Honda arrived in the United States in 1969 with the Honda N600, which was a small hatchback heavily influenced by the original Mini. By 1972, this car evolved into the Honda Civic that has been going strong ever since. Prior to the N600, though, Honda had been making a small sports car for the world market for several years.
Honda’s small two-seater roadster started as the S500 in 1963, and graduated to the S600 in 1964, then to the S800 (also available as a fastback coupe) in 1966. Like the N600, the S800 was strongly derived from British sports car designs of the era. Both coupe and roadster are very good-looking cars.
Engine power came courtesy of a 791cc double overhead cam inline four-cylinder engine good for an impressive 70 hp and 49 lb-ft of torque. It was coupled to a 4-speed manual gearbox and drove the rear wheels. Early production cars used a chain drive to deliver power to the back of the car (Honda was a motorcycle manufacturer, after all), and offered an independent rear suspension along with four-wheel drum brakes. After the production of just about 700 units, though, Honda changed to a more conventional rear axle and driveshaft design and replaced the front drums with disc brakes.
Performance was on par with the small-displacement British cars, with a 0-60 time of 13.6 seconds and a top speed of 97 mph. But the diminutive Honda made most of its power at an astonishing 8,000 RPM and the engine had its red line at a screaming 11,500 RPM.
In keeping with the S800’s sports car heritage, the cars carry a generous assortment of gauges and toggle switches all in a nicely designed and handsome driver’s compartment. A wood-rimmed steering wheel and bucket seats complete the package. In all the S800 is a competitive small-displacement sports car of its era, and will be all the more collectible because it’s so rare in the U.S.
Over the course of its production run, Honda made 11,000 examples of the S800, and in 1969 made significant changes to the car in anticipation of exporting the S800 to the United States. U.S. safety regulations mandated safety glass, flush door handles, dual-circuit brakes, and side marker lights. As it happened, however, the car was never officially exported to North America, and so U.S. buyers had to wait another 30 years before they could buy the two-seat convertible Honda S2000. It’s a seldom known car today, but these original little Honda roadsters directly influenced the later and very popular S2000. An S600 also gave Honda its first ever race victory with an automobile with a class win at the 1964 Nurburgring 500km race for small displacement cars.
Collectors will want to seek out top quality examples that are complete, as parts availability is the big challenge with the S800 on this side of the ocean. Both left- and right-hand drive examples are available, with enough good quality original cars to create a market. Many other examples were raced in the 1970s, and these would make unique vintage racing machines today that would stand out in a sea of Triumphs and MGs.