The T360/500 trucks and the S500/600/800 sports cars demonstrated Honda’s racing pedigree and engineering genius. Mr Honda’s philosophy was that if you perfected every individual area of a car, then the overall car would be perfect, and the public would love it. A typical engineer’s philosophy, amply demonstrated in Honda’s production cars which had engine technology more akin to an F1 car at the time. And yet they didn’t really work as a package and worse…they didn’t really sell very well.
Mr Honda’s car division got a reprieve when the N360 Kei-car of 1967 (above) proved to be a sales winner. A simple FWD minicar, using a single cam two cylinder motor, it was well accepted by the Japanese buying public.
But for Honda to become a full fledged car manufacturer, Mr Honda knew that they would have to produce a proper, full size family car. Not just a kei-car which would only work in Japan, but a world-class sedan that could be sold anywhere. This would be the car simply called the “1300” and with it, Mr Honda would push his engineering philosophy to the limit, and it would bring the friction between Old Man Honda and his young management team to a head, changing the fate of the company forever.
The stakes were high, so a new plant dedicated for 1300 production was built at Suzuka, and Mr Honda would lead the 1300 design team himself.
With the 1300, he saw an opportunity to show what Honda’s talented young engineers could do, and so the 1300 would take the principles of the T-series trucks and the S-series sports cars and take them to a new level. The 1300 would be air-cooled, just like the Honda F1 car at the time. The 1300 would be nothing like any other family car.
The cylinder barrels were covered in fins, and a crank driven fan would force air thru ducts in the block and head for cooling. The heater would work by blowing cabin air thru a boxed section of the exhaust headers. The head design would be single cam and 8 valve, but the quad bike carbs from the previous cars would be carried across for the top-line version. And just like the trucks and the S-series sports cars, the 1300 would have a race-inspired dry sump (in the pic below you can see the finned oil tank for the dry sump at the back of the picture). Other weird-tech features included a gearbox with pressure-fed bearings and its own oil pump.
The new engine cranked out a highly respectable 86kw at 7500rpm, which was a stunning output for a 1300 engine at the time. In fact, it’s still pretty good today, being 5kw more powerful than the 1.3L motor in the Jazz, and matching the power outputs of the Mazda MX5 and Toyota AE86 (both 1600cc engines) produced 20yrs later. Surprisingly for a Honda car at the time, the 1300 was actually……fast.
It cut the quarter mile in 17 seconds (which is about a second quicker than say an MGB of the era). The international motoring press travelled to Japan and raved about the engine and its performance. The handling was (following Honda tradition at the time) not quite so hot, the FWD chassis being very nose heavy.
The 1300 platform also spawned a coupe, which was called the “Coupe 7” and “Coupe 9”, the difference being that the 7 had a lower spec, single carb motor with 75kw instead of the full 86kw. The coupes were offered for sale around the world and was an obscure cult performance hit, its avant-garde engineering finding favour with some enthusiasts. They were even raced.
But after launching with a great fanfare, the 1300 was a sales flop in Japan. Family car buyers in Japan in the 60s were conservative, and the car they really wanted to buy was something like the Toyota Corona: a simple, rugged RWD car with straightforward engineering. The Corona had a pushrod 1.9L engine which put out nearly as much power as the 1300’s complex unit, and lots more torque at low rpm. It was much cheaper to produce, sold at a lower price than the 1300 and was exactly what the market wanted. The 1300 had a dedicated enthusiast following but that was never going to be enough to save the car from being a dismal commercial failure.
There was worse to come.
As the 60s came to a close, Mr Honda’s young team of engineers knew that stringent new pollution controls would soon have to be met. And there was no way the dirty, race-inspired air cooled 1300 would pass those tests.
Concern over the upcoming pollution controls and the 1300’s sales failure prompted 60 of the most senior Honda engineers to gather together in secret to discuss the future of the company’s car division. It was decided that a switch to water cooling at the very minimum was absolutely necessary. Publicly, Mr Honda was still adamant that the air cooled concept should be further developed and that it still had great promise.
Things would have to come to a head, and Honda’s young management team confronted Mr Honda and made their case. They also asked Old Man Honda to make a choice: to be head of engineering or to be President of the company. But not both. Wisely, Mr Honda elected to take a back seat in the engineering decision making of the Honda Motor Company, and work immediately began on a simpler water cooled engine for the 1300’s successor.
The car that followed was the Honda Civic. It was water-cooled, it met all the new pollution controls by a generous margin, and its simpler design was still advanced enough in its ideas that it had class-leading performance. In fact, the engine was so clean that it didn’t even need a catalytic convertor to pass US emission standards. Just as the Civic debuted, the Oil Crisis created fuel shortages and drove up the cost of oil. This forced car buyers to turn in droves towards more economical cars, and the Civic was simply the right car at the right time, and Honda’s future as an international car maker was assured.
Finally, Honda was making cars that lots of people wanted to buy.
But Old Man Honda was still a force in the company he created. And his tech-obsessive nature can be seen in many of the features of modern Honda cars. To this day, the character of a good Honda can be said to be defined by the constant tension between Mr Honda’s swashbuckling engineering genius, and the pragmatism of his band of engineers.
Long may it continue.