The First Prototype Car Built By Honda Was So Much Stranger Than Whatever You Were Thinking Of

It doesn't really look like any Honda that came after, but some seeds are in there

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It’s odd to think about, but Honda is a relative newcomer to the automotive industry. The company started making complete motorcycles (before that they adapted motors to bicycles) in 1949, and didn’t actually start building actual four-wheeled trucks and cars until 1963. I was thinking about this because of the recent Jason Drives episode with the Honda Vamos, which set me down a chain of curiosity that led me to the realization that I had never seen what kind of early prototype cars Honda was developing before starting to build cars. Well, I have finally seen the car, and, oh boy, is it good.

Early prototypes of cars are always fascinating because they often represent the purest, most original form of the fundamental idea of a given car, before the realities of production constraints and hard truths learned in testing water the concept down into something that can actually be built.

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Photo: Citroën
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The prototypes of the Citroën 2CV are a good example of this; they were even more basic and austere and Bauhaus-minimalistic than the production car, with a solitary headlamp, flimsier, more corrugated construction, and seats hung by wires from the roof.

While the purity of that original 2CV was significantly diluted by the time the production car was finished, you can still clearly see the essential idea carried through; it’s the same story, just edited and refined.

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What makes the first Honda automobile prototype amazing is just how far it was from pretty much any Honda car that would follow it.

The car, called the XA170, is delightfully weird. The goal was to design a people’s car for Japan, inspired in part by the Suzuki Suzulight, a little FWD two-stroke car from 1955 that was based on the Lloyd 400, and fit the first Kei-class legislation restrictions.

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Photo: Suzuki

Like the Suzulight, the XA170, which started development in 1957 with a minimal team of eight engineers and designers, was front-engine, front-wheel drive, with an engine that met Kei restrictions, in this case a 360cc air-cooled V-four making 24 horsepower.

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The project was kept very secret, with engineers told to wear street clothes instead of uniforms when driving the prototype around so it wouldn’t be associated with Honda.

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Photo: Honda Heritage
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Pictures of the engine show a motorcycle-like design, with prominent finned cylinders, and what looks like multiple carbs in the valley between the cylinder banks. From the picture I have here, those carbs look like they have those bottle-shaped dashpots like a British SU carb; Hitatchi made SU-like carbs in Japan, so maybe these are those?

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Also, that fan! I’m a huge fan of that huge fan.

The XA170 was a test mule to develop pretty much everything, so we can’t take the deeply strange looking body design as anything that would ever have made production, but we sure can enjoy its weirdness now.

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The goal was to make a four-seat car about 9 feet long—not an easy task—and it was intended to be a general family car. At least two of the XA170 prototypes were built, but, in 1958, when Subaru released the Subaru 360, the first really successful Kei car, Soichiro Honda decided to let establish players like Subaru have the small family car market, and Honda should focus on something more niche.

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Photo: Subaru

This picture must be from right around this period in 1958:

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Photo: http://www.automobiles-japonaises.com/
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In it, we see lined up, from left to right, a Subaru 360, a Lloyd 400, and the Honda prototype. Was this picture taken from some comparison tests that helped Honda decide to try a different path?

What Honda decided to do was make a sports car instead, and this was the path that would lead to Honda’s first production passenger car, the sporty little roadster known as the S500.

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Photo: http://www.automobiles-japonaises.com/

Fiberglass and steel versions were built and tested, and while these prototypes don’t really look much like the eventual S360 (and later S500, S600, and S800), they at least follow the general small, sporty roadster archetype.

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Photo: Honda

Development then turned to the commercial market, becoming the Honda T360 truck. Neither the S360 roadster with its front engine/rear-wheel drive (by chain, at first!) layout or the T360 truck’s mid-engine/rear drive layout was like the XA170 prototype, but eventually Honda would circle back to the basic XA170 layout when they decided to try again with the small family car market with the N360 in 1967.

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Photo: Honda

I think most people sort of assume that Honda just cribbed the basic BMC Mini design for the N360, but, really, the fundamental layout and packaging development was under way a solid decade earlier, with the XA170.

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Sure, the XA170 looks nothing like the N360 or, well, pretty much anything, but Honda’s first mass-market family car definitely grew from that first, very odd prototype.