S Cars Go!
Kraig Griffiths' roadster shifted Honda from two wheels to four.
Feburary 23, 2007
hen the sporting tour de force known as the Honda S2000 debuted eight years ago, all but the most ardent of haters hailed it as a masterpiece. Fissioning 120hp out of each of its two liters as the engine attempted the creation of a minor black hole on the way towards its 9000rpm redline, it boasted the greatest power-to-size ratio of any production car in existence. And with it's front-mid layout and lightweight X-bone chassis, six-speed transmission, bag of chips, and well, you know the rest. Without question, it was a magnum opus for the new millennium. However, for a small contingent of devotees to the big H, the S2000 signified something else entirely - the arrival of long absent traveler that had finally come home.
The pilgrimage began in May 1961, when the Japanese government sought to reduce competition and nurture a burgeoning auto industry. A bill was proposed that, if passed, would block any manufacturers from entering the car building business altogether. In response, Honda, then known solely for its motorcycles, immediately punched their nascent automobile program into high gear, taking the former side project and making it a top company priority. Willy Wonka was handing out golden tickets, and if Honda didn't get a foot in the door in before the bill became law, they would have been barred from an automotive candy land for ever more.
As history has shown, Honda did indeed pass its trial by fire and in October 1962 at the ninth Japan National Auto Show (later renamed the Tokyo Motor Show), the plucky upstart took its first steps into autodom. And rather than start with something as ordinary as a sedan, Honda displayed a small pickup and a pair of roadsters.
Both convertibles were minute, but the smaller of the two bore a 356cc inline four with dual overhead cams and quad carburetors, set at an angle for fitment's sake. It produced just 33 horsepower, and if the S2000's stratospheric redline amazes the masses today, imagine the stupor that same rev limit induced nearly a half century ago in the S360. The second droptop, a larger-bodied half-liter variant (appropriately named the S500), trumped its sibling with 10 additional horses but maxxed out at an even more absurd 9500rpm.
When the Motor Show came round again the following October, Honda exhibited a buyable example of the latter, which had just entered production. Although many call the S500 Honda's first car, to be completely strict about it, one would have to call it their first passenger
car. The small pickup concept actually beat the S500 to market by two months but was intended for commercial use. The T360, called a pickup for its open bed shape rather than any recognizable features such a vehicle would have today - say, a larger size or ground clearance greater than that of a dachshund - had only a detuned version of the S360's motor to tug it along. Bear in mind, however, that larger cars like the Bluebird 1000 produced only 34hp at the time. Such was humble state of the Japanese auto industry in the early 60s.
Call it what you want but the S500 was quite the problem child. Not content with a fashionably late crashing of the auto manufacturing party, Honda also demanded that it be allowed to paint the cars a hue previously reserved solely for rescue vehicles, red. That the heated public battle, which Honda eventually won, gave some bureaucrats the same color complexion was probably a coincidence.
Like a parakeet with an itch, Honda never stood still for long, and soon it had raised the S-series' displacement yet again, giving rise to the S600. This time the 606cc engine made 56 horsepower, accompanied by a vinyl interior, curvier front grille and bumpers. Honda immediately took the car racing and by October was able to display Denny Hulme's 1964 Nürburgring 500Km class-winning S600 at the big show in Tokyo.
Not that Honda's thirst for racing could be sated so easily. By 1965, its baby steps into auto manufacturing had morphed into a running cannonball leap into the deep end. The latecomer had decided to do what none of its competitors dared: campaign an in-house built race car in Formula 1. A slew of landmark moments followed.
Five days before the opening of the 1965 motor show, Honda became the first Japanese carmaker to win an F-1 race. Before Richie Ginther's RA272 even had a chance to cool down, Honda was already displaying the S-series' own champion, fresh from the '65 Marathon de la Route, an 84-hour enduro in which entrants, starting in Spa, Belgium and driving the very cars they would race, headed to West Germany where they circled the Nürburgring for 82 hours before returning to Spa. Meanwhile, next to Nobuo Koga and Henri Quernette's class-winning S600 stood the next iteration of the series, the S800.
