9 Facts About the Original Honda Sports Cars - S500/600/800
Honda has always been known as a builder of economy cars, and the S2000 was a shot from left field... Except that Honda was building the S500 sports car before any of their economy cars hit the market. Let's look back at this primeval Honda 2 seater.
1. You Meet the Nicest People IN a Honda
In 1963, when Honda first sold the S500 sports car, they were known for their small displacement, inexpensive, durable and reliable motorcycles. Their first 4 wheeled vehicle was a tiny pickup truck (the T360), but just a few months later, the jewel-like S500 went on sale. It would take them nearly 30 years lost in the wilderness, making the best (and best handling) front wheel drive economy cars before they would get back to their roots and build the S2000 in 1999.
2. A Most Unique Chassis
The 1999 Honda S2000 was a conventional sports car in every way, but the original S500 used a unique suspension set up that has not been seen since. Up front were upper and lower A-arms as most cars used, but with torsion bars as springs, which was not common (except for at Chrysler). In the back things got really wild, with a conventional solid differential mounted forward of the wheels, with pivoting swing arms like a motorcycle bolted to the end of each axle. The wheel was mounted to the swing arm, and powered via chain inside sealed, cast aluminum cases, with coil over shocks. The picture above is actually a scale model from Tamiya.
3. The Little Engine the Could
Some people love the Honda S2000 for its high revving four cylinder, and some hate it for not having much low end power, but the S500 beats it on both. The redline from the tiny 531cc DOHC four cylinder was 9,500 rpm, which was Formula One territory in 1963, and it put out just 44 hp at the peak of 8,000 rpm. Those power and displacement numbers may seem tiny, but this was a car that weighed just 1,500 lbs, so top speed was a respectable 80 mph.
4. 1963-64 Honda S500
These cars were solid performers at the time, and could keep up with other sports cars like the Bug Eyed Sprite, or MG Midget. Honda managed to sell just 1,363 of them before evolving the design into the very similar S600. The car was available from the start with left hand drive for export from Japan to Europe, because Soichiro Honda had his eyes set on making the best cars in the world. The same year Honda introduced the S500, they set their sights on racing building their own Formula One racer as well.
5. 1964-66 Honda S600
In the middle of 1964, as was fairly common back then, Honda transitioned from the S500 to the S600, with a 606cc motor putting out 57 hp at 8,500 rpm, and a top speed reported to be 90 mph. Weight was slightly higher because there was more bright trim, and things we now take for granted like a heater, radio, and more were options. These cars were now gaining traction and sales worldwide totaled more than 11,000 by the time they wound down, plus nearly 2,000 hard top fastbacks.
6. S600/S800 Fastbacks
Honda was ambitious and decided to create a fastback version of their sports car as well, with a hard top, and hatchback, and it weighed just 40 lbs more. These attractive and sporty fastbacks are even rarer than the regular Honda sports, with only around 3,000 of them ever made.
7. 1966-70 Honda S800
Honda was learning a lot and their cars were improving every year when they introduced the S800, which was intended to be exported all over the world, and even to the United States, though that didn't happen. The first few used the same chassis as the earlier cars, but in the first year, a more conventional solid rear with 4 trailing arms and a panhard bar was fitted. The new larger 791cc motor made 70 hp at 8,000 rpm, and would rev to 10,000. Counting coupes and fastbacks nearly 12,000 S800 cars were made, but none of them officially came to the US.
8. Racing the Little Honda
Of course these little over achieving 2-seaters were raced. Several S500/600 cars were shipped to Europe and competed in the Liège-Sofia-Liège rally in 1963, and you can read all about them here. The S800 in yellow next to the Civic hatch racer famously won its class at the 12 hour race at Suzuka in 1968, you may recognize it from the Gran Turismo game. Japanese Nostalgia Car did a really nice write up of it here. The two on the lower row of the picture were custom sport racers created by Dome, based on the little Honda. The one at right is the Karusu, and the more radical racer at left is the Macransa, and you can read all about them here.
9. Tamiya Models
These cars are rare, hard to find parts for, and very small for driving in modern traffic, but you can get a detailed model from Tamiya and enjoy them on your desk. A 1/10 scale RC version of the famous S800 racers was even available if you prefer your toys move on their own. If you prefer a smaller more detailed version, the one I pictured the undercarriage of is the 1/24 version, which has also been discontinued but can be found in both street and race versions online if you are patient.