You meet the nicest people on a Honda. Or, should you own a Honda N600, you inevitably meet Tim Mings.
“Now's not good, I'll get back to you later,” he growls into a phone, before cutting the conversation short and turning back to me. “Just breaking in a new customer.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the tiny, two-cylinder Honda N600 arriving in the U.S. The friendly-faced tin insect with a 600-cc engine had the overall lifespan of, well, it was cheap and disposable. For $1200, you got a 35-hp air-cooled engine, a four-speed manual transmission, and a car straining at the seams to contain the irrepressible spirit of Soichiro Honda himself.
Before the bean-counters intervened and the Civic arrived to commercial acclaim, Soichiro ran his engineers ragged with constant demands, rarely suffering fools. Likewise, Mings has an air of cheery contrarian about him. He describes himself as “unemployable.” He has the largest store of new old-stock N600 parts in the country, but he probably won't sell you anything because he thinks you'll just install it wrong. Not for nothing, his cramped shop in Duarte, California, is known as Merciless Mings. In the end, though, anyone seeking the fountain of N600 knowledge ends up here.
“I'm the narrow end of the funnel,” Mings explains. “Sooner or later everything passes into my hands.”
He's not exaggerating. Mings claims to have owned something like 500 N600s over the years, and the handful of cars in his tiny shop have historical value that far outweighs their Jiffy Pop curb weights. In a space that would hold perhaps two Ford Mustangs sits a restoration project that still has the original plastic on the door cards and sun visors, Honda American Motor Co.'s very first Baja racer, a mid-five-figure restored example that used to belong to Bruce Willis' makeup artist, and one of the four surviving prototype N600s that landed here in 1967.
As you'd expect from any early Honda shop, there are also floor-to-ceiling motorcycles. Mings doesn't restore or sell these, but he wrenches and races for his own pleasure. He campaigns a 1962 Honda CB77 Superhawk in American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) racing, where he was skilled enough to dice it up with Dave Roper, the only American to win at the Isle of Man TT races. Mings eventually ran out of talent and high-sided the bike, though Roper crashed out just moments later, too. Tim's wife, Kathleen, made him a flipbook of his own crash.
“I needed some parts, and found my way here,” she says, in response to how the two met. Kathleen bought her Z600 in the Midwest in 1973, and drove it out to California. Today it's parked right out front—bright blue, well-loved, and still regularly driven.
A parcel arrives from Japan. Tim rips it open like a kid at Christmas, pulls a couple of glossy magazines out, presses them to his nose, and inhales deeply. “There's nothing like the smell of Japanese magazines,” he says.
He thumbs through the pages, read right to left, before he gets to the feature article written on his shop. Nondescript and seemingly crammed hodgepodge with parts, Merciless Mings is nonetheless a world-famous institution. But Tim doesn't just want to jabber about what he does here—he wants to show it off.
“I've got the full Honda N600 experience here,” he says with a grin, “You ready to go drive stuff?”
1967 Honda N600 Prototype
In the fall of 1967, Honda sent 50 prototype cars to California. Each one was based on the Honda N360 kei-car, with an engine upgraded to 600 cc. Honda drove the cars to and from Minnesota for winter evaluation, then unceremoniously disposed of them.
Bob Hansen, one of the first Americans to work for Honda, at the time had set up motorcycle dealerships in the Midwest. He was in charge of the winter testing convoy and, on orders from headquarters in Japan, sent them off to be crushed at a scrapyard across the road. The next day, Bob got a shock to see one of the 50 Hondas go tootling down the road.
This particular one is serial number 45, and it still bears the hammer strikes on its engine from the scrapyard. The dashboard is also filled with broken glass from when the windshield was smashed. As one of the very first cars, and a more than five-decade-old all-original Japanese economy car, it's brittle, delicate, and in these halls, invaluable.
Mings hops in to properly warm up N600 number 45 and then promptly thrashes the absolute bejesus out of it.
