We’ve had quite a few articles on the Honda S600 sports car lately (here and here), which reminded me that there is a great story about the S600 winning its class and coming 13th outright in the 1964 Nurburgring 500km race for small capacity cars. It was Honda’s first victory of any sort on four wheels, and the start of many big things to come, and a year later Honda would win its first F1 GP.
In 1964, Honda shipped a lone S600 to Europe, and deputised the driving duties to New Zealander Denny Hulme. Denny was driving for Jack Brabham at the time (who used Honda engines in his F2 cars) and he would go on to a great career in F1, winning the World Championship in 1967 for Brabham. He retired from F1 in 1974, but he continued to race competitively until his untimely death in 1992. A true driving hero, he passed away at the wheel of a racing car, a Group A BMW M3 while competing in the Bathurst 1000 race in Australia. He suffered a massive heart attack, but still managed to pull the car safely to the side of the track and stop without incident. Sadly, by the time the track marshalls had reached him, he was already gone.
Hulme getting air at the Flugplatz at the Nurburgring in his F1 championship year (1967)
But in 1964, he was one of the many talented antipodean racing drivers seeking fame and fortune on the race tracks of Europe. And his gritty, determined style was a perfect fit for the green Honda team. Honda’s young mechanics had blueprinted the sweet spinning 600 to 76hp (up from 55hp stock) and in practice, the little S600 pulled up to 190km/h on the long Nurburgring straights.
Practice went well, but during qualifying, the S600 busted a driveshaft. The Honda broke down on the far side of the track, and since the Nurburgring is so huge, by the time the mechanics reached Denny, qualifying was over and the S600 would start well down the grid.This was only the start of Honda’s problems, however. They didn’t actually have a spare driveshaft…and the closest S600 driveshaft was in a Belgium Honda dealership, many hours away.
Hulme in the early 70s before he retired from F1
So one of the Japanese mechanics drove off to Belgium in a rental car to cannibalise an S600 for its driveshafts, and most of the team packed up for the night. One mechanic stayed with the car to wait for the new parts.
Again, this was not the end of the dramas. The next day dawned, and there were still no driveshafts. Unbeknownst to the team, the mechanic had crashed his car while returning to the Nurburgring, and the plucky (but non-English and non-German speaking) spannerman was now rushing back to the track in a taxi, relying entirely on hand signals to tell the driver where to go!
But just a scant few hours before the 10am race start, a taxi appeared in the Nurburgring pits, and the Honda mechanics frantically began to fit the driveshafts, while the team manager scratched his head about where in Europe his rental car was.
As the cars gridded up, the S600 was ready.
However, the cruel hand of fate still had one more surprise in store. The race was an old fashioned Le Mans start, where the cars lined up on one side of the track, and the drivers would have to sprint across the track, jump in the car, start the engine and then race off. But when Denny reached for the key and turned, it did nothing. The tumbler just rotated in the dash, and a mechanic had to hurriedly dash from the pit lane, reach behind the dash, grab the wiring loom and twisted the key to start the car.
The engine started, and Denny charged off dead last.
On the first lap, the S600 passed an incredible 45 cars (in the 60’s a lap of the Nurburgring was 26kms long!).
In a 1988 interview, Denny told motorsport journalist Eoin Young that the S600 was just a sweet little car, and that the S600 had two secret weapons: its special blueprinted engine which went all the way to 12,500rpm, and a five speed gearbox, allowing the Honda to pull away down the long German straights with a higher top speed, leaving the low-revving, 4 speed Mini Coopers and MG Midgets in its dust. As the race progressed, Denny muscled the S600 into the class lead, leaving the engine running during refuelling stops just in case he couldn’t get it started again! And as the laps counted down, the Japanese mechanics became so nervous that they were gathered at the back of the garage, praying. A bottle of scotch was found, and it was gladly accepted!
But in the end, Denny Hulme and the S600 came through, winning its class, the relieved (and possibly inebriated) Japanese mechanics lifting his 6ft bear-like frame onto their shoulders in triumph, and Honda had clocked up its very first win on four wheels.
They say nothing worthwhile in life comes easy, huh?
(By the way the banner pic above is not the real Hulme S600, we can’t find any pics of the real one, except for this grainy little number just below)