Our first three Jalopnik Fantasy Garage residents possess on average the power of 477 horses. The 1969 Honda 1300 Coupe 9 has only 116 ponies at the ready. And its front wheels are of the driven persuasion. Still, I am advocating for the Coupe 9 to be included in our little 50-space Fantasy Garage. Why? Well, for one it is hella rare. Official numbers are hazy recollections at this point, but according to our research Honda built just over 8,000 Coupe 9s. The company built a lesser variant, the 100-hp Coupe 7, in greater number (about 38,500). More significantly, only 1,053 Honda 1300 Coupes ever left Japan, the bulk of which were the punier 7s. Almost all the Coupe 9s that escaped went down to Oz. But rarity does not a Fantasy Garage inductee make. As Diamond Dave would say, go ahead and jump to learn all about "what looks on paper to be the weirdest little motor car ever!"
Let's start with that engine. One hundred sixteen horsepower doesn't sound like much until you realize the grunt is coming from a 1.3-liter mill at 7200 rpm. That's 88 hp per liter. To put that number in perspective, the modern Corvette Z06 makes just over 72 hp per liter. In 1969 terms, a Z28 Camaro produced 58 hp per liter. What's that? Oh right, Chevy underrated the Z28's power, claiming only 290 hp, though most dynometer tests "proved" the bone-stock mullet magnet spat out closer to 390 horses. Which is just 78 per liter.
But let's stop comparing a normally aspirated 1298cc four-banger to beefy American muscle – let's look at this engine in terms of Honda. When the much lauded and undeniably sporty Acura Integra debuted in 1986, its 1.6-liter DOHC 16V VTEC produced 113 hp. That was only about 70 hp per liter. At this point we need to mention the Coupe 9 sported four carburetors, had hemispherical combustion chambers, and was both air cooled and dry sumped. Much like Dr. Piech and his Veyron, cars like the 1300 Coupe 9 are what happen when your CEO happens to hold a degree in engineering. An ego the size of an island doesn't hurt, either.
The air-cooling part is particularly fascinating. Soichiro Honda was doggedly convinced (at the time) that air-cooled engines were superior to their water-filled counterparts. But they were noisy as hell (ever driven an old Bug?). To directly quote Mr. Honda:
"Since water-cooled engines eventually use air to cool the water, we can implement air cooling from the very beginning. That will eliminate the problem of water leaks, and it will facilitate maintenance. The question here is how to reduce the loud noise characteristic of an air-cooled engine to a level commensurate with a water-cooled unit."
How did Honda's engineers meet this challenge? It turns out that much of the noise associated with an air-cooled motor comes from the harmonic vibrations of the cooling-fins. So, instead of making them tall and slender like the Germans, Honda made 'em short and fat. Noise levels were reduced significantly, dropping lower than most water-cooled, similarly sized competitor engines.
Another key "gee whiz" feature of the de-heating process is the "Duo Dyna Air Cooling." Most air-cooled engines rely on air passing over various parts of the engine. Picture the finned cylinders of old Bugs. However, the Duo Dyna system employed channels just like a liquid-cooled engine, only these channels were fed fresh air (as opposed to coolant fresh from a radiator) via an impeller mounted directly to the crank. In other words, cooling air is forced through the engine! This newly heated air could then be pumped directly into the passenger cabin – no need to wait around for a heating coil on chilly mornings. We love Duo Dyna so much it is hard to put into words. Additional engine cooling was accomplished via the dry sump which had cooling fins surrounding the reservoir.
So, obviously the engine was top shelf but what about the rest of the Coupe 9? Short answer; abso-friggging-double-lutely. The first front-wheel driven Fantasy Garage nominee just happens to handle like a rear-driver. True, we've never driven it, so we will outsource our opinion to one of our Chazwazzer forefathers:
The nicest thing about driving the Honda 1300 Coupe is that you'd never know it was front wheel drive unless you'd peeped under the bonnet first. One driver - one of the most senior men in the Australian motor industry - took the car for a quick squirt around a test circuit. He was screwing it through some devilish bends when we casually remarked: "Handles well doesn't it, especially for a FWD machine ..." He was astounded. In fact, he didn't really believe us until he'd whipped open the bonnet and saw, yes, a neat little four-pot sitting smugly east-west. And air-cooled to boot.
Mr. Honda deployed a bevy of nifty tricks to unleash such super-handling potential. First of all, the engine was mounted in a sub-frame, as opposed to more common (and much cheaper) unibody construction. This sub-frame extended rearward to also house the transmission, and positioned slightly aft to maximize weight distribution. The front suspension was composed of McPherson struts while the rear featured a very special "cross-over swing-axle" set up. Essentially, these are long-ass swing axles mounted to the opposing chassis rail with all sorts of tweaks to prevent the leaves from twisting, reduce camber change and body roll, and most importantly prevent the dangerous hopping and "jacking-up" characteristics inherent to all other swing-axle vehicles (think Corvair).
As another Aussie auto-journo of the time noted, "What, then, is the sum total of all this in terms of behavior? We put our necks on the block and describe it as the best-sorted of any road car, regardless of size or configuration."
The Coupe 9's ride was compliant and the interior well sorted, with an old-skool BMW-style curve to the dash that pointed everything at the driver. It also featured redundant electrical systems on either side of the vehicle, so that if you got nailed from the right, the brake lights would still work.
OK, you might be saying, So what? Honda made a great albeit obscure little coupe for Australian hoons back in the day and then started banging out CCVCs. Big deal. But the 1300 is so much more than that. It is the car that made Honda, well, Honda. Remember, this was to be the company's first real car (as opposed to cute but ultimately silly micros like the N360)
Here's a for instance. The side panels were originally to be soldered together. Mr. Honda then learned that fumes from the soldering were harmful to his workers. This was unacceptable. So he mandated a "complete elimination of soldering" and that a new approach be found. The result was the "Mohican structure," which was a little more complex but yielded greater body strength and worker productivity. The technique learned from the Mohican structure (i.e., stamped sheets) is still used today to produce most of the world's body panels. More incredibly, the welding factory constructed to produce the 1300 is not only still in use, but the actual welding machine is still slapping together Hondas. Incredible.
However, we find the most compelling reason for including this mighty-mite Honda in our Fantasy Garage to be not so much the physical attributes of the Coupe 9, but the attitudes of the men who built it and its Japanese competition. When Honda was showing off the 1300 prototype at the 1968 Tokyo Motor Show, the president of Toyota Motor Industries (Mr. Eiji Toyoda to me and you) stood silent in front of the Honda exhibit for a full ten-minutes. He then gathered his engineers around the rival car and shouted, "Honda's car produces 100 horsepower with a 1300cc engine. Why can't we do the same thing?"
Could any of you imagine Wagoner or Mulally articulating anything remotely similar? You know in your soul of souls that A) they wouldn't go anywhere near each other's exhibits and B) if they gathered their engineers around them they would whine about saving $0.02 on air vents. If you have ever wondered why the Camry and Accord of today are the world beaters that they are, look no further than the Honda 1300 Coupe 9. Plus, it looks like an Alfa Romeo GT 2000, which as Dan Neil would say, is filthy hot. We ask that you vote with your minds, as well as your hearts.
[Jalopnik's Fantasy Garage runs every Tuesday. Submit proposals for future acquisitions to firstname.lastname@example.org.]