When it's my turn behind the wheel, I understand why he throttled it so hard. The prototype cars have more power than the eventual U.S. production version, with 45 hp from their all-aluminum two-cylinder engines. A 1200-pound curb weight, sand-cast engine parts, high compression, and a redline at 9000 rpm mean that this zippy econobox scorches its tires in second gear and scampers off down the road like a biscuit tin filled with bees.
With no sway bar, the car corners all roly-poly like teenagers making out in a canoe. Serial 45 locks up a wheel on braking, pulls a U-turn in a distance seemingly equal to its own length, then buzzes off back to the garage.
Miraculously, Mings also found Serial One, the very first car. And he did it quite by accident. He paid $1000 for the car sight unseen, when purchasing another early N600, and it languished in the back of the garage for a couple of years before he cleaned the gunge off the VIN and got the shock of his life. It's since been restored, displayed at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, and it will eventually be displayed at Honda's American headquarters in Ohio.
1970 Honda N600 Baja racer
Rescued from a damp Seattle garage, this battered old bruiser is Honda's very first American racing car.
“Like it or not,” Mings says, slapping the fender, “The story of Honda American racing begins here.”
The N600 Baja seems composed mostly of dents and rust. Possibly botulism, too. But it's been fitted with a new fuel cell, and sparks to life eagerly with an unholy racket. With the chunk of 2x6 functioning as a parking brake removed, off I roll, hunching forward in a seat intended for a much taller driver.
This car was anything but a success. Campaigned at the Baja by desert racing pioneers Dave Ekins and Bill Robertson Jr., its CV axles came apart every time it hit a jump. Eventually, the exhausted racers called it a day, the car was brought back and welded together, and then forgotten. Mings recovered it based on a tip.
With a welded driveline, zero insulation, and a bunch of hopped-up parts to try and overcome the weight of the chunky tires, the two-cylinder engine is effectively blowing a raspberry into the business end of a trumpet. The N600 Baja is insanely loud, hot, uncomfortable, and every exposed surface bristles with tetanus-laden potential injury.
After 15 minutes of blasting around the neighborhood, lowering property values, I couldn't have been more in love. Hopefully, this scruffy museum piece finds its way onto a fitting plinth somewhere.
U.S.-spec 1970 Honda N600 and 1972 Honda N600
“Be careful,” warns Mings, “This is the second-most expensive N600 in the world.”
The first, of course, is Serial One, which took more than a year to restore. Likewise, this canary-yellow 1970 N600 is essentially perfect, the result of a more than $50,000 restoration effort. It feels impossibly substantial for something that was never intended to last. As a rolling display of Mings' skill, it's impressive. Solid. Flawless.
It’s also nowhere near as much fun as his personal 1972 runabout. His ‘72 is the genesis story of Merciless Mings itself—the family car that started all this Honda-fueled madness.
“My uncle worked at Larry Lilley Honda when the N600 came out,” Mings says, “With a couple of kids, my dad couldn't afford a new one, so he bought a used one and fixed it up. He figured out how to keep them going and it became a side business for him.”
When the Civic came out, neither Honda's motorcycle nor car dealers wanted to work on the N600. It required major servicing every 2000 miles, and engines would usually only last 20,000 miles before a full tear-down. The cars became orphans, and people would stop Hubert Mings, Tim's father, in the street. After a stint in the army, Tim took over his father's business.
Mings advises I take it out on the highway to stretch its legs. “You can put your seatbelt on, but I wouldn't bother,” he says, “I always think, what's the point?”
Minutes later, I'm on an onramp in a 50-year-old, 35-hp garden shed, about to join six lanes of drivers who, while travelling at 75 mph, are probably checking Instagram to see how many likes their breakfast burrito got. Merciless Mings, don't fail me now.
Of course, it was a blast in a fantastically sorted little monster. After all, the N600 is all Mings fixes, restores, lives, breathes, and eats. The difference between an N600 parked up on bricks and one actually driving down the street is, most often, a Merciless Mings sticker on the back window.
The Californian sun beats down, indifferent traffic chugs along, and an orange-hued marble of Honda history buzz-bombs the masses at 7000 rpm. Thinking of merciless, irascible Tim Mings, I smile. Honda's first brazen assault on the U.S. car market deserves to be defended by such a renegade spirit.