29 July 2016

Old and new: Driving the 1968 Honda S800 and 2016 Honda S660, back-to-back

You can’t fully appreciate the 2016 Honda S660's manic simplicity without first paying homage to the S800 roadster.

There’s barely a breeze in East Nashville’s stifling dusk heat, a night not too long ago and I’m sitting on a ledge admiring two of my heroes. This may be the Music City, but my idols aren’t plucking on guitar strings: They’re two sweet Japanese treats, the 1968 Honda S800 and 2016 Honda S660.

How did I get so lucky?

Both vehicles seen here belong to the Lane Motor Museum, a factory-turned-storage space for some of the automotive world’s wackiest creations. Curator Jeff Lane’s collection is an amalgam of obscurity, focusing on microcars but running the gamut from flying cars to those that float.

By some extraordinary circumstances, the Lane is home to a collection of historic Honda con-vertibles, and the S660 and classic S800 are among them. Having them both in the same place is one type of feat, even for a grouping of vehicles as eclectic as Lane’s

Collectors know Honda as much for its current crop of reliable, durable products as they do for the 1963 S500 roadster and the gorgeous droptops that followed it. It was a smart move for the company known for building quality motorcycles to first branch out into the sports car segment, and the S-series roadsters set a pretty high bar for fun and frugality. The 500-cc S500 was fol-lowed up by a larger-displacement S600 just a couple of years later and the S800 came after that. The S2000 that eventually followed, many years later, was a bona fide sports car.

It would take until 2015 for Honda to introduce the S660, the modern interpretation of a low-powered, high-fervor Japanese roadster. There have been several follow-ups (such as the ‘90s Beat) to the early, sporty Hondas and the three-cylinder S660 ranks among the most worthy. On its own, the S660 is a gorgeous package wrapped around a hyper-efficient power plant. In addi-tion to being a sports car, it’s also a Kei car (Japan’s microcar designation), hence the car’s name, a reference to the class’s engine displacement limit. It has the spirit of a hummingbird’s beating heart, begging to be revved to redline until it’s nearly out of turbo puff.

It’s one thing to admire collectible cars while they’re standing still. It’s another to take them out for a drive – and that’s what I was lucky enough to do.

For some perspective, I climbed in to the S800 first. Calling the S800’s interior snug isn’t an un-derstatement: this is, remember, a roadster even smaller than the Nissan Fairlady of similar vin-tage. Its thin-rimmed, wooden steering wheel stood out as oversized and delightful. Utility trumps comfort in the cockpit, from the flat seats to the minimalist gauge cluster. It required more than a couple of pulls at the choke to keep the S800’s four cylinders running, even on a 90ºF day in the American South, but the experience was pure joy. The engine note was raw and unfiltered, chugging and sputtering with a go-kart’s enthusiasm, and only marginally more power (70 hp, to be precise). In and around Nashville’s suburbs, I never needed to shift to the fourth overdrive gear. The structural rigidity of the S800 is like an oxcart by today’s standards, but it felt tight and planted through S-bends and winding roads.

God, did it sound good: buzzy and wonderful, with a hint of nostalgia in the fuel mixture. The longer you drive the S800, the more that worries about its Lilliputian size, and your appearance within it, begin to vanish. The S800 fits around you like a well-worn driving glove.

Every precedent that the S-series convertibles established in the 1960s and beyond, the right-hand-drive-only S660 honors and rejuvenates. I didn’t need quite as much time behind the wheel to understand what makes the S660 so special, thanks to a demo drive late last year at Honda’s own test track. Instead, I treated it as a rare opportunity to reconnect with a friend from overseas. The S800’s projected top speed might be 12 mph higher than the S660’s, but you’ll have a lot more fun wringing out the modern-day S660 at the limit. On public roads, you can feel free to run the S660 through the gears as much as you like, knowing it’s unlikely you’ll break a speed limit. It only produces 63 hp.

Early summer’s harsh evening light in Nashville illuminated the contrast between the two models. To understand and appreciate the S660 is to recognize its provenance. And when one of the vehicles that started it all is sitting in front of you, at the same time, you can’t help but smile. In so many ways, the S800 attempted to capture the essence of the British sports car. By contrast, the S660 has no modern parallel.

It proved the old adage: Don’t put age and beauty on a pedestal. A piece as magnificently transcendent as the S800 deserves to be driven. No matter how much time goes by, in the case of the S800 and S660, there’s no replacement for the real thing.

2016 Honda S660
0.6-liter three-cylinder engine, 63 horsepower, 77 lb.-ft
6-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive
Top speed: 87 mph

1968 Honda S800
0.8-liter four-cylinder engine, 70 horsepower, 49 lb.-ft,
4-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive
Top speed: 96 mph

5 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Rhonda S Marion, IN August 3, 2016 at 15:49
    the 1968 Honda sure does look a lot like my 1972 MG Midget. I have not looked back to see how far back the MG Midget looked like it does in 1972 but I just wonder who copied who Honda copied MG or MG copied Honda with this design? Just wondering . . . .
  • 2
    Ralph Crawford Ohio August 3, 2016 at 18:49
    I had the first S600 in Cincinnati which I imported from Canada. What a car: 600cc in-line four with 4 side-draft carbs. I had the habit of driving about 75 mph in a 70 zone on I-75 and in a Sprite (about the same size) and I would glance down at the tach on a Sprite and it would be in the low 5's. At the same speed the Honda gauge pointers would be in about the same position but the Honda was running about 8000 rpm and it redlined over 10000 !! Totally weird suspension- no differential per se. The driveshaft basically had a fixed pinion on a rigid cross-shaft mounted to the chassis. At the ends were sprung rotating "trailing arm" cases that held chains attached to the hubs, much like early VW Kombis. The chains had enough slack to give a differential action from side to side and the small rotation gave IRS effect without a camber variation. Car meets bike.
  • 3
    James boice las Cruces, NM 88007 August 4, 2016 at 01:15
    When I was about 45 years younger and just transferred from Vietnam to Okinawa I bought a 1967 S-800 Cpe. I had the fortune as Enlisted Army to enjoy the little car for the entire year I was there. I occasionally raced it on the old Yomitan runway in G-Production and there was at that time whole areas of empty roads up north to wind them out. The 4-into one headers were great and I justcut the pipes off and straight piped out the side. My local GF complained that she couldn't sneak in because the noise it made coming down the hill to her village. All the MPs on the island knew me and most weekends we would all drive up to Moon beach and party all weekend. Most of us had the S-600s or a few toyota 2 seat 3 cylinders (sport cars). My S-800 was a fantastic ride and even now I would love to find one. I saw a few in Germany in the 80s but think there are only just a few left in Japan. At one time there were speed parts for them to get up to near 130 HP out of them.
  • 4
    Robert C. Patton Newport Ky August 4, 2016 at 11:59
    I saw one of these tiny cars in 64 or 65 I had an MG A and it was about half of the size of my A. I also had a Honda 165cc I talked to a friend of the owner who said the car could not be purchased in the US for some reason. I believe the guy said the car was cheep I was sure that this car would be the next big hit for Honda but I never saw one again. Honda dropped the ball on this one.
  • 5
    Bruce S. Brea, CA August 5, 2016 at 00:44
    I had the pleasure of visiting the Lane a few years ago while in Nashville on business. The S800 is a little gem. Honda built its reputation on high-revving small displacement I4 engines, which I'm reminded of when driving my 2014 last of the breed TSX 6-speed.

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