By on September 8, 2009

Your 2050 Brazzaville Micro-i600 solar-electric personal transportation device automatically glides into the Biodynamic Vego-Taco Loco lot and parks itself. On the way inside, you pass the static display of a 2010 Honda Pilot. Your seventeen year-old son stops in his tracks, looks at it with bewilderment, and asks if you really drove around in one these big, ugly, two-ton carbon-spewing behemoths forty years ago. Will you mumble something incoherently about times being very different then and tell him to hurry along, or will you stop, gaze admiringly and wax eloquently about your distant but ever-so-vibrant Pilot memories?

This scenario is for you younger readers; you still have the freedom to make your future memories. Us oldsters are stuck with our Honda memories forever. Although with today’s mega-Hondas like the bloated Moby Dick-mobile Accord Crosstour, it’s hard to believe that our memories aren’t playing tricks on us. But it’s true: exactly forty years ago, Honda established its beachhead in the US with a 1200lb, 600cc hot rod kei-car.

It’s equally hard for me to believe that it was almost that long ago since I drove one. But not only is the memory intensely vivid, it obviously left a lasting impression: I drive the smallest-engined bento box available on these shores. But even it looks huge next to a 600. Enough preambling; let’s fire up the synapses for a virtual drive:

If you’ve ever ridden a vintage Honda two-cylinder bike (I’m looking at you, Edward), the sound and palpable vibrations of the 600’s air-cooled OHC vertical twin-pot will be intimately familiar. At speed, the arrhythmic palpitations courtesy of Honda’s 180-degree crank become deafening. On a bike, that kind of gets blown away by the air speed. In a 600, it’s trapped inside a tea canister-sized tin box with no loose tea inside to absorb the sound. Car and Driver measured 90dB—with the defroster fan on—an all time record high.

The one I drove (a friend’s) probably exceeded 100dB: the stock exhaust sacrificed to a pot hole was replaced with a clamped-on glass-pack and short piece of pipe found lying in the street; recycling at its best. The pipe exited in the vicinity of the driver’s inevitably-open window, but most of the frantic exhalations never made it past the crude joint, because the glass pack’s diameter was twice the 600’s drinking straw-sized exhaust.

The unmuffled staccato reverberating off the high rises in Westwood made sure we were “seen” in traffic, a good thing when driving something smaller than an original Mini. And a permanent testament to Soichiro Honda’s ability to make small engines rev rings on in my tinnitus.

The 600 was a big-engined version of the JDM Honda 360, the kei car version of a 427 Nova. It first appeared in 1969, about the same time as the legendary Honda 750 four superbike (why didn’t Honda put that engine in the 600?). Among other things, they shared the same downward trajectory in horsepower over their production lifespan, a sacrifice to the altar of tractability for a less-peaky torque curve. The early 600s packed 45 horses; highly impressive for the times and engine size. That herd of Kisos came thundering at 7,000 rpm; maximum revs were 9,000 rpm. Very motorcycle like indeed, right down to the dog-clutch unsynchronized transmission.

It was good for a fifteen second 0-60. Don’t laugh; that was better than most small cars of the time with engines two to four times larger. And it would top out at eighty. But that was a dangerous speed because you’d be scanning the floor for the integer that must have fallen off the speedo in front of the numeral 80 based on the sound, fury and other sensations generated. Things happen quickly when there’s only 78 inches between the front and rear wheels, even if the lane seems twice as wide as it needs to be.

As it’s been said oft before: few things beat driving a low-power small car flat out all the time. No wonder we’re desperate for electronic toys to stave off terminal boredom behind the wheel of our 350 hp isolation cocoons idling along at two-tenths of their potential.

Later versions had a more civilized 36 hp @ 6000 rpm, and a genuine automotive-style transmission. Even an automatic was available. Honda was trying to remake the 600 into a friendly city car instead of a sports-car fix on the cheap ($1295; $7K adjusted). Here’s a cute vintage TV ad that makes the point; one that Honda has wholly abandoned.

But even the 36 hp version would still leave a stock Mini in the dust. That is if you could find one since they were never imported to the US on the assumption that it was too small (or unreliable?) for Americans. But Honda sold enough 600s to become the twelfth largest import brand within three years. And the 600s held up to the beating they inevitably got. Even English car magazines gave the nod to the 600 over the Mini.

