Japanese Nostalgic Car profiles cover


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Green T
Brian Baker's Honda pickup fought the law, and won.
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I n Japan, the mightiest entity in all the land is MITI, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Its trade guidelines determine what goods Japan's workforce will spend their lives making for export, its pollution oversight dictates what kind of air its citizens will breathe, and its energy policy decides whether dead plant or atom will power enough flashing neon signs to cause seizures in passing UFOs. It's even in charge of summoning Godzilla in case of attack by mutant insect. Japanese car manufacturers may possess more wealth than Scrooge McDuck and enjoy a global reach rivaling that of a CIA satellite network, but at one time they were all beholden to the whims of MITI.

In May of 1955, MITI declared that the automakers of Japan should focus their resources on building a People's Car, something the cash-strapped average Hiro could afford, to tote the wife and kids around in, doing citizenly things like spurring economic growth. In a blink, Japan's streets were aflood with microcars like the Toyota Publica, Mitsubishi 500, Subaru 360, Mazda R360, and Suzuki Suzu-Light.

Honda may be one of Japan's Big Three today, but when its first car went on sale in 1963, People's Cars had been swarming the roads for years. Back in September of 1958, Subaru's iconic 360 had been designed, prototyped, tested, and sold for six months but Honda was just opening a small automotive R&D house, staffed by a mere seven hand-picked motorcycle engineers.

Within four months, the skunkworks team had constructed a front wheel drive, front engined, buggy. It was powered by an air-cooled, single-cam, four-cylinder motor and had a flat floor so seats could be easily affixed to make a sedan. In other words, it looked nothing like Honda's first cars.

A paraphrase of Soichiro Honda's basic thoughts on the prototype: "Screw that." Mr. Honda had built his first winning race car at the age of 17, was on his way to becoming the world's preeminent motorcycle company, and would go on to field the first victorious Formula 1 car from Japan. A 1959 physical exam found his blood had an octane rating of 103, and he was not about to throw another pedestrian meat shuttle into the mix. No, Soichiro Honda wanted to give the people something they didn't even know they wanted. "Let's build a sports car," he said. And just like that, development on the mule ended.

Of course, the sports car Mr. Honda envisioned became the groundbreaking Honda S500, the two-seat roadster with the lunatic 9,500 rpm twin-cam and chain-driven rear wheels. But if Honda the man had been as stubborn as he was imaginative, Honda the car company may be uttered in the same breath as Cony or Ohta today. In total, the S-series would sell less than 26,000 units, in all three engine sizes, over a seven year span.

Fortunately for Honda, his loyal friend and business partner, Takeo Fujisawa, convinced him that a second, more sellable car built alongside the roadster might be a good idea. Like partners in a buddy cop movie, Honda dreamed big and chased new technologies, while the pragmatic Fujisawa planned, strategized and ran the more mundane aspects of the company. Each man capitalized on his own skills, and Fujisawa's methodic research of the market pointed him in the direction of a small commercial pickup.

In May of 1961, MITI once again turned its Sauron-like gaze to the auto industry. The Temporary Measures Bill for the Promotion of Specified Industries was exactly the kind of unreadable heap of ink and paper that you'd expect from a monolithic government agency. Describing its details would be duller than a butter knife made of George W. Bush's wit, but suffice it to say that somewhere in that forest of clauses and subheadings, the bill sought to limit the number of car companies in Japan. And if, like Honda, your company had yet to produce any cars, it would be barred from entering the industry altogether.

Soichiro Honda lobbied frantically against the proposal, but ultimately failed. MITI submitted it for a vote before the Diet and Honda's only recourse was to build his cars before the bill passed.

Work on Honda's sports car and Fujisawa's truck marched forward, and the S360, S500 and T360 stole the 1962 Tokyo Motor Show held that October. With the pre-production models ready, Honda now had to demonstrate adequate production numbers before the Diet voted on MITI's bill during their 1963 session. After reconsidering how a 360cc sports car would fare in export markets (not well), Honda axed it. The truck was then given top priority while the vote drew ever nearer.

As history shows, Honda cars do, in fact, exist. In August 1963 the T360 went on sale. Fujisawa was dead on about the need for truck sales. By itself, the T360 sold 108,920 units, about four times the number of all the S-cars put together, and in what would be only half the number of years on the market.

Fast forward to the present, however, and the numbers do a 180. Count the S-cars on the road today and you'll find that it completely dwarfs the T total. Enthusiasts and collectors glommed onto the sexy roadsters like free hotcakes, and deservedly so.

Trucks owners, on the other hand, put them to hard labor, particularly on farms. Keep in mind that the Meishin Expressway, Japan's first, had only opened about a month before the T360 went on sale. In rural areas roads were still composed largely of that age-old matter denoting the absence of grass - dirt. After a good downpour, vehicles stranded in rutted Japanese mud like beached whales were a fairly common sight in those days. These trucks did not have an easy life.

Which makes it all the more astonishing that Brian Baker has come to actually own one of the rarer large-displacement T500s, and in an appealing condition no less. It's one of two known to exist in North America, and if you saw the other one, you'd say it's more like one and a half. Brian and his brother Jeff own and operate Formula H Motorworks in Middletown, New York, a shop that will just as willingly change the oil on your '07 Civic as they would conduct a ground up restoration of your vintage S-car.

Brian's ownership of his T500F began during a 1994 gathering of fellow Honda enthusiasts, when a Canadian attendee recalled seeing a T500 in a classified ad, once upon a time. A trio of factors immediately conspired to convince Brian that this lead would result in empty-handed disappointment: 1.) the T500 was rare and never exported to our continent, and it was far more likely that his friend was simply wrong than for the truck to be here, 2.) the ad appeared in French, and 3.) it had been published over three years earlier.

