"Mighty oaks from little acorns grow" certainly applies to Honda, which last year accounted for almost ten percent of new-vehicle sales in the United States. There was a time when Honda merited little more than an asterisk in such tallies. The "little acorn" that started the Honda oak growing was a car most unlikely to launch a major brand in an entrenched market. The Honda 600, a microcar by any standard, was the seed planted forty-four years ago that begot a veritable forest of Hondas.
In the 1960s, Honda established a bridgehead as a purveyor of two-wheeled transportation, powered by the slogan, "You meet the nicest people on a Honda" -- a counterpoint to Harley-Davidson's outlaw image. The first Honda cars in America didn't even make it across the entirety of the Pacific Ocean; sales of the 1970 Honda 600 began, most tentatively, in Hawaii.
Those first ones, designated N600, were upright sedans that drew inspiration from the British Motor Corporation's original Mini. Of course, those little Brit boxes weren't exactly big sales sensations in the States, either, but Honda had to use what it had on hand to get things going. Powered by a 598-cc air-cooled two-cylinder motorcycle engine driving the front wheels, both the sedan and sporty companion hatchback coupe (Z600), which arrived a bit later, sold for a good deal less than the Volkswagen Beetle. Then again, the Hondas had two fewer cylinders, about two-thirds the horsepower, and were 400 pounds lighter and nearly three feet shorter in length. When a Beetle seems gargantuan in comparison, particularly in a vehicular landscape dominated by domestic behemoths, you're talking niche market. Such was Honda's early lot in American life.
Sometime around the second model year of the Honda 600 twins, a kid in Monterey, California, named Scott King began a lifelong fixation with Honda's mighty-ish mite. A friend of his brother's had won one in a raffle, opening King's young mind to the fact that this little car was kind of cool. Later, a neighbor bought one, and King got to admire it from a closer vantage. Years later, after that very car was totaled, King found identifiable pieces of it among a stock of Honda 600 parts he acquired; not many people can say they have a trunk lid that recalls a blissful childhood.
Earlier, he had bought an N600 in running order. It was 1979, and the $750 he paid for the little green '72 sedan (any resemblance to a turtle is purely incidental) seemed reasonable except for the fact that King was too young to legally drive it. The waiting game paid off as that car, King's first of any kind, is still in his possession and is estimated to be worth more than ten times the purchase price. As if he'd ever part with it.
Over time (and after he acquired a valid driver's license), the N600 and that pile of parts wasn't enough for King. He found the '72 coupe featured here on eBay in 2005. It was in presentable condition despite having languished in somebody's backyard after many years and miles of service as an RV's dinghy. The gas in the tank had turned to varnish, but the car was lovingly brought back to life. Its original "pop orange" (Nehi? Crush?) paint buffed out nicely, transforming this 600 into a little bitty belle of the ball. The price was $2500, almost a full thousand dollars more than it had cost to purchase new.
Although the tight back seat is not a place to spend extended periods of time, the front is surprisingly commodious. The coupe's driving position -- unlike the Mini's, in which the steering wheel is horizontally angled like the one in Ralph Kramden's bus -- mandates a stretched-out, relaxed approach. Controls are all within reach, as they should be in a car this small. The coupe sports an overhead console with map and dome lights, which gives it an aviation overtone (although no oxygen masks have descended to date). Speaking of which, the tiny ten-inch wheels may look like the landing gear of an ultralight, but they are proportional to the car.
The driving experience is a blast. The 600 is not fast by any means, but it feels quick and responsive and exhibits a bit of understeer to keep things interesting. Does it zoom? No. Does it zip? Most certainly! The little two-cylinder revs high like a motorcycle engine should, and upshifting the four-speed manual is surprisingly smooth while judicious double-clutching keeps things from getting too jerky on the way down.
King is, by any measure, a Honda man. Not only does he own the two 600s pictured here as well as a pair of 1965 S600s (the beautiful, Lilliputian sports car that was a version of Honda's first automobile but was never officially imported to the U.S.), he has also held executive positions with American Honda -- in customer service, as a parts-division field rep, and in product planning for models including the first-generation Insight hybrid, a future Collectible Classic.
Another Honda man who looms large in the greater 600 community is Tim Mings. He's the brain behind Merciless Mings, a full-time service, repair, restoration, and sales facility in Duarte, California, devoted to Honda 600s. Only. It's a source of pride for Mings that his only business for the past fifteen years has focused on these crazy little cars. He quips, "I'm like an underwire bra -- no visible means of support." But, in fact, he has scores of steady clients who keep his business perky.
With prices on the rise -- a coupe sold at auction three years ago for a phenomenal $27,500 -- these little cars will surely earn their keep in the coming years. Fun to drive, fun to look at, and fun to talk about . . . part of Honda's master plan from the beginning?
ENGINE 0.6L (36 cu in) SOHC I-2, 36 hp, 32 lb-ft
FRONT SUSPENSION Strut-type, coil springs
REAR SUSPENSION Beam axle, leaf springs
BRAKES F/R Discs/drums
WEIGHT 1355/1313 lb (sedan/coupe)
YEARS PRODUCED 1970-1972
NUMBER SOLD 40,550 (U.S.-market sedans and coupes)
ORIGINAL PRICE $1473/$1610 (sedan/coupe, 1972)
VALUE TODAY $4500-$10,000
Fun! Drive 'em like overgrown (but not by much) go-karts. Because they're so small, you'll experience "scale speed" -- 40 mph feels like 80 when you're behind the wheel of a car that's so much smaller than everything else on the road. You can actually drive a Honda 600 on the freeway -- top speed is about 75 mph -- but interstate travel of any duration might be challenging. Own a piece of automotive history at a somewhat affordable price -- you won't be able to buy the first edition of any other car for anything near as reasonable a cost. OK, maybe a Saturn, but what fun would that be?