none with a similar level of fascination per dollar. The attraction held by the original S cars is in their avant-garde and higher-level design and engineering, and not in the modest G forces they generate—call it nerdy, but smarts are sexy, too.