Tim Mings is watching, waiting to see if I can comprehend what he’s dropped in my palm.
He nods, smirking. It’s tiny, smaller than any valve I’ve ever seen, no larger than a 16-penny nail. It’s out of a Honda Grand Prix motorcycle’s screaming, 125-cc inline-five that shrieked at the sky in the mid-’60s. Maybe 100 of these valves were ever made. The one I’m holding comes from an era when Soichiro Honda all but dominated the Japanese motorcycle market, then cast a glance at the American car and changed our world forever.
“They made five of those motors,” Mings says, “23,000 rpm.”
We’re sitting in his shop, a single bay in an anonymous office park. One of Los Angeles’ tangled interstate interchanges looms above the place, lending a dull drone to the world outside the garage door. Inside, the walls are hung with 50 years of Honda history. Drive-By Truckers pluck their chords over the stereo, the speakers hidden among piles of parts. The place is soaked in the smell of dead gasoline.
I’m here because Mings has spent a lifetime devoted to the dusty art of resurrection, dragging Honda N600s back from the brink of scrap. It’s been a full-time obsession for 15 years, and in that time a sea of coupes and sedans has washed through his doors. None have been so special as the machine he finished last year: Serial One, the first production U.S.-market Honda.
“It’s not a car. It’s not a motorcycle,” Mings says. “It’s a hybrid.”
When Honda decided to take its adorable N360 across the Pacific, it used tricks gleaned from decades of campaigning in Grand Prix motorcycle racing to build a new, high-output, low-displacement air-cooled engine for the U.S. Engineers pried 45 horsepower from an all-aluminum, 598-cc parallel-twin with a 9,000 rpm redline — better than 1 horse per cubic inch. The only dealer network Honda had in the U.S. sold motorcycles, so if you wanted a new N600, you went to your local bike dealer and picked one from among the Cubs and Dreams. That’s how Mings came to know these cars. His uncle was the service manager at Larry Lilley Honda in Lancaster, California, the company’s third-oldest dealership in the States. He’d been there since 1960 and brought home a new bike every year for the better part of a decade. In 1970, he traded his 1969 CB750 for an N600.
“My dad thought that was pretty cool, but he couldn’t own a new one,” Mings says. “He had two kids and all that. He couldn’t afford it.”
Mings laughs when he says it, grinning at the notion of being unable to scrape together $1,200 (some $7,500 today) for the little Honda. The N600 cost far less than what you would’ve paid for a Pinto the following year. Or a Beetle, even. His father waited four years before finding an N600 of his own, a ’71 basket case, and put the car together in their driveway. By then, Honda had full-blown car dealerships.“If a motorcycle dealer didn’t pick up a franchise for the cars, they weren’t obligated to work on the N600 anymore, and if a car dealership started with the Civic, they never sold the N600. They weren’t obligated to do it, either,” Mings says. “They became instant orphans.”
It didn’t take long for Mings’ father to get a reputation as the N600 guy. With no dealer support, other N600 owners stopped him in the street, begging to know who kept his car running. Pretty soon, he was keeping theirs alive too, wrenching in the driveway after work. “I just kind of grew up around these little Honda N600s, broken all the time,” Mings says.
Early cars were fragile, far from the reliable mules Honda is known for building today. They required service every 2,000 miles, including an oil change and valve adjustment, due to the air-cooled design and the fact that both the engine and transmission share the same lubrication. Wait too long between intervals, and crank bearings fail, valves drop. When I ask Mings why anyone would go through the trouble of keeping a finicky, disposable Japanese machine around, he has a hard time finding the words.
“You’ll take it for a spin,and then it’ll be a little more apparent,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like a 50-year-old micro car.”
I suspect it’s more than that. There are machines that get stitched into the core of us. The sight of them calls up the bright hours we spent living with them, sweating over them. The sound of a driver’s door or the smell of an interior can conjure the people who were there with us, under the hood or in the passenger seat. Uncles and fathers. The best bits of us.
Mings found Serial One by accident. Or, it found him. He can’t say how many N600 coupes and sedans have passed through his doors in 15 years. Thousands, he guesses. If Serial One was out there, if it hadn’t been crushed or scrapped, he’d see it, sure as sunrise. Ten years ago he spotted a shaggy little sedan on a trailer at the Pomona Antique Auto Swap Meet and left his card on the windshield with a note that told the owner to give him a call. The owner did and mentioned he had another N600 as well. Mings gave him the same offer that bought the first one: $1,000, delivered. The guy agreed, and Mings shoved the machine in the back of the shop thinking it’d make a decent parts donor.
It didn’t look like much. It suffered a repugnant green respray at some point, and the interior was tattered after a half-century under the Antelope Valley sun. Mings bought it for the hubcaps, more than anything; the big, full-cover jobs are rare. The car sat for three years, waiting all that time to tell its secret. Mings finally got around to scraping the grime off the serial number when he moved to a smaller shop. He ran a rag over the VIN, and there it was, stamped on the cowl: N600-1000001. Serial One.
