Forgotten hero #Honda-N600
The Kei to success. The Honda that introduced front-wheel drive Japanese motoring to the roads of Britain by targeting the Mini Words Andrew Roberts. Photos Drive-My archives.
History has not been entirely fair to the #Honda
N600, a car virtually forgotten compared with something such as the Civic. It was not the firm’s original UK market car – the S800 first appeared on British roads in 1966 – and survivors are now as rare as a decent programme on ITV2 but it remains an extremely important car in terms of both Japanese and British motoring. Here in the UK the N600 was arguably the first Japanese car to seriously rival the Mini.
The N600 developed from Honda’s efforts to gain a share of the lucrative domestic Kei (literally ‘diminutive’) car market. This class of vehicle was created by the Japanese government in 1949 as a response to urban congestion. Such cars had to be less than 10ft in length and powered by a fourstroke engine of less than 150cc. This made them eligible for tax concessions and exemptions from parking regulations. Six years later the engine limit was raised to 360cc as the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) announced a plan for a new generation of ‘people’s car’ that would have a top speed of 60mph. One result was the 1958 Subaru 360, one of the most famous – and popular – of all Kei cars, while in that same year Honda began developing four-wheel prototypes. By 1959 Honda was the largest builder of motorcycles in the world but the company’s founder Soichiro Honda regarded his firm as primarily an engine maker, with two-wheeled vehicles as just one of their applications. In 1961 MITI proposed the consolidation of the nation’s existing motor manufacturers into three groups by 1968, each of which would be limited to a single sector of the market. Any new firm would be barred from commencing car building.
This plan never came to fruition, following heavy opposition from the Japanese auto industries. But it did make Honda decide to establish itself as a builder of four-wheeled vehicles before the proposal was due to become law, and so the firm worked extremely fast to unveil the S360, a chain-driven rear-wheel drive sports car, on 5 June 1962.
The S360 evolved into the 1966 S800 and in the meantime Honda developed a car that was to prove its first major domestic success and its first front-wheel drive car. Sales of the N360 saloon – the suffix stood for Norimono (‘Vehicle’ in English) – commenced in March 1967 and by the end of the year it was the best-selling Kei car in Japan. A British market version of the N360 was available in 1968 but despite it gaining a certain amount of publicity from it being the cheapest four-seater car on the market Western motorists desired more power than a 354cc motorcycle-derived engine could provide.
Honda’s response was the N600 of July #1968
sharing the N360’s coachwork but with power from a 599cc version of the vertical twin engine. UK versions appeared that autumn and presented any motorist with a maximum budget of £600 and a taste for interesting engineering with an intriguing proposition. The new Honda certainly bore a physical resemblance to the Mini although it was narrower, with curved side windows to maximise cabin space. As with the Issigonis design, the N600 was powered by a transversely-mounted engine with a four-speed transmission in the sump. But unlike the BMC A-series engine the Honda’s all-alloy power plant boasted twin cylinders and a single overheadcamshaft.
It was air-cooled, as Soichiro Honda believed this more efficient than water cooling. Compared with the standard equipment levels of the Mini MkII the Honda came with a few pleasant touches – wind down windows (only fitted to the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet back in 1968), a folding rear seat, reversing lamps and crude but useful fresh air vents in the footwells. ‘Small car motoring soaring to luxury levels,’ claimed Honda and for £589 – more than the £561 price of a Mini 850 but still less than the £626 Hillman Imp and the £635 Mini 1000 – the N600 was indeed an appealing package. ‘If you’ve just bought a new small car this will break your heart,’ warned the British market Honda advertisements.
The British motoring press regarded the Honda as a car that, while not without faults, had considerable promise. Car magazine concluded that the N600 was ‘faster than a 1000 Mini, more economical, cheaper to buy in the first place but at the same time noisier and less comfortable overall (although with less in it for the driver) and with inferior handling. In many ways it is so close to the Mini that as long as it holds its price at its present level, it is bound to present a very considerable challenge.’ Motor concluded of the Honda that ‘it does have some very real assets, including character, to counter its faults.’
Anyone who has experienced one of the rare survivors will agree that the N600 motoring offered equal levels of fun to those of the Mini or the Hillman Imp. The Honda’s engine may have been a good deal less smooth than either British rival and its transmission may have lacked synchromesh but the Honda still proved itself to be delightful urban transport. It also offered acceleration that compared very favourably with the Mini 1000 and a fair amount of interior space. There was also a ‘Hondamatic’ self-shifting option which at £659 was the cheapest automatic car on the British market. Over in the USA, Car Life magazine noted in 1968 that Honda had ‘announced plans to create a mini-car market by convincing us that tiny cars with tiny engines are suitable or tolerable for city driving.’
By that time Honda’s motorcycles firmly were established across the USA and the N600 tried to fill the vacuum left by the Mini and the Fiat 600, which were withdrawn from the USA after 1967. With a price of $1265, it was considerably cheaper than the Volkswagen Beetle at $1839.
Honda dealers hoped that the N600 would appeal to motorcyclists who also needed four-wheeled transport in addition to the lucrative ‘second car/ affluent college student’ sector. Optional extras included a tachometer, tape player and ski racks, to appeal to affluent 20-somethings. Another factor in the N600’s favour was that cars with an engine capacity of less than 800cc were initially exempt from the strictures of the 1970 Clean Air Act.
The first US market N600s were sold in Hawaii in December #1969
and on the West Coast the following year. The idea of the tiny Honda battling with Peterbilt 281s on a freeway may appear terrifying but this equally applied to a VW Beetle and the N600 at least cruised at 60mph. This was assuming the driver could endure the noise, for at full spate the motor buzzed loudly and the steering wheel vibrated. But the Honda, as Road & Track magazine noted, could be ‘driven with your foot flat to the floor almost all the time – and that’s fun’.
In the event, comparatively few N600s were sold in the USA as it really was too small for the majority of American drivers and imports ceased in 1972 with the closure of the loophole that exempted sub-800cc cars from emissions controls. But a small number of motorists found Honda cars as agreeable as the twowheeled transport of their recent youth and so when the N600’s Civic successor was launched in 1973, there was already a certain amount of goodwill towards the marque.
Meanwhile, a select band of British car drivers had discovered that a Japanese motor manufacturer could compete very convincingly on the Mini’s home territory. The #Honda-N600
was an innocuous looking foretaste of the vast changes that would occur on UK roads during the 1970s and for that reason alone it deserves its place in automotive history.
POWER [email protected]
TORQUE 40lb [email protected]
MAXIMUM SPEED 80mph
FUEL CONSUMPTION 47-53mpg
TRANSMISSION FWD, four-spd man
shared the looks of its bigger-capacity sister.
Honda trumped the car’s big economy as it’s main selling point.
Honda marked the #Honda-N-Series
’ UK arrival with a subtle dig at a certain #BMC
product. There was a certain similarity in looks.
Honda was clearly aiming at the ‘Preppie’ market in its US advertising. However did they fit those brass instruments in?
If you had already had a Chevy or Ford, plus the obligatory Volkswagen Beetle, the N600 could fill any spare drive space.
An automatic street car of desire? The inclusion of an auto transmission option was regarded as vital for the US market.