Back in 1967, if you wanted a two seater sports car that was affordable, reliable and good looking, your choices were really rather limited. There was plenty of excitement to be had if your wallet was large enough, but for the average man on the street, someone that actually wanted to get to where they had planned to go, then you might as well ignore anything built upon these shores or from most of our European cousins. Reliability and good looks were available, but never in quite the same place or at the same time. This was called character and was something that you just had to put up with.
Unsurprisingly, this was not a situation that the fledgling Japanese car makers understood and so they soon began upsetting the natural order of things by designing cars that actually worked as intended, a situation unheard of within the design departments of Triumph, MG, Fiat et al. Indeed, it is said that cries of, “It’ll never catch on!” can still be heard throughout the Midlands if the wind’s blowing in the right direction.
Which brings us, rather nicely, on to the exquisitely detailed Honda S800, a car which replaced the diminutive S600 yet was available to buy in Europe and the U.K. as it was exported internationally, unlike the S600 which was only available within the confines of Japan itself.
The Honda arrived on these shores sporting an engine that the home grown manufacturers could only dream of, a tiny 4 cylinder, 791cc power unit capable of producing 70bhp at a stratospheric 8000rpm, giving the S800 a 0-60mph time of 13.5secs and an impressive top speed, for the time, of 100mph. Putting that into some sort of context, a comparable 1967 MGB came with a 4 cylinder engine producing 94bhp at 5500rpm from its 1789cc displacement, giving it a top speed of 103mph and a 0-60 of 12.2secs. One litre less and virtually the same performance? You’d better believe it.
The reason for these comparable specifications is down to what Honda are really rather good at. The process of designing a vehicle as a whole, looking at each separate part and cutting any excess weight. After all, it’s weight that kills efficiency, handling and performance, something that Honda realised early on through their extensive experience of designing and mass producing motorcycles of all types and capacity.
As a sports car, designated by that famous ‘S’ badge, Honda managed to bring the S800 in at around 771KG, a figure that provided a platform for the diminuative Honda’s impressive engine performance and gave their engineers a solid basis upon which to fine tune the suspension and handling. A task Honda no doubt complicated somewhat by requesting that their engineers design a coupé as well as a roadster, keeping it much the same vein as the ubiquitous MG.
Honda though, soon hit problems with the Mark 1, despite it being a superb handling, revvy little sports car. Don’t forget that the S800 was like a breath of fresh air blowing through a staid and conservative marketplace here in the U.K. After all, this was a two seater that relied upon light weight, good looks and an engine that made its power at 8000rpm, in 1967. But it was in America, a market that all of the manufacturers coveted, that Honda came up against one or two issues.
According to the Honda S800 Sports Car Club: rapid development of the Mk2 S800 (as we know it) or more correctly the S800M was a direct response to the American safety legislation; hence the recessed door handles, side marker lights, hazard warning lights, and dual circuit brakes. All this effort had one major drawback — the engine! Despite its sophistication and the ability to produce high amounts of power from a small cubic capacity, the US decided its output was considered “dirty” in environmental terms, with a high percentage of unburned hydrocarbons. A decision that ultimately led to this incredible little car being discontinued in 1969 leaving the final few U.K. sales limping on into 1970.
the S800 wasn’t a huge international seller in the mould of the MGB, but what it did very effectively, was show to the World that Honda was able to produce technically adept, beautiful looking, cleverly designed cars. And for that, we should all be extremely grateful.
Where will you go?