Some time later, Brian received a call from Canada. His friend had unearthed the ad and confirmed the alphanumerics spelling out "T500." The number included led to a Quebec Hyundai dealership.

Now, because you're reading these pages, chances are you can understand what a find like this would mean to a self-described Honda nut who's spent a lifetime gathering enough Honda books, brochures, memorabilia and actual cars to populate a small museum. So, surely you can understand the anticipation with which Brian dialed that telephone number. Certainly you can sympathize with the agony of having to leave a message and wait for a return call. But most of all, you can definitely fathom how stupendously ecstatic it must have been to learn that the car was still available for him to buy over three years after the ad had been placed!

What you see in the images before you is that exact T500F, in precisely the same condition as it was on the day Brian hauled it back from Canada in the back of a rented Ryder truck. The trail of ownership grows cold quickly, but as the unconfirmed story goes, Honda brought the truck to Canada during the 1967 Montreal World Expo as a display piece in their pavilion, where a wealthy motorcycle enthusiast negotiated the purchase of a new bike, but only on the condition that they sell him the truck as well.

The best thing about cars built in the infancy of its parent company, or better yet, the entire industry is, there are no rules. It was like the Wild West of automaking, and any innovation was acceptable as long as it made the car work. A driveshaft the size of a Polish sausage? No problem! How about if we drop this 9,000 rpm sports car engine straight into a mid-engined pickup? Okay!

Lifted straight out of the S500 and lightly detuned with less aggressive cams and a modified head, the T500's motor lies far aft of the front axle. So far aft, in fact, that you, as driver, sit directly on top of it. To wedge it in there, even the 45 degree angle slant from the S500 didn't cut it, so the engineers rolled it almost a full 90 degrees on its side.

To operate the choke, reach under your kneecaps. To see the engine, stand up and unclasp the seat cushion. For a firewall, wear pants. At the disposal of your left foot are the bottom-hinged brakes, clutch, and a switch to activate those frog-like high beams. Mash the gas pedal and fuel flows through a pair of 50cc dual-throat Mikunis, arriving via a mechanical pump (as opposed to the S-cars' electric unit), churning out 38 horses that will propel the T500 to a top speed of 65 miles per hour, given time.

Unfortunately, the interior lacks a tach to witness the engine's glorious revving abilities, though the simplistic Denso gauge cluster does exude retro-coolness today. The engine's location leaves plenty of room under the clamshell hood, which houses a full-size, twelve-inch, two-piece spare and wears what has to be the biggest honkin' "H" logo that has ever graced the front of a Honda.

Like any good truck, the T-series came in a variety of styles. The base T360 had a conventional pickup cargo box, while the T360F, for "flat deck," sported a sideless bed made of wooden slats. The T360V, or "van," added a canopy to enclose the rear, and the T360H, whose letter designation remains a mystery, had a bed with folding sides.

"Ah, but this is a T500F!" you might say, "Where's the flatbed?" Well as it turns out, in a prime example of the type of arcane riddle often accompanying nostalgics, for the larger displacement trucks the T500F is the one with folding sides. Go figure.

Underneath the cargo area, leaf springs and a solid rear axle keep the frame rails off the ground, pretty standard stuff. Less standard is the exhaust, which consists of a tentacled twist of piping reminiscent of the Honda's 60s F-1 cars, visible from the passenger's side. Tucked under the driver's side, an oil bath air cleaner testifies to the vehicles intended use out in the sticks.

Brian's particular T500 boasts several options, including shoulder belts and a single reverse light that dangles from the rear bumper. Windshield washers and nozzles were available, but the ones a previous owner fitted to his truck aren't the Honda originals. The rest of the options list ranges from the ordinary - radio, heater, cargo tarpaulin - to the curious - a 12 volt socket in the cab, to which you could plug an official Honda work light, or a "radiator shutter" that was no more than a modified window blind sitting in front of the radiator that could be closed to facilitate engine warmup. Also, inexplicably, a tire pressure gauge, despite the standard-size valve stems.

However, the penultimate T-series accessory has to be, without question, the "Snowler," meter-long skis that could attach to the front wheels while the rear ones were swapped for two parallelogram-shaped tank treads. Fujisawa came up with the beastly contraption for a relative's winter lumber business and coined the word by combining "snow" and "crawler." The ability to transform your microtruck into a snow-slinging demon was sheer coolness then, even more so today. The Snowler's high price when new - ¥122,000 and ¥4,000 for the treads and skis, compared to ¥366,000 for a new T500 - all but guaranteed its rarity today.

Honda sold only 10,226 T500s, mainly due to the larger engine disqualifying it for kei status, which maxxed out at 360cc at the time. You could have any color you wanted, as long as it was Moss Green. To tell them apart from the T360s at a glance, Honda made it easy for us by painting all of the latter May Blue, though some sources indicate that Honda produced a very brief run of them in ivory white or beige. Barring that, the license plate brackets on the T360 are sized to accommodate the smaller kei tags.

The last T360 rolled off the line in August, 1967 followed by the final T500 three months later. The TN-series immediately succeeded them, and the entire line was renamed Acty in 1977, a model that survives to this day. In the meantime, cars like the N-series pushed the company to greater and greater heights, but the T-series was their first automotive grand slam and what launched Honda into the realm of the four wheeled. But did Honda actually beat MITI to the punch? The proposal went before the Diet in 1963, though as it turns out, didn't even get enough votes to pass. MITI resubmitted in 1964 but after another failed ballot, the bill was never mentioned again. end

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