In 1962, Honda debuted its first automobile—the tiny 33-hp S360 roadster and the 44-hp S500 roadster. The S500 received a warm welcome and entered production for 1963, followed a year later by the similarly styled but more powerful S600. And it was the 1964 S600 that hit the spot for Honda.
Japanese cars to that point were known for their staid reliability—small coupes and sedans that moved people from A to B without fuss or frills. But the S600 changed all that. It carried the reliability and thoughtful engineering typical of Honda motorcycles, but its sporting nature as a tiny two-seat roadster was unusual for a Japanese car of the era. The S600 put Honda on the automaking map and gave the company a product to deliver to the world market.
Two products, actually, as the S600 was the first Honda car available in two versions—a cute roadster styled neatly after the best British two-seaters of the day, and a fastback coupe, which debuted in mid-1965. Changes were slight during its three-year production run, with only minor restyling of the headlights, grille, and front bumper. Two trims were available as well: Standard equipment included a woodrim steering wheel, auxiliary mufflers, dual fender-mount rearview mirrors, and a passenger hand grip. An upscale SM600 added a cigarette lighter, heater, radio, special exterior colors and badging, and improved seating.
The S600 first came in right-hand drive, but soon a left-hooker was available for export. Power came from a watercooled, 606-cc, aluminum inline-4 fed by four carburetors, which produced 57 hp at 8,500 rpm, while redline was motorcycle-like at 9,500 rpm.
With a 4-speed transmission, four-wheel independent suspension, and a relatively light 1,576 pounds (1,609 for the coupe), the S600 offered a spirited driving experience. The car was happy to cruise at freeway speeds all day long, albeit at a buzzy 8,000 rpm, and it topped out around 90 mph. Drivers praised it for its heel and toe pedal setup, and its precise 4-speed and proper driving position made spirited driving a joy.
By 1966, the S600 had evolved quietly into the S800, but not before 13,000 roadsters and coupes had been built. For an adolescent carmaker, the S600 was quite a feat.