Honda’s first foray into the training-wheeled world started in 1962 with the S360, their Lilliputian sports car prototype. That led to the production S500, S600 and S800. The latter is a cult classic that packed 70 horses—enough to move it over a hundred miles per hour. In 1968, Honda unveiled a bombshell: the brilliant but complex 1300 sedan. With an air cooled DOHC 1300cc engine whose 116 horses inhaled through 4 Keihin carbs, it blew away any existing conceptions of what a small sedan could aspire to. And it literally blew away BMW’s much-more expensive 1602ti, the highly celebrated top dog in that field back then. The coupe versions of the 1300 have achieved near-mythical status.

But neither the S series sports cars nor the 1300 were officially imported to the US. Honda was still building production expertise and capacity and wasn’t going to be rushed until it was good and ready. That also explains the 600’s detuning; Honda built its US motorcycle dynasty on the basis of its “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” ad campaign. So the product had to be people-friendly, too, inasmuch as a kei-car could be. Well, the 600 succeeded in that regard way beyond the Subaru 360, which was completely insufficient for US standards. Did the only two kei cars ever imported predict the future for their respective makers?

Well, Subaru’s next act, the boxer-engined FWD 1000 was a highly advanced and slick little number, which set the pattern for all future Subies to come. But while Subaru had to rely on Malcom Bricklin to cobble together a very iffy dealer network, Honda had friendly and clean motorcycle dealerships in every town across the land to sell the 600 and its coupe variant, the Z600. But that was all just the springboard for the Civic invasion to come, along with car-only Honda dealerships/licenses to print money.

Having finally found a genuine curbside Civic to add to my collection of other early Hondas (no more static restaurant displays, I promise), we’re going to step out of our usual historic randomness, and retrace the brand’s early years with a chronological series of Honda Curbside Classics. Not every week; my ADD won’t allow it. But we’ll muster some sort of regularity, Eugene style.

In the meantime, if you want to waste a beautiful day immersing yourself in period reviews and ads of the 600, spend it at this site. It’ll help you refresh all those memories when you encounter a Honda 600 on the way to dinner. You wouldn’t want your seventeen-year-old to think you missed out on something like the 600. And it’ll give you both something to think about, and possibly remember, on the drive home in the Pilot.

More new Curbside Classics here

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31 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1970 Honda 600...”

  • avatar

    Is it for sale? I’d buy it… even with the chilli wallpaper plastered all over the car.

    Fantastic piece of engineering… probably would never work, nowadays, with crash requirements that would probably double the weight… but still an interesting little machine.

  • avatar

    Man! Even after I looked at it, I had problem picking out where you took that photo! That was great – but I never saw one of these cars before, so it was off my radar completely.

    We just didn’t have these things around Chicago back in those days.

  • avatar

    Nice usage of that bike for scale. That really puts things into proportion…

  • avatar

    I barely remember those, although I had a tenant in DC in the late ’80s who had a honda that was probably 1-2 generations after, slightly bigger than that. I do remember well the “you meet the nicest people on a honda” motorcycle ads, and in fact can still sing the song.

    I love the line about your tinnitus.

    The guy who owns the 2cv I reviewed also has a Subaru 360

  • avatar

    One of my wife’s best friends had an orange 600. She named it the pumpkin car. IIRC it wasn’t much larger or heavier than some of the 1100# + pumpkins you can find at county fairs. And like a pumpkin a few weeks after Halloween, it eventually collapsed. Wife’s friend thereupon went on a two decade-plus tear of driving Volvo 240 wagons – white and and appropriately named the white whale or Moby Dick. They never collapsed though.

  • avatar

    Oh man, I remember this car. More precisely, I remember sitting in the back seat with my legs draped over the front because there was no way I was going to fit in it “normally”, let alone drive it. I also remember the transmission being a constant source of amusement.

    You can’t really criticize Honda for making big cars. Americans want big cars and for years Honda had no equivalent to the likes of the Crown Vic or Caprice/Impala that sold in volumes.

    Well, now they’ve built a better Impala in the current Accord. There’s no shame in that.

    They’ll still sell you as small a car as North American tastes will allow in the Fit. And it’s a good car at that. The problem is that they can’t sell something like this without cannibalizing what they already sell. It’s why we don’t get cars like the Freed or FR-V: they’d make selling higher-margin cars like the Crosstour much more difficult. It’ll take a major change in vehicular culture (or a gas spike of Hell) to make kei cars acceptable for a mainstream marque to sell.

