12,000 rpm of kei car madness.
The historic tale of N600 Series 1, the first Honda in the U.S.
American Honda Motors is 60 years old in 2019. As part of the anniversary celebration, the company commissioned its advertising agency to produce a half-hour film on Tim Mings’ restoration of N600 Serial 1, the very first Honda car sold in the United States.
Mings is perhaps the world’s expert on the 600cc Honda cars that gave the company a foothold in the American passenger car market. His Merciless Mings shop in southern California is the place to go for parts and restoration for Honda N600 and Z600 cars. Mings estimates that about 500 have passed through his hands in the three decades or so since he started wrenching them full time.
It took Mings a year to restore the car, but the film is the culmination of a story that goes back 10 years. Well, actually 52 years.
For the first 11 years in this country, Honda sold only motorcycles, although it had started making small Kei-class cars and light trucks for the Japanese domestic market in 1963. The first production cars that Honda sold in the U.S. were the N600 sedan and Z600 coupe, starting in 1969 as ’70 year models. Those tiny, two-cylinder, air-cooled cars laid the foundation for a venture that currently sells about 1.5 million vehicles a year in America.
The N600 and Z600 were not the first Honda cars sold in America, however. In 1967, Honda made 50 prototype N600 cars, putting a larger, all-new 600cc engine in the N360 Kei car, and shipped them to America to see if American consumers used to driving big, powerful land yachts would embrace a tiny (10 feet, bumper to bumper) car.
Actually, Americans had already embraced a small, low-powered car. The Volkswagen Beetle on sale in the 1960s had just 44 hp. However, Soichiro Honda was a forward-thinking man, and the N600 was a modern car compared to the Beetle, whose design dated back to the mid-1930s. The little Honda car had front-wheel drive, rack and pinion steering, and front disc brakes. As small as the N600 is, it only weighs about 1200 pounds, so with 46 hp it was also faster than the Bug.
Those 50 N600s were used exclusively for test data collection by factory personnel and one of the things they learned was to reduce power to 36 hp for U.S. models in order to keep the engine intact. Soon, the N600 and Z600 went into full production. By the time American Honda stopped importing the 600-cc models in 1972, when the first-generation Civic went into production, it had sold about 60,000 of them.
Serial 1 is another example of a very special and historic car, in the possession of a knowledgeable owner who had no idea how special it was. Mings already owned one of the prototype cars, #46, but when he bought an old, green N600 at a swap meet, he figured it was just another early model N600. It sat in his shop for three years before he bothered to clean the grime off of the number plate. When he saw that it was #10000001, he realized he had the most historic Honda automobile in America.
Ten years ago, when Honda was celebrating its 50th anniversary in the U.S., a representative visited Mings’ shop about possibly doing some heritage publicity, not knowing what treasure was there. A very short time after Mings showed the Honda rep Serial 1, a high-ranking American Honda official rushed over from Honda’s Torrance, California, headquarters. Discussions ensued, negotiations took place, and Honda eventually took legal possession.
Mings told Hagerty that the final deal involved some cash and two brand new Honda Fits. One is his wife’s daily driver, the other was flipped so Mings could buy a Ford Transit van big enough to haul around a 600-cc Honda car.
In 2015, Honda had Mings restore the car and started to document the teardown and build with a video team making short form films. In the style of many car and motorcycle build TV shows, a drama inducing deadline of needing to show the car at the 2016 Japanese Classic Car Show gave Mings exactly one year to complete the project.
He made the deadline, the car came out better than new, and Honda’s ad agency started compiling the short videos into a longer form documentary. The production of that film ran into some obstacles, however. It proved to be difficult getting clearances on archival materials, like the famous “You Meet The Nicest People On A Honda” advertisements that not only established the Honda brand in America, it changed the image of motorcyclists in American culture from Marlon Brando’s sullen The Wild One biker tearing up a small town to secretaries riding Brian Wilson’s Go Little Honda to the beach.
Honda’s current ad agency is RPA. A different firm, the Grey agency, came up with the “You Meet The Nicest People On A Honda” slogan for American Honda in the 1960s and apparently back then proprietary rights to commercials reverted to the agencies after the clients’ were done with them. It ended up taking three years to get all the legal niceties settled.
That was fortuitous, as now Honda can release Small Car, Big Dreams: Restoring Serial One, the First Honda Car in the U.S. on the occasion of its 60th anniversary in America.