1966 Honda S600 — a $34,100 sale at Barrett-Jackson in September
The Honda S Series was Honda’s first real foray into automobile production. Japanese Keiretsu politics threatened to limit Honda to motorcycle production only, so the company started the S600 as part of a broad development effort — one that led to greatness with the Honda Civic a few years later. But in the early 1960s, Honda was still finding its way into the automobile market. Japanese motorcycle and automobile makers in this era had simultaneous tendencies to copy established designs and to innovate and greatly improve those designs. That’s why the S600 looks so familiar on the surface — and is entirely unique under the skin. At a glance, the 1964–66 Honda S600 looks similar to the Austin-Healey Sprite or MG Midget of the same era, but what it really resembles is the Innocenti 950 Spider, designed by Ghia on the Austin-Healey platform. However, the resemblance to the European models is only skin deep. Under the hood, you’ve got a completely different car with some eye-opening technology that was well ahead of its time.

High revs, low weight

First, Honda used its motorcycle mojo to gift its little roadster with a water-cooled 606-cc 4-cylinder DOHC engine with a single-throat carburetor for each cylinder. Combined with needle bearings, all that made the S600 engine good for 57 horsepower and an eye-popping 8,500 rpm redline. The S600 could reach a top speed of 90 mph, but with such a small displacement, engine torque was mostly nonexistent. So the Honda designers borrowed Colin Chapman’s design philosophy and added lightness. The S600 tips the scales at just 1,576 pounds, which is extra impressive, given that the car uses a traditional body-on-frame design with big drum brakes at all four corners. The front suspension was set up with a fairly typical torsion bar and dual A-arm layout, but the rear end is entirely unique. A traditional 4-speed manual transmission is mounted longitudinally behind the engine, with a driveshaft that comes back to a solid rear axle, but that’s where any similarity ends. The rear axle assembly is fixed to the chassis, and the axle tubes end in enclosed chain-drive units that move independently — much like trailing arms. The rear suspension consists of tall, coil-over shocks mounted at the back of the chain-drive units. The result is an independent rear suspension that moves vertically without camber change, and a short final drive ratio designed to take advantage of the rev-happy engine.

An English cockpit

In the cockpit, the similarity to British sports cars is obvious. By the look of it, you could unthread the stock Honda shift knob and install it on a Sprite or MGB — and few could spot the difference. The S600 received a Nardi-style wood-rimmed steering wheel and an attractive black padded dash with a contrasting gauge panel insert and a full set of gauges and toggle-switch controls. Any European sports car enthusiast will feel right at home in this car.

A hard-top coupe

The S600 was also bodied as a fastback coupe. The coupe is the same car under the skin, but Honda gave it a hard top reminiscent of the Triumph GT6. Just 11,284 of the little convertibles and 1,800 coupes were made from 1964 to 1966. Almost all of those were RHD for the Japanese domestic market, but some LHD models made it to Canada. Thus, any S600 you find in the United States was individually imported after retail sale elsewhere. In 1967, the S600 was replaced with a mostly similar S800 with a larger engine, but that car really didn’t do any better on the market, and it was several years later before Honda struck it big in the hatchback business.

Look out for the SM600 package

Another variation to keep in mind is that both the S600 coupe and convertible were available in an upgraded trim called the SM600. Among other features, the SM600 trim included reverse lights, radio, heater and cigarette lighter. If you’re looking at an S600 with any of those goodies, it’s likely to be the upgrade model. Judging by the photos showing heater hoses and reverse lights, our subject car — from last fall’s Barrett-Jackson Las Vegas auction — is actually an SM600. This car, Lot 66.1, sold for $34,100 on September 25, 2015.

Rare and little-known in the U.S.

The bottom line is that the Honda S600 had all the right stuff for success, but at that time Honda could not break into the United States market with the convertible or its coupe sibling, so the cars have been largely unknown here. Prices for the S600 line have been rising steadily, with at least one recent sale peaking into the $44,000 range. The subject sale looks like a nicely restored car that’s all there and looks great, so we’ll call this one well bought at $10,000 less than the high-water mark for the model. ♦

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