    It’s the volume-manufacturer’s burden: you live and die by margin. Suzuki could probably make this work; Honda can’t, not anymore.

  • avatar

    I’ve worked on Honda Twin motorcycles before. I wonder if anyone contemplated dual carbs and exhaust tuning on the mill

  • avatar

    Nice work, Paul.

  • avatar

    I go by the dealerships every coupla months to see the latest trades… and a Honda shop had one of these or at least the very earliest iteration of the CVCC inside.

    They were also doing a competition of sorts.. as to who would have the oldest running Honda.. and theyd be in a raffle for a new.. w/e.

    Amazing to see such a tiny car, even compared to the FIT. But as for the current Accord.. 3 of these maybe 4 would equal the length.

    Its a damn shame that Honda came from the lightest of the “imports” and is stuck with two fat-asses.. Civic / Accord.

    Nice car.

  • avatar

    I had one of these with the 360 cc engine, when I was young and poor in Tokyo. It wasn’t that bad, once you were inside.

    I rode a KZ750 most of the time, but sometimes, you just need to carry something or get out of the rain.

    I have very clear memories – the stickshift growing out of the dash, and being able to push start it by opening the driver’s door and doing the scooter thing with one leg.

  • avatar
    Edward Niedermeyer

    GS650G: How about a set of scrambler pipes sprouting out the side of the hood?

  • avatar

    Look at the second picture, unless that’s some custom order HUGE bicycle, that’s one tiny car…

    Remember seeing a few survivors in SF when I lived there (always in some bright color, red/orange/yellow…maybe that helped being seen), and it’s hard to beleive these ever shared road space with the gargantuan LTD’s, Impalas, Caddys, etc. of the era…

    You had to be a ‘special kind of crazy’ to pilot that mini-mouse amongst all those elephants.

  • avatar

    Its a damn shame that Honda came from the lightest of the “imports” and is stuck with two fat-asses.. Civic / Accord.

    For the record, the Civic is lighter than most of it’s competition. The Accord isn’t appreciably heavy for it’s class, either. Toyota’s entries are lighter still, but that doesn’t stop people from calling the Camry “bloated”

    If you want to see heavy, look to Volkswagen. The Jetta weighs in above the Accord, despite being much more cramped.

    The “bloat” comment gets applied to Honda unfairly, I feel, and it’s because of cars like the N600. No one calls GM or Ford’s offerings bloated because at the time Honda sold this, GM was hocking pavement-crackers like the Toronado or Eldorado. The Accord is only bloated by the standards of past Accords; the Impala is svelte by standards of past Impalas, yet the Impala is a bigger, heavier car with less room inside.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    All current cars are bloated. In ten or twenty years from now, that will be all-too apparent.

  • avatar

    >>But even the 36hp version would still leave a stock Mini in the dust. That is, if you could find one, since they were never imported to the US on the assumption that it was too small (or unreliable?) for Americans. <<

    Stock Minis were imported. I was a BMC dealer in the early 60s and we had stock minis in stock regularly. We didn’t sell many, mind, but we had them $1295 dripping wet…

  • avatar

    I remember them very well – Erie, PA, 1973.

    One of my buddies in the Presque Isle Bicycle Club had a Z600. I’d borrow it periodically to run rallyes and D Sedan SCCA autocross. Loved the little dash mount shift lever, and yes, it sounded an awful lot like my CB350 cafe racer.

    Said buddy was a burnout eco-freak. He ended up selling the Z600, and buying a Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar. Which I also borrowed a lot, while I was working as the mechanic at his bicycle shop.

    As to all modern cars are too bloated, tell me about it. A couple of days ago, I parked my Porsche 924S alongside a co-workers Kia Soul. I didn’t realize how BIG than bloody car is.

  • avatar

    How about a set of scrambler pipes sprouting out the side of the hood?

    I’m thinking 2-1 right out behind the front tire on the passenger side. I’ve seen these with CV carbs and I think a pair of VM 26 carbs would be easier to tune and jet.

    This package is just asking for modification.

  • avatar

    Wow, 1100 pounds?

    My wife, me, and our rental VTX-1300 (mind you there are lots of bike options in the 1.5L+ engine size-range) with bags with some shoes topped 1100 pounds — on a motorcycle!

