From cheap and chintzy to dull and boring, Japanese cars have often battled a bad reputation among American and European enthusiasts. On the eve of the new Scion/Subaru sports car, which is neither cheap and chintzy nor dull and boring, it's worth a look in the rearview mirror at four cars from the dawn of the Japanese auto industry that were exceptional enough to catapult their makers into the ranks of the world's largest and most respected automobile manufacturers.
It might look small in the company of these cars, but Honda's first-ever automobile -- the S sports car -- isn't just small, it's minuscule. The S800 is 27 inches shorter than today's Mazda Miata, and from the driver's seat it feels as if you could reach back and use your fingers to plug the exhaust pipes. That's something you might want to do, because at a casual 65 mph in top gear, the engine's 5200-rpm wail is a little too much to bear but isn't quite loud enough to drown out the voices in your head screaming "upshift!"
It's no exaggeration to say that the engineering in the 70-hp, 791-cc DOHC aluminum four-cylinder engine is as exquisite as anything you'll find in a Breitling watch. For example, it uses no conventional bearings -- only intricate needle roller bearings for the crankshaft. It inhales through four individual carburetors, exhales through equal-length exhaust runners, and spins 1500 rpm higher than the racy four-cylinder in today's Civic Si. It also makes more power per liter, without the help of VTEC or computers. In the 1960s, when one horsepower per cubic inch was the barely achievable hot-rod holy grail, this engine made one and a half.
More remarkable, the S800 was the low-revving, big-displacement, high-torque version. The earlier S500 and S600 (named for their 531- and 606-cc engines) revved even higher, and they used chains to transmit power to the independently sprung rear wheels. The S800 switched to a traditional driveshaft and live axle, but every detail of these diminutive sports cars was executed in the typical Honda way, engineering around problems in the most elegant manner possible rather than simply following convention.
The S800 is a darling little car to drive, with unassisted, superfast steering (only 2.5 turns lock-to-lock!), an incomprehensibly supple ride, and a body-on-frame structure that is somehow immune to cowl shake. The shifter is the size of a chopstick, and its short throws feel better than those of any car you can buy today. The driver's seat actually fits life-size human beings and, with the exception of a toggle switch for the horn that you accidentally actuate every time you reach for the turn signal, even the controls are well laid out. But the engine overshadows all of that. Its response is instantaneous, and it's as happy and torquey at two grand as it is at eight. The mind boggles. That this is Honda's first car is amazing, but even taken on its own, the S800 is a clear explanation of how this company became the undisputed master of the four-cylinder engine and earned a reputation for engineering brilliance.
Mazda Cosmo Sport 110S
The S500/600/800 might have been Honda's first car, but the Mazda Cosmo was the world's first car with a truly viable rotary engine -- a twin-rotor. Its futuristic styling was the perfect complement to the Jetsons powerplant under the hood: a 110-hp thing of wonder not much larger than a basketball. Working under a development license from NSU, Mazda solved many of the rotary's problems before the Germans did, and the Cosmo beat NSU's own twin-rotor car to market.
Mazda built only 343 examples of the 1967 Cosmo. A mid-1968 update gave the car a 5.9-inch wheelbase stretch, vacuum-assisted brakes, a five-speed, and eighteen extra horsepower -- but only 1176 Series 2 units were built before production ended in 1972. Still, the white spaceship with the vertically mirrored jet-exhaust taillights was Mazda's Big Bang -- the first of more than two million rotary-engine cars that Mazda has sold since.
The Cosmo's tiny 982-cc engine produces twice as much torque as the frenetic Honda four-cylinder, but the twist is delivered effortlessly and without vibration even as the tach needle sweeps into the red zone. The Cosmo doesn't so much pull hard, it just never stops pulling. As a result, it's a lot faster than it feels. That could be a problem, except the Cosmo is so impressive in corners.
The steering is relatively slow, but the Mazda changes direction with immediate responses and astonishing agility. Having a diminutive engine mounted behind the front axle and no higher than your kneecaps pays dividends here just as it does in today's Subaru BRZ -- after two minutes of savoring the light, delicate controls, you will itch to drive this sports car on a racetrack. Once upon a time, the rotary engine was a common dream -- it was envisioned for use in Corvettes, De Loreans, Chryslers, and Citroens, among others -- but the only company that made that dream a long-standing reality is Mazda. It all began with the Cosmo.