Yesterday, we teased our favorite car from the 2014 Japanese Classic Car Show, and now we must confess: we lied a little. We had two.
As we were making our second or third lap of the show grounds in the shadow of the Queen Mary, something we had overlooked before stopped us cold: a tiny, gorgeous white roadster that was vaguely familiar, but whose name we could not place immediately. We stepped closer, and the chrome script on the fender revealed the car’s identity: “Honda.” Of course, it was a 1965 S600 Roadster, Honda’s first mass-market automobile. A little more than 11,000 of these lilliputian roadsters were manufactured during a three-year production run, but few are seen today on our shores…one estimate places the number existing in the United States at around 300. And this one was stunning.
Owned by Scott King of Palm Springs, California, this particular S600 Roadster was a left-hand-drive export example that was sold new in Canada (as were most found in North America; the car was never officially exported to the U.S.) A longtime Honda employee who previously had sold his meticulously maintained Prelude to the Honda museum, King purchased the car in 1995 as a complete but partly disassembled unit that hadn’t run in many years. “There was more rust than actual body,” he recalled. Much to his delight, after a simple cleaning of the fuel system and a carb rebuild the car started right up. From that point, King embarked on a frame-off restoration, which in those pre-internet days meant sourcing obscure parts via word-of-mouth. The resulting finished product has been displayed at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles, as well as being the subject of articles in Motor Trend and Hemmings Motor News.
Besides its obvious aesthetic appeal, the S600 is masterpiece of engineering. The 606-cc, all aluminum inline four will shriek willingly all the way to a 9500 RPM redline. True, it produces only 57 horsepower, but with a feathery 1,575 pound curb weight, such output is adequate to propel the car from 0-60 in 11.5 seconds on its way to a top speed of 90 miles per hour, figures that compare quite favorably with competing British sports cars of the day (none of which packed engine technology as advanced as this.)
So dazzling was the white Roadster that we very nearly overlooked the equally spectacular 1965 S600 Coupe parked next to it. Unsurprisingly, this car too is owned by Scott King, and its backstory is even more fascinating than that of its ivory sister car.
Only about 1,800 Coupe versions of the S600 were produced over its three-year production span, and King’s right-hand-drive example was likely made for the Japanese domestic market. However, compelling evidence exists to suggest that this particular car made its way to North America as part of Honda’s entourage for the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix, which happens to have been the site of Honda’s maiden Formula 1 victory (hence the “HONDA F1” license plate.) According to King, it would have been more cost effective for Honda to have sold the car on this side of the Pacific following the race rather than shipping it back to Japan, and that is precisely what transpired. By the time the car found its way to King about ten years ago, it was rusty and rough, having been vandalized while in long-term storage. A comprehensive restoration followed to as high a standard as was applied to the white Roadster, with equally wonderful results.
Whether in Coupe or Roadster form, the Honda S600 represented a Great Leap Forward in the viability of the Japanese auto industry on the worldwide stage, and pristine examples like those belonging to Scott King are some of the best evidence available that Japanese classics deserve broader acceptance in the car collecting community at large. Yes, it’s difficult to assess them without comparison to their more familiar British contemporaries, but to do so with an open mind will quickly reveal that in many regards, the Hondas were simply superior machines. We’d love to own one.
Parking On Grass is the Desktop Concours’ irregular series on California’s vibrant car show scene. Occasionally, cars will not actually be be parked on grass.