Let’s say you just finished canyon-carving in your Honda S2000. You enjoyed its lightweight chassis, 50-50 weight distribution and the sounds emitted from its naturally aspirated engine as that aggressive cam profile switched over, rushing to a 9,000 RPM redline. It felt good and entertaining with you deeply connected to the machine.
That’s all thanks to the Honda S600. The S600 is the ancestor to all the modern Honda cars and motorcycles we know and love today, and one of the company’s earliest production cars. And just like your S2000, it was incredibly ahead of its time.
I took one of these vintage bad boys out for a summer drive, in left-hand drive form because, well, Canada. And I’m here to remind you that if it weren’t for this dinky little two-seat roadster the S2000, the Integra Type R, the CRX, the Prelude, the NSX or, hell, even the current Civic Type R might never have existed.
(Full disclosure: The opportunity to drive a 1966 Honda S600 came from a good friend and Canadian Jalopnik reader who recently bought one and wanted to see if I could fit in it. Turns out I could, so I offered him to review it.)
What Is It?
The S600 was actually Honda’s third automobile. It came after a tiny little truck called the T360. Then came the very first S360 roadster, followed by the S500, and then this, the S600, which ran from 1964 all the way to 1966 where it mutated into the S800. They’re all essentially the same car but with different engine displacements.
But the S600 gets credit for being the first Honda car to have been mass-produced, and sold to other markets than Japan.
Since Honda was better known for building motorcycles at the time, it used technology it already mastered to put together a sports car. This made the S600 all kinds of weird and unique. For instance, its engine, essentially a motorcycle four-stroke unit revamped for automotive duty, stood at 606 cubic centimeters of displacement.
But it had dual overhead cams, needle roller bearings, four Keihin carburetors, and was ultra lightweight due to an aluminum construction.
The car also had an independent rear suspension, complete with an unusual chain drive, quite similar actually to what’s used on a motorcycle.
Rear-wheel drive was the only way to go for the S600, with power claimed at a whopping 58 horsepower. Putting the power down through a four-speed manual gearbox, this thing could rip to 60 mph from a standstill in roughly 11.5 seconds.
What’s more, just like the modern VTEC Hondas we’re now paying ridiculous prices for, the S600 could rev to a whopping 9,000 RPM redline. Not many street cars at the time could brag about that. These things aren’t just cheap, dinky little roadsters.
Why Does It Matter?
In case you still haven’t caught on what I’m trying to tell you, I’ll repeat it again: the Honda S600 could be considered the pioneering car that made Honda what it is today.
Before the S600, the big H was the world’s largest manufacturer of motorcycles, but the jump to cars was no guaranteed success. It was through determination and the ability to build innovative, well put together and fun-to-drive sports cars like this dorky-looking S600 that Honda was able to grow into the profit-making juggernaut it is today.
More important than that is the fact that the Honda S600 is rare as hell in our part of the world. Only 111 convertibles (there was also an even rarer coupe variant) were built in 1966, and none of them were “officially” sold in the U.S. However, I’m told that a handful of right-hand drive cars made it to America through special military imports at the time.
Canada got a few left-hand drive examples through Honda motorcycle dealers that would import European spec’d cars for special customers. That’s the story behind the car you see here.
You Have To Be Kidding
I had already seen my buddy Geronimo’s car prior to driving it. But that was in a garage, during winter, before it was actually on the road. Seeing that thing drive up to me for the first time felt like some kind of a joke.
You can notice in these pictures how small the S600 is, but nothing prepares you for how lilliputian it actually is. Spotting my friend coming down the road in a sea of overfed SUV’s in this thing appeared like he was driving a toy car, like one of those Power Wheels contraptions children drive around in.
That’s when I started wondering if at six-feet, 230 pounds, I would actually fit inside the thing. Would I break the steering wheel with my gut? Would the entire car crush down through its own suspension from the weight of my enormous automotive journalist frame as I would attempt to slide myself inside those pristine leatherette-covered bucket seats? Would my North American body, built by poutine and Tim Horton’s, prove too much for this little guy?
Turns out it wasn’t all that bad, actually. While the driver door did feel like it had shrunk in the wash, sliding my way inside the S600's cockpit proved surprisingly easy and drama-free. Sure, that enormous wooden steering wheel is right there in your face, and of course, it can’t be adjusted in any way or form. But apart from that, I quickly found comfort in this Hot-Wheels-sized Japanese classic.
I fired up the beast using a key that could very well be the one used to ignite a Honda weed whacker. The car sputtered, but nothing happened.
“One second, you need to give it some choke,” Geronimo commanded as he bent over inside the cockpit, appearing like a friendly giant next to the car’s abnormally dwarfed proportions.
“Give it gas”, he yelped. Put put put put...Vrrooooom! The little Honda fired to life, idling steady, ready to carry me to my next destination with its fearsome 0.6-liters of displacement.
It’s not easy to properly evaluate such an old car, because it’s hard to pinpoint what is actually a “disappointment” or simply something that was a normal automotive characteristic back in the day. Assuming this was a super-well kept and maintained example, I’ll say that I wasn’t all too impressed by the way the S600 handled.
Entering a corner too “quickly” in this thing will rapidly lead to frightening body roll and an all-out loss of control. “Don’t hit that corner too quickly, or we’ll end up in the ditch,” Geronimo recommended from the passenger side.
As a matter of fact, our man G has plans to completely change the car’s suspension setup for something a little more modern.
Then there’s the fact that this Honda is so freaking tiny, that people simply don’t see you on the road.
Pulling up behind, say, a Toyota Corolla in traffic, leads to having its enormous bumper filling up your entire windshield. Worse even is what the car in front sees from their rear-view mirror. Which is nothing at all.
There was a moment during our photo shoot where G followed me while I was at the wheel of a Jaguar I-Pace. All I could see out the back was the top his head. Had I not paid attention, I would have never guessed someone was behind me.
Apart from these minor caveats, honestly, it wasn’t all that bad in there. Even that single rear-view mirror sitting far on the front fender didn’t lead to too many headaches. Because the S600 is so small, you can simply turn your head around and see all around the car. At least, when the roof is lowered it is.
Ok, so obviously that little sewing machine motor Honda called an engine has absolutely no torque, so the only way to get the S600 up and going is by revving the snot out of it, but I’ll get back to that in a bit.
While slow, this is a remarkably modern-feeling automobile. Everything has a well-put together feel, from the way the small doors click back into place when you shut them, or how the clutch pedal has a nice and precise bouncing action feel when you depress it.
And just like modern Hondas, that shifter is short, precise and engaging to row through the four tiny cogs. Hell, this feels just as well-engineered as the modern stuff Honda sells.
Could you daily an S600? Well, apart form the fact that it’s not visible on the road, and that you can’t go really fast with it, there’s enough trunk space back there to carry a few grocery bags. That engine is also incredibly fuel efficient due to its small displacement and the car’s light weight. So it is daily-driveable in some way or form.
For trotting around town over the weekend, I could see myself riding in this with my girlfriend doing some errands. But I wouldn’t go very far with it.
Ah yes, this is the reason the S600 was built in the first place. If you’re looking for outright speed, blistering acceleration and bone-crushing brakes, I suggest you read another Jalopnik review about something else.
But if you’re looking for a downright good time behind the wheel of a disappointingly slow car, you’re at the right place. As the saying goes, it’s much more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow, and the S600 is the very embodiment of that ethos.
Gun the throttle when say, in second gear in the S600, and nothing really happens. All you hear is the minuscule engine sucking air through its enormous intake, yelling at you as if you just pinched its ass.
Suddenly, things start happening. The revs climb. The engine starts moaning. Yelling. SCREAMING. And the next thing you notice is a tach needle reading 8,000 RPM. And it actually keeps climbing after that.
The little engine screamed louder as onlookers and cyclists turned around while I stormed by, wondering what kind of hell-risen machine was making such a speed-bike sounding ruckus. Yet, there I was, only doing about 45 mph beating the snot out of this adorable little puppy.
I grabbed another gear hoping I’d get a bit more power down in lower RPM. Sadly no. All it did was bog out from the weight of two adult men, and a slight incline in the road. This thing is freaking gutless, I thought.
I downshifted again. I was back up there in the high stratospheres of what this engine can take, holding her up to around 8,600 RPM. My ears were bleeding from the high-strung screech of a finely tuned motorbike engine - Werwhaaaaaaarp, raaaaaaarrrp - wind in my hair, tiny chassis worryingly wobbling underneath my but, me with my giant goofy head sticking out of the cockpit wearing its finest smile to date.
What the S600 loses in power and speed, it makes for with mechanical harmony. You hear it all happening underneath you. The air going through the engine, the valves, the gears, the exhaust spewing un-burnt fuel one foot away from your nose. And that transmission is so precise, it almost feels a racing unit.
You don’t get more connected to the road than driving an S600, and the best part of it all is that you’re never going all that fast, so the danger levels are kept low.
Because this car has so much historical significance, and because it was Honda’s introductory car, these things retain a significant amount of value. Luckily though, their current prices are still relatively affordable if you’re interested in saving one. They’re also bound to appreciate over time given how important they’ve been for the entire Honda brand.
According to Hagerty, a well-kept, concourse condition Honda S600 could run up to $40,000 or more, with fair condition cars averaging around $10,000. But the site lists other sales where they’ve gone for much more than all that.
Of course, 1966 S600s, with the steering wheel on the left, are the harder ones to find due to their limited production runs. The coupes tend to float around the same ballpark as the convertibles.
Bring a Trailer currently has a few clean examples up for grabs, some even with a left-hand drive configuration. And the one you’re reading about is actually for sale too with 34,400 miles on the odometer and a truckload of spare parts, including a full frame, rear axle, differentials and chain drives. Email me if you want to talk to the owner.
Driving a car like this old Honda S600 felt like shaking hands with Soichiro Honda himself. I had read stories about how obsessive Mr. Honda was each time he put together a vehicle, setting everything to an ultra high standard, and reinventing things that didn’t need to be reinvented.
The S600 is that man’s soul encapsulated inside a roadster the size of a go-kart.
But what I admired the most about this car is, except for the mid-60s wobbly feeling on the road, it never felt old per say. Vintage cars tend to disappoint you by how uncomfortably you sit in them, how rough their engines feel or how awful their brakes are. In this little Honda, everything felt well lubricated, modern, efficient and super-well packaged.
If what comes to mind when you’re thinking about Honda now is Gundam-inspired styling and lame CVT-equipped SUV’s, know that it wasn’t always the case for the big H. There was a time when Honda was nothing more than a tiny Japanese startup, punching way above its weight by building well thought-out products. Back then, Honda did what it could with what it had, attempting to rival industry giants simply to earn an honest buck.
The S600 was the David that took on the Nissan and the Toyota Goliaths. The end result was so good, that it earned little Honda a spot among Japan’s most respected automotive brands.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist in Montreal, Canada and contributes to Jalopnik. He runs claveyscorner.com.