It is has been demonstrated that after a destructive forest fire, there is generally a wealth of new growth. Similarly, some of the great names in the motor industry grew out of the ashes of international conflict. Now the world’s largest manufacturer of internal combustion engines, Honda started life just about a year after the detonation of two rather large bombs ravaged the company’s Japanese homeland at the end of World War II. With a group of a dozen men making 50cc motors to bolt on to bicycles, former automobile mechanic Soichiro Honda founded the Honda Technical Research Institute in 1946. The Honda Motor Company was officially incorporated in 1948.
When it comes to cars, the Honda Civic and Accord seem nearly as ubiquitous on American highways today as Volkswagen Beetle and Bus once were. Furthermore, now that the Japanese seem to have figured out rust-proofing and crash protection, they maintain a reputation for high-quality cars that the Germans wish they still had more than Alsace-Lorraine. American car manufacturers that have been in business nearly a century or more now struggle to achieve the success of their Asian counterparts (and the British still lament the loss of their motorcycle industry to the same rivals). It has only been fifty years since Honda put its first automobile into production, the T360, in the summer of 1963. By 1964, they were already racing cars in Formula One.
The company first “car” was actually not a car at all, but a small truck. Fitting into Japan’s “Kei” class of small-displacement compact vehicles, the T360 was diminutive but rather happy looking. You’d almost expect to find a nest of them huddled together under a clump of grass in the back yard while the mother was off delivering crates of apples. Developing a mere 30 horsepower at a screaming 8,500 rpm, its 356cc four-cylinder was a far cry from the 3.5L, 250 horsepower V6 Ridgeline pickup of today. That being said, the T360’s engine was really quite advanced. It featured dual overhead cams and four individual carburetors. Interestingly for Honda at the time, it was also water-cooled. The unit was mounted flat and drove the rear wheels via a 4-speed transmission – capable of pushing the truck to 60 mph (just under 100 Km/h). The T500 was the 360’s hot-rodded 492cc brother. The ‘500’ engine eventually got a bump up to 531cc and boasted an 8 horsepower advantage over the ‘360’. The most distinguishing exterior feature between the two vehicles was their paint – the 360 in a quite industrial looking light blue, and the 500 in fairly clinical light green.
The trucks beat Honda’s first true car into production by two months. The S500 (or “Sports 500”) roadster shared the T500’s engine but was tuned to produce 44 horsepower. Honda had initially planned to release, and already exhibited to much fanfare, a 360cc version of the “S” in 1962, but instead waited and focused on the larger displacement variant. The S500 featured fully independent front and rear suspension – still quite novel on a road car at the time – yet it’s rear wheels were driven by chain in a decidedly bike-like fashion. The car, like it’s T-series relatives, was quite small and weighed a mere 1500lbs. It was also attractive looking – dare one say, almost Italianate – with clean lines and tasteful chrome accents. The S500 never sold very well but it eventually gave way to the similar S600 and S800 sports cars which enjoyed greater success.
Honda’s earliest ventures into automobile production yielded two distinctly different sorts of vehicles. While they would go on to produce a fairly varied range, the company’s biggest success in the four-wheeled market would come from cars that were of a more practical nature than the “S” roadsters and more appealing to a wider audience than a compact city-truck. It was not until 1967 that the “N” series passenger cars were released, followed by the “Z” series, the 1300, and eventually the venerable Civic. By 1984, when Honda had been producing cars for just two decades, the last car wearing the badge of the old English marque Triumph rolled off the assembly line. The Acclaim, as it was known, was little more than an slightly up-market Honda Civic, but that, of course, is another story.
All images are from period Honda Motor Company press photos and brochures.