In the 1960s, Japanese cars were seen as conservative, technically outdated and of low quality. This was fair criticism, given that the car industry in Japan only took off in the aftermath of the Second World War and was focused more on getting people back on their feet, rather than outright quality. The car that changed this perception though was the Honda S800.
By this time, Honda had established itself as a quality motorcycle manufacturer. As a logical progression for a firm which was driven by technical innovation, Honda made its first sports car, the S500 in 1962 – this was replaced by the S600 two years later in 1964. These cars were mainly for its home market and did not receive a lot of appreciation globally. The Honda S800 however buckled this trend.
Produced between 1966 and 1970, the S800 came with a 791 cc, 4-cylinder DOHC engine. It was a development of one of Honda’s motorcycle engines and revved to an astonishing 10,000 rpm, putting out 70 hp. The high specific output of the engine was helped by hemispherical combustion chambers, a crankshaft with roller bearings and four carburettors. The Honda S800 was also very light at 782 kg, becoming the first Honda to breach the 100 mph mark. As high tech as the engine was, the rest of the car was quite simply designed. Early cars had chain final drives and independent rear suspensions, but this was soon replaced with a live rear axle and front disc brakes. The chassis was a simple body on frame setup.
The car could be had in both coupe and cabriolet body styles. With over 11,406 units produced successfully in Europe and after certain modifications to meet regulations, in America as well. While the Honda S800 was not as engaging to drive as its European competitors, such as the Austin-Healey Sprite, MG Midget, Triumph Spitfire and Fiat 850 Spider of its time, it was the car’s simplicity, lively engine, clean European design influence and a small footprint that made it successful in these export markets.
The S800 was the last of Honda’s S models for the next 30 years. The next car to bear this name was the S2000 of 1999. But this does not take away anything from the significance of the S800. It changed the West’s perception of Japanese cars for good. More pertinently, it provided a glimpse into the superior technological prowess that would become a hallmark for all Hondas in the coming decades. This particular example here is a 1967 model that went under the hammer at Artcurial’s Automobiles sur les champs 11 auction on Nov 5, 2017.