    (I’m 5’11” 220 in full armor. My wife is 5’3″ 160 in full armor)

  • avatar
    the duke

    Used to see Z600’s occasionally in Portland. Even most of those are gone now. Nice find Paul!

    So about those really difficult clues…

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    the duke, You’re the man! Well, I like to see somebody get them. Let’s see what I come up with for next week.

  • avatar
    the duke

    Looking foreward to it Paul. No nice old Japanese cars here in Michigan (even if they were sold, I think they rusted out after one winter). Really miss Portland!

  • avatar

    When I was in the Navy in ’71, one of the sailors in my enlisted mens’ quarters had a ’70 Honda 600. A group of burly sailors from Operations and Maintenance had such disdain for it that they carried it up the stairs and left it on the second floor landing.

    A junior officer came out and planned to bring in a crane to remove it, which would have required demolition of the third floor landing. A Chief talked him out of it by assuring him the car would be back in the lot by the end of the day.

    The Chief went right to O&M and told the whole crew what he had in store for them if the car wasn’t back in the lot. I saw seven guy grunting as they carried it down the stairs back to the lot.

    The sailor who owned it traded it in for a Ford Cortina, and the O&M guys left it alone.

  • avatar

    Growing up in hong kong. circa late 70s, my bro’s buddy bought a 360. Becoz his Old Blighty made Standard never ran at all.
    his 360 was a
    God send.

    the later 1300 aircooled 4 cyl, is pretty quiet for air cool. unlike the vee dubs.
    they call it 7s coupe, also 9s later. perhaps 7s was 1100 and 9s was 1300cc.

    the early accord kind of follow the lines.
    happy child hood memories.

    one time a flash flood, few inches of water, car never stalled.
    if it were mini we would have to walk much sooner.

    a friend in victoria has S600 coupe.

    saw a same rag top during earl 80s in a Honda dealer in vancouver bc. Clarke simkims.
    wonder who own that now.

  • avatar

    My only memory of the Honda 600 was an episode of CHiPs (first season) where a gigantic black dude was left stranded on the side of the road because of this car. John and Ponch came by, and the guy lost it, just started ripping the car to bits.

    I’m sure the car was somewhat loosened up for the guy to easily tear into it, but still, the actor WAS THE SAME SIZE as the Honda.

    Thanks for the better imagery to go with this car, Paul.

  • avatar

    The sailor who owned it traded it in for a Ford Cortina

    Oh no that cant be happily ever after.

    Only Cortina good was the lotus powered. The only did it in the earlier days, later on discontinued.

  • avatar

    Thanks, Paul. I really enjoy pieces like this about cars I don’t know much about.
    Although I remember the 73 Civic quite well, I knew almost nothing about the 600, and found this article very interesting.

  • avatar

    It was either a ’71 or ’72 orange coupe the guy in Patterson, CA owned.

    A two-cylinder non-motorcycle engine, 12-inch tires and a wheelbase so narrow that, yes, it would fit atop a standard-sized sidewalk and the wheels remained upon the concrete.

    Great fun.

    And a wee bit exciting as the standard full-sized Detroit behemoths surrounded us.

  • avatar

    A budy had one of these cars. It was a 600 and green. We went everywhere in it. It would do an honest 70 mph, and the heater worked.
    Somebody missed stopping for an intersection and that was the end of it, unfortunately.
    On Paul’s site, there’s a reference to an old Petersen book that I still have. There’s a section on how to hop up this car, complete with a good picture of some made to measure headers.
    Thanks for the memories.

  • avatar
    Ralph SS

    The boyfriend of a girl accross the street in suburban Detroit had one of these. Orange. One day he was coming down the residential street which was of a width that if two cars were parked parallel on the opposite curbs there was barely room for a car to squeeze through. He was going at a good clip when someone was backing out of their single wide driveway and backed out into his path. He veered to the right, drove up the preceding driveway, drove across two lawns and parked sideways in her driveway.

  • avatar

    Taco Loco rules. I forgot about the car.

  • avatar

    My grandfather owned a 600 cc Honda car.

    It got at least 45 mpg…sometimes over 50 mpg.

    Why aren’t these being manufactured today?

    Car manufaturers need to take note.

    Maybe change a few safety features, but keep that design and all it’s efficiency.

    Pushing cars in this day and age getting 30 mpg as fuel efficient?

    Give me a break. Get it together and do the right thing!

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