The Petersen Automotive Museum is one of the planet’s most famous galleries of motorized machinery. Established in 1994, its self-stated goal is to let visitors “explore the evolution of the Automobile and its impact on our culture.” Fittingly, its four-story building is located on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, the epicenter of car customizing culture in the US. As you read these words, the Petersen is holding a special exhibition called “Microcars: The Minimum in Motoring” that celebrates vehicles which are very, very small. Of course, some of the best examples of the genre are simultaneously Japanese, nostalgic, and cars, so here are some photos of the buggies from J-land.
The Honda N600 (left) and the Z600 both used the same air-cooled aluminum two-cylinder 598cc engine. Small but not simple, it boasted an overhead cam and yes, that thing had a hemi (-spherical combustion chamber). The N600 was Honda’s first official import to the US and while production ended in September 1970, the sportier Z began manufacture in October that same year. Achieving upwards of 40 miles per gallon came in handy when OPEC decided to withhold the barrels in ’73.
Soichiro Honda was a visionary in Japan’s fledgling automotive industry. Few men would attempt a two-seat roadster like this 1965 S600 as his first salvo into the competitive automobile industry. However, in a rare lapse of judgment, Honda was convinced that air-cooled motors like the one in the 600s held the future. When his R&D team proved that water cooling provided greater potential for performance and better emissions controls, he was wise enough to relent control to the younger generation of engineers.
Honda’s 600cc motor may have seemed tiny, but in Japan an even smaller N360 was sold. As part of the kei class, these cars fulfilled a government mandate for automakers to provide a People’s Car for the unwashed masses. The rear-mounted dual-pot motor propelled the Subaru 360 (left) with just 25 horsepower, but drove the egg-shaped, bow-legged runabout to iconic status in Japan. The Mazda R360’s rear V-twin generated just 16hp and served as the company’s first venture into four-wheeled cars, following the manufacture of three-wheeled motorcycles with pickup beds and before that, corks.
If you’re in the city of angels, stop by and see these minuscule but mighty wonders for yourself, along with the rest of the Petersen’s vast collection. The microcars exhibit goes from June 23, 2007 to Feburary 3, 2008.