With its new 69-horse engine and resultant power bulge, the S800 meant Honda could finally spar with the prevailing European roadsters of the time - Austin-Healey Sprites, Triumph Spitfires and MG Midgets. Fans of the S car had already sprung up all across Europe like bumps from a mild case of the chickenpox, particularly in countries where the size of your engine had a lot to do with the amount of tax liberated from your wallet, but the British bombers had the US market cornered and that's where Honda wanted to go head-to-head. Gearing up for a US launch, Honda began making changes to satisfy the numerous safety regulations of our federal government - side marker lights, flush door handles, safety glass and more. But when the engine spewed one hydrocarbon too many, the EPA slammed the door harder than a comedy club with Michael Richards approaching, ultimately leading to a production stop in May 1970.
For a car never officially imported into the US, however, a decent number of S cars can still be found here. Some migrated south from Canada, to whom Honda forked over only a depressingly small number, possibly a hatful. Others, like Kraig Griffiths' 1965
SM600, came home with servicemen stationed overseas. Somewhat less common than the S600, the SM
600 was introduced in November 1964 packaged with standard amenities like backup lights, a submuffler, side sill protectors, a radio and speaker with visor-mounted antenna, heater, cigarette lighter and firmer seats, giving the car a slightly upscale vibe.
In truth, this ambience seems to come naturally to the open top S600, especially one as immaculate as Griffiths'. The Alpine Blue
paint shines so clean and pure that you might lose it in a Caribbean lagoon. The chrome reflects more thoroughly than a depressed poet, particularly in the finely crafted grille and flowing contour traveling down the body's length and over the rear haunches. A large, thin and elegant wood-rimmed steering wheel dominates the cockpit, perfectly framing the tach and speedo situated front and center and lifted straight from the motorcycle parts bin. The ignition sits on the dash panel to the right (on LHD cars that would be left of the column), exactly where an S2000's start button would be.
Having spent eleven years of his adolescence in Kobe with a trusty Honda motorcycle as his only transportation, Griffiths fondly recalls seeing S cars roaming the streets, a vision that sparked his current ownership in the States. Watching Griffiths roll his car, designed for olden Tokyo's jagged alleys, down the vast blacktop lanes of modern LA finally answers what it would look like to go bowling with a ping-pong ball. A Chevy Aveo may easily tower above it, but the S600's small size belies its Cerberus bark when the gas pedal is provoked, especially as the engine winds towards the tachometer's upper reaches. The motor revs so eagerly in fact, that the tach needle snaps back and forth like that of a resetting analog stopwatch, all while emitting a sound whose closest earthly counterpart might be that of an early 90s sportbike equipped with a high-flow muffler.
As if such traits didn't sufficiently remind the driver of Honda's motorcycle roots, the entire rear section of the drivetrain - propeller shaft, differential, halfshafts - all seemed to be misplaced inches before the rear wheels. Each halfshaft, fashioned with a sprocket at its end, drives a chain that in turn spins its corresponding rear wheel. Just like a motorcycle! Furthermore, the chains' oil cases are honorary members of the rear suspension, serving double duty as both trailing link and lubricant holder.
The eventual phase-out of the unique chain driven setup for a more conventional prop drive and live axle would have been unfortunate had the greater tragedy of the entire lineup's cancellation not occurred. By the end of its run, Honda had given the world just under 26,000 of the brilliant machines. Roughly half, at 13,084, were S600s. As repairs to the complex engine inevitably surfaced, many of these gems were cast to the weeds. Soon, the little roadsters were all but forgotten.
Inexplicably, Honda then proceeded to go three decades without an heir. In the intervening years, Honda's unbridled success in F-1 and CART and its practically single-handed launch of the whole import tuning subculture, were all achieved without a single mention of the S-series. Even when Honda did return to the business of building a pure sports car, it plunged straight from Integras into uncharted exotic territory with the NSX, much like it did with the original F-1 racers and S-series.
For many years, it seemed that the S cars would be nothing more than an interesting trivia fact. But then, thankfully, in April 1999 a proper, faithful, and true successor surfaced. With its FR open-top layout and tilt-mounted engine, the S2000 at long last brought the brand back to its roots, soaring redline and all.