All this endless speculation as to whether Honda will someday build a real RWD pickup: they already did, in 1963. And in that inimitable Honda way, it stood the world on it ears: DOHC, four carbs, 30hp from 360cc at 8,600 rpm, 60 mph top speed. As an antidote to the mild-mannered Hondas sent our way in the seventies and early eighties, like the gen1 Prelude, the T360/T500 trucks were anything but boring. But the story of how this eminently practical little truck ended up with the engine from Honda’s crazy little S360 sports car is a wild tale only Honda could spin.
In the early sixties, Soichiro Honda was ambivalent about entering the automobile business. But Japan’s all-powerful MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) forced his hand: in 1961 they advanced a bill that would limit the number of car manufacturers. Honda lobbied against, it and lost. The solution was to get into production, and fast.
Soichiro’s vehicle of choice was the S360, which became the production S500, a buzz-bomb of a roadster with an engine only Honda could build at the time with its motorcycle racing experience: four cylinder, four stroke, DOHC, four carbs, 9,500 rpm redline, and belting out 44 hp. At a time when the finest European production sports cars, like the Porsche Super 90, were proudly generating 50-55 hp/liter, the Honda’s near 100hp/L was simply revolutionary.
But a serious question remained as to the actual volumes a sports car like the S500/S600 could find buyers. Fortunately for the ebullient right-brained Honda, he had a very pragmatic side kick Takeo Fujisawa, who convinced him that there was a real market for light trucks. So the unlikely marriage of one of the world’s highest-specific-output sports car motors ended up in this milestone T360/T500 truck. It would be the equivalent of putting the S2000 roadster’s engine into a work horse truck like the Isuzu NPR.
And thanks to Honda’s remarkable ability to make engines that stayed together, it was a perfectly successful and reliable little beast, especially when one considers the difficult conditions of Japan at the time. The first freeway was just being built, and most country roads were in very poor shape. And in order to take on winter’s snow, a snow-cat version was built as well. Japan’s level of development then was what China’s was some years ago, and the types of vehicles being built are similar. Bur it’s unlikely we’ll be crowing about the China’s minitrucks forty years from now.
These little trucks came in two versions: the T360 had 360cc (30 hp) to meet the kei-car requirements, and the slightly longer T500 had the larger engine from the S500 with 38 hp and a dollop of extra torque. Although that word generally doesn’t have much correlation with these little screamers. Anyway, Honda did the right thing building the T3-trucks, as only some 26k of the S-series sports cars were ever sold. And Honda then moved into the passenger car market with a more pragmatic kei-car sedan, the two-cylinder N360 and N600, which we memorialized in a Curbside Classic.
There are at least two web sites that have lots of more detail info on these and other early Hondas. We’ll do another piece on the S500/S600 down the road, but if old Honda trucks are your thing, check out all the old brochures at hondasportsregistry.com and a nice write-up here at japanesenostalgiccar.com.