The Honda N600 and Z600 [Archive]
Honda's First Cars Presented On The World Stage, And What They Led Up To.
The Japanese and American domestic markets are vastly different, and to say they’re two ends of a spectrum may be an understatement. On one side, there are incredibly particular regulations to make smaller cars, ones that save gas and take up less space on the road, more enticing to buyers. On the other, gas prices aren’t a huge issue, and to the average buyer, bigger is better. I’m sure you can guess which is which, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating when these two markets meet halfway.
But before we witness the crossover, we need a quick history lesson:
In 1949, the Japanese government wanted to support their growing car industry, but being in the post-war era made that tricky. While America was living large and enjoying the spoils of war, Japan was still recovering from its devastating loss. At the time, some families could scrape together enough money for a motorbike, but not a motorcar.
So, the Kei car (or “light” car) regulations were put into place, which limited the maximum size (9.8ft long and 4.3ft wide) and engine capacity (360cc), which helped with lowering emissions and making city parking easier (with the sprawling population of Japan packed into incredibly dense cities, easier parking was a big plus). And, on top of those added benefits, buyers would be rewarded with tax and insurance breaks.
Fast forward to 1969. Honda is now a major player in Japan’s domestic automotive industry. What started as a motorcycle company, now was a leader in Kei car sales (though by then, the Kei car appeal had significantly died down in favor of small passenger cars like the Toyota Corona and Nissan Bluebird). But now, after having exported their motorbikes for years, Honda automotive was ready to make their move onto the world stage.
Thus, the Honda N600 got shipped overseas to Hawaii in 1969, with plans to export there exclusively, but ended up exporting to the West Coast in 1970.
The N600 (which shared some styling similarities with the original Mini) was a beefier version of the N360 Kei car, though not by much. Rather than having a government-regulated 360cc engine, the N600 had a... well... 600cc engine. Cars exported from Japan to America didn’t have to follow the same rules and could get away with the extra displacement.
The N600 wasn’t a massive success, even in Japan, despite being marketed as a better version of the Beetle (which was true in many ways). In Japan, the N600 didn’t meet Kei car regulations, which meant buyers would have no real incentive to purchase it over the N360. And in 70s America, being a small car with low fuel consumption wasn’t exactly a good selling point. It was incredibly cheap and tried to cash in on the small car craze, but it never did.
Yet another Honda came to America, on the same boat as the N600, in 1970:
The Honda Z600
Marketed as the “sports coupe” version of the N600, the Z600 churned out 36 horsepower (7 more than the N600) and achieved a top speed of 75mph (3mph faster than the N600). The differences between the two are quite small, though the difference in price was substantial. The N600 was sold for around $1,300 while the Z600 was sold at about 1,600. By today’s standards, that’s a $2000 difference, for some changes to the bodywork that made the car a little bigger (and look like an inflated AMC Gremlin... if you squint).
Unsurprisingly, the Z was considered underpowered, especially while American and European automakers were introducing the Vauxhall Firenza (3x as powerful) and the Chevy Monte Carlo (7x as powerful).
Another cause for alarm was the engine itself, which was incredibly noisy and managed to shake the car despite its size. Flogging the car could be fun, in the same way driving a go-kart is fun today, but the two cylinders would be screaming and kicking the entire time. The two pistons were mounted in parallel to each other, pumping up and down and up and down in perfect unison, which was the key contributor to the car shaking at idling speed.
So, without the pedigree of being Honda’s first car exported to the US, and with only just enough power to handle the American highway system, and with a heftier price tag, more Americans leaned towards purchasing the N over the Z. But I wouldn’t call either of them a commercial success.
Both cars never made it past 1972. But in 1973, a much more important car was released and ready to take the world by storm: The Honda Civic
The First Generation Honda Civic, Which Debuted In 1973.
While the N600 and Z600 didn't impact the world all that much, they paved the way for a car that would. The Civic ended up being one of the most innovative cars of its time, managing to meet America’s new, and quite vigorous