“That kind of changes my perspective,” he says. “But I can’t stop making a living long enough to monkey with it.”
There are client cars to contend with. A full-restoration for Bruce Willis’ makeup man, followed by a parade of carburetor rebuilds and valve jobs. It wasn’t until Honda got word of the car and put resources behind the project that Mings could devote his full attention to a restoration. It took him a year of long, merciless days. He’s an affable guy, his brown eyes bright and a smile always near his lips, but his shine dulls when I ask if he’d do it again.
“I probably would,” he says. “But man, it was tough. It took a toll on me. I gained 40 pounds.”
His eyes gleam again when he looks at the car. Honda owns it now, and it spends its days under the company’s care but made a homecoming for our visit. It’s a tiny, darling thing. I want to pinch its cheeks. Mings gets up and walks around the car, popping the hood as he goes. The engine bay is spotless. Every bolt and wire is in its proper place. It’s one of the most impressive restorations I’ve seen, in quality and accuracy, but in subject, too. The N600 is a different kind of car to covet. Pedestrian. Disposable. It wasn’t built to win races or set records but to be accessible to as many people as possible, helping shoulder a much heavier burden: daily life.
Mings says this car is completely different from the others he’s put his hands on. The engine case and starter motor are sand cast. The differential uses a two-piece split gear instead of the louder, cheaper single-piece unit found in later cars. The pistons have no expander behind the oil control ring, and their skirts are shorter. The cam timing is different, and so is the carburetor. Most of the suspension, even the floorpan, is dramatically different from the later cars.
I open the door, waiting for the usual smell of old upholstery and decaying adhesives, but it smells new. Bright vinyl, fresh paint, and carpet. Two tiny bucket seats sit like lawn chairs on the perfectly flat floor. The steering wheel looks huge, but only because the rest of the car is so small. The shifter juts out from nothing, its linkage disappearing under the dash and through the firewall. The door is light and impossibly thin. Delicate A-pillars and big glass help the cabin feel airy. This thing’s smaller than I am, wing tip to wing tip, but I can still stretch out my legs. I feel like I could put my hands through each window, put my feet through the floor, and carry the car around like a cardboard box, and yet there’s room inside for two average-sized humans. It’s a miracle of packaging.
Mings doesn’t want me to drive the car. It’s nothing personal. He doesn’t want to drive it, either. He’s spent the better part of a life gathering N600 parts, buying out dealer stock when there was still dealer stock to buy. Outside of a handful of marker lights and weather stripping, the pieces used to restore Serial One are scarce and getting scarcer, and they’ll never be made again. A shop that puts together heralded classics such as a Porsche 550 Spyder or a Ferrari 250 GT can justify the cost of hand-forming a fender or casting a new block, but it’s hard to imagine anyone going to such lengths for an N600.
“I think I drove that car five miles, sweating the entire time,” Mings says.
The high-output engine has a lifespan of about 22,000 miles. It just doesn’t go past that, so every inch this car moves under its own power is one closer to the grave. Mings is torn because letting the car sit is no better. Preservation is its own quiet form of decay. Seals and gaskets dry out and give way. Brakes seize, valves stick. Museumitis, he calls it. I will drive it, after all.
When I turn the key, the engine catches instantly, jumping to a high idle. I look for a choke knob, but the car’s minder tells me that’s just how it runs. There is no seat belt to buckle, no shift pattern on the knob. A slight grind of gears, and we’re away. It doesn’t sound like a motorcycle — too buzzy for that — but there’s a hot aroma of aluminum and oil, gasoline and exhaust. If I shut my eyes, I’d swear I was next to an aged CB400F.
It’s not until I get enough space to run through first and catch second that the car shows its colors. It’s a bright and brilliant thing. The engine sings, happy to wind its heart out, pulling harder than 45 horsepower has any right to. Then again, the car weighs less than 1,200 pounds. Later N600s got a sway bar and beefier cast control arms rather than the stamped steel pieces on Serial One, and Mings tells me they make a difference. I’m already smiling, but the first turn pulls a laugh out of my chest. The steering is sharp, and the wheelbase short, but the car feels like it’s about to keel over, tippy as any canoe. It’s a light-hearted riot. It doesn’t take much searching to find the chords that make a modern Honda great ringing here.
My left arm finds the windowsill as I putter along in third, the thin wheel held in two fingers. In that moment, it’s hard to get my mind around the measure of this car. How something so small could change our world entirely. How everything that Honda would become, everything the man and the company would do, how it all rode on such slight shoulders. It all depended on this car. On it proving itself here, in the most important automotive market in the world. It’s a big thing for something so small.