I fell in love with the 60’s Honda S600 after driving it in a video game years ago. I don’t remember the game, I just remember driving the tiny car around like a go-kart, weaving through traffic and laughing, thinking about how fun it would be to drive the little clown car on twisty mountain roads. Years later, after a stint making Formula SAE cars in college, I had the itch to build a motorcycle engine powered car and I remembered the tiny little Honda-kart.
The S600 is a weird part of automotive history;
It is Honda’s first major production car, made by a company that had been producing motorcycles for the previous 15 years and was on the precipice of becoming the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. It was preceded by the very similar S500 which saw just over a thousand examples produced. The S600 never gets the esteem it deserves. Jay Leno once said that if it had a Porsche badge on it, it would be worth $250,000, but since it says Honda it gets no respect.
One advantage of this for people like me is that you don’t have to have Jay Leno money to buy one. I got mine for $1700! It was in pretty rough shape and didn’t have an engine, which was perfect since I was planning on putting a motorcycle engine in it anyway.
The car was in Oklahoma, I was in California, and the seller was in Arizona getting a PhD. My parents are in Oklahoma and could store the car for a bit, so I called up the seller and we agreed on a price. He was asking $1900, and talked him down to $1500, but then I felt bad because I knew the car was worth more than that, so I split the difference and sent him a check for $1700. He had a couple of his friends drop the car off at my Parents’ house and a couple months later I drove out for thanksgiving and towed back my rusty piece of automotive history.
My original plan was to stick a modern motorcycle engine under the hood, upgrade the suspension a bit, and then restore the exterior and interior to look like an original S600. That idea got abandoned somewhere between finishing the rolling chassis and my remembering how much I hate bodywork and paint. I ended up using far less of the Honda bits than I expected, partly due to their condition, partly because they were missing (I’m pretty sure we left Oklahoma with a muffler but arrived in California without one), but mostly because so many of them were not designed for my intended use. For some unknown reason, the car was delivered to me with half shafts from an NA Miata and a rear end from (I believe) an RX7 in the trunk. I ended up using the half shafts, because, you know, free.
The biggest bit I didn’t use was the rear end; Honda had designed this thing where the driveshaft goes into a differential that is about 18” in front of the rear axel line, then the half shafts go out to these big castings with sprockets inside them and chains back to bigger sprockets that the wheel attached to. The whole sprocket casting housing acted as a stupidly heavy trailing arm suspension setup. It was neat in that it was different and had a bit of that Honda motorcycle personality, but it was also deigned for 1/3rd the horsepower I wanted to get, and for cornering g’s of the skinniest tires I’d ever seen on a car. I ended up ditching the whole thing. I tried to sell it, but while parts like that are rare, there’s also no market for them. I had a few calls over several months with no one willing to pay shipping before I just called a metal recycling place and scrapped it. Same thing with the transmission. I’m sure there is someone restoring an S600 right now who is pulling their hair out at the thought of a scrapped rear end and trans. Oh well.
Most of my modification work was done on the frame and drivetrain, so to make things easier, I lifted the body off of the frame. For at least a couple years, the body hung from the ceiling of my garage using straps anchored into the ceiling beams. I did some back of the napkin calculations; it was an adequate structure 🙂