The Honda Accord, the Nissan Altima, and the Toyota Camry all trace their lineage back to the 1960s, the time period when the family sedan trend started in Japan. The movement was initially led by the Toyota Corona, and the Nissan Bluebird; Honda didn’t enter the picture until a little while later.
For much of the 1960s, Honda focused on building small sports cars and compact city cars called “kei cars” in Japan. As the family sedan segment burgeoned, Honda realized that it would potentially miss a huge opportunity if its lineup didn’t include an alternative to the Bluebird and the Corona. Shortly after the middle of the decade, the company’s engineers started developing what would become the 1300.
Honda founder Soichiro Honda played an important role in the 1300′s development. He had largely made a name for himself and his company by building air-cooled engines, and he insisted that his company’s upcoming family car have an air-cooled engine as well. ”Since water-cooled engines eventually use air to cool the water, we can implement air cooling from the very beginning,” explained Honda to convince the few who dared to disagree with him.
Chief engineer Tadashi Kume had different plans for the car; he thought that air-cooled engines would be problematic in regards to upcoming emission regulations, and that a water-cooled unit was a better way to go.
Kume laid out his case before Honda, but he soon realized that arguing with the man was pointless and left the company altogether. From that point on, nobody got in the boss’ way and it was declared that the car would be air-cooled.
Honda thought that the ideal engine would be an air-cooled unit that was as quiet-running as a water-cooled one. To achieve that, the company designed what it called the Dual Dyna Air Cooling system (DDAC). The cooling fins were shallow and thick, which greatly reduced the amount of noisy vibrations typically associated with other air-cooled engines of the era. A crank-mounted fan pushed the air through passages cast directly into the head and the block, a design that was similar to the one seen on water-cooled engines.
The first prototype of the 1300 was unveiled on October 21st, 1968, at the Akasaka Prince Hotel in Tokyo, Japan. It was powered by a 1300cc four-cylinder engine that was good for 96 horsepower. It had an overhead cam, and the combustion chambers were hemispherical.
“We have developed the Honda 1300 as an international car that can be successfully marketed in every country around the world,” announced an enthusiastic Soichiro Honda.
Behind the scenes Honda was not as pleased, and the car was far from ready to go on sale in Japan, let alone in the rest of the world. Changes to its design were made on a daily basis. The production version of the 1300 made its debut in April of 1969, two months later than expected. The delay was largely caused by Honda himself, who didn’t like the prototype’s styling and worked with his design team to change it. The end product was heavier and longer than the prototype shown in Tokyo, and bore a certain resemblance to the Fiat 124 sedan.
Two versions of the 1300 were initially available. The first was called the 77 Series, and the second the 99 Series. The former had a single Keihin carburetor and was rated at 100 horsepower and 79 lb-ft of torque, while the latter put out 115 horsepower and 87 lb-ft of torque thanks to the use of four carburetors. Both cars were equipped with a four-speed manual transmission that spun the front wheels.
The two models were easy to tell apart at a glance: the 77 had square lights, and the 99 round lights. Each model was split up into several trim levels, including Deluxe, S-Type, Custom, and Standard.
The motoring press praised the 1300′s free-revving engine, its well-built and well-equipped interior and its comfortable suspension. Unfortunately, the rest of the car was far less endearing. The numerous modifications made at the very last minute equated to a design that was often judged as being not particularly well thought-out. A big issue was that the engine was too heavy, leading to severe understeer and rapid tire wear. Some claimed that the problem could be remedied by simply increasing the pressure in the tires, but Japanese car buyers were put off by the idea.
Honda introduced an aerodynamic coupe based on the 1300 in 1970. It was offered with the same engines found in the 1300 lineup, but the two versions were rechristened Coupe 7, and Coupe 9. Like the sedan, the coupe was fairly modern and offered a decent amount of standard equipment for the price; the 9 even featured three-point seatbelts. With the good comes the bad, and the coupes suffered from the same design faults as the sedan. Neither version caught on with buyers, though some people raced them in Japan and in Australia.
Discouraged by the 1300′s poor sales in its home country, Honda decided not to export it to major markets like Europe and the United States. The car ended up costing the Japanese automaker a small fortune.
Honda’s founder ended up doing what many thought was impossible: he admitted he was wrong and agreed to fit the 1300 with a 1,433 water-cooled four-cylinder engine in November of 1972. The engine was lighter and more efficient than the air-cooled one found in the 1300.
To avoid any association with the old model, the car was renamed the 145 (a reference to the displacement of its engine), but it was essentially the same car, save for a slightly redesigned front end, and a revamped interior. Like the 1300 the 145 was also available as a coupe, which could be ordered with fuel injection.
By the time the 145 was introduced, Honda’s lineup had grown to include the Civic. Its sales quickly grew and the little car became popular all around the world, which provided the company with an ample supply of cash. The slow-selling 1300/145 cars were put to death in 1973 and tossed away in a dark corner of the pantheon of automotive history.
(Honda’s archives were incredibly helpful in writing this article)