Welcome to Cars Of Future Past, a new weekly series where I open up one of the many dusty books about concept cars sitting on my shelf from 20 years ago, flip to a random page, see something that strikes my fancy and dredge up as much information about it as I can find on the internet.
For this introductory installment, I cracked open one of my favorite books from my youth — Chris Rees’ Concept Cars, published in 2000 by Barnes & Noble — and traveled back in time to an era that lives rent-free in my head and shall continue to do so until the final breath escapes from my lungs: Honda in the mid-’90s.
This week’s focus is the 1995 Honda SSM, or Sports Study Model if we’re to use its full name. If you could cryogenically freeze an automaker with the intent to thaw it only once the world has reached its most despairing of lows, to renew faith that good things can indeed happen on this planet when humanity works toward a common goal with the clearest of minds and purest of intentions — well, my vote’s going to Honda in the ’90s. Cars like the NSX, Integra Type-R, Civic Type-R and S2000 are why. Simply by looking at the SSM, I’m sure you could surmise which member of that list this concept had a hand in bringing to life.
But well before enthusiasts fell in love with Honda’s high-revving, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive two-seat convertible, we got a preview in concept form. The SSM debuted at the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show with classic sports car proportions nobody could critique, penned by venerated Italian design house Pininfarina. Within that long hood resided a 2.0-liter, 20-valve inline-five cylinder with VTEC — regrettably linked to a five-speed version of Honda’s semi-automatic F-Matic transmission that nobody liked in the NSX.
Transmission aside, the SSM’s credo was lean, sharp and simple. Honda touted 50/50 weight distribution, aided by the concept’s rigid “high X-bone frame.” In later production applications, Honda promised X-bone could deliver the “torsional and bending rigidity of closed-top vehicle, without excess weight.” All four corners received double wishbone suspension as well.
The SSM’s styling was all business, with a few notable quirks that differentiate it from Honda’s future stab at this formula. The low-slung headlights sit at the same height level as the grille — an uncommon look that gives the SSM a scrappy, kit car-esque personality. From the back, we see a massive diffuser cutting into the space normally occupied by the rear bumper, housing two gun-barrel exhaust pipes.
The wheels are a large-diameter, six-spoke take on a design not hugely dissimilar from what you might’ve seen on Honda’s Type-R creations, but with a slight, Porsche-like “twist,” flaring out at the fringes. The old-school Honda script behind the front wheels was a giveaway to the SSM’s lineage, evoking the same badge on the classic S600 roadster.
Oh, and one more thing — there’s a beam slicing through the center of the cabin, parting the double roll hoops.
This bar divided the driver and passenger halves of the interior, though there was still open space underneath it; in other words, it passed over top to join the SSM’s front and rear bodywork, rather than creating two totally separate interior compartments. Honda claimed this significantly bolstered rigidity, and it makes sense that it would.
The SSM’s interior was about as driver-centric as it gets — unsurprising, considering the metal bar obscuring the middle of the dashboard. All the climate, navigation and in-car entertainment controls were positioned to the right of the steering wheel, in a little pod with several dials. The position of the master dial determined what the driver would see on the SSM’s instrument-cluster display, and within that dial was a four-way directional pad for yet more control.
I imagine you’d make adjustments to the air conditioning or radio using the D-pad, once you’d already selected the relevant mode with the dial. It seems like a rather clunky, laborious approach to fiddling with creature comforts, but then that bar did not leave Honda designers with many places to stuff all those controls.
Below those dials is a keycard slot. I’m not exactly sure what the purpose of the keycard system was, other than this being the ’90s and cards seeming like a cool alternative to boring old keys. Once the card was inserted, you’d be able to press the push-button starter and fire up those five cylinders.
You already know why it’s good! A two-seat, rear-wheel drive sports car with a naturally-aspirated motor and a wedge-shaped profile that is the furthest thing from fussy. It’s the car we always complain manufacturers don’t make anymore, and Honda made a prototype of one.
And then Honda made thousands of ’em so we could all experience the joy. The SSM is of course the predecessor to the S2000, which entered production in 1999. Evidently, it wasn’t a well-kept secret; Honda paraded the SSM around the world’s auto shows for years, so journalists weren’t surprised when the company announced the roadster was making the leap to showrooms.
The production car ditched many of the SSM’s more concept-appropriate eccentricities — the center beam, low-down headlights, confounding interior switchgear and that humungous diffuser — while retaining the gist of Pininfarina’s original design. Impressively, the S2000 had a digital instrument cluster just like the SSM, though Honda saved money with passive-matrix LCD readouts in place of the concept’s high-resolution screen, which would have been enormously expensive back in ’99.
The 2.0-liter, 237-horsepower F20C four-cylinder replaced the SSM’s inline-five, but the X-bone underpinnings and double wishbone suspension were carried over to the final product. Mercifully, the concept’s slushbox was ditched for a tried-and-true six-speed manual — a decision for which we’re all eternally grateful. Something tells me the S2000 wouldn’t be quite as celebrated as it is today if Honda stuck with the original transmission.
Video games are the only way the vast majority of us ever get to “drive” concept cars, so this will be a pertinent question in every installment of this series. While the S2000 obviously landed in a vast number of titles and continues to live on in new games, the SSM wasn’t as widely immortalized.
There’s just one game that has it: Tokyo Xtreme Racer Zero, released in 2001 for the PlayStation 2. At this point, developer Genki wasn’t licensing cars for the Tokyo Xtreme Racer franchise, so the SSM goes by the moniker “Type-JS4X.” Interestingly, it appears as a closed-top coupe, despite the fact the SSM was presented only as a convertible. Such were the gaming hardware limitations of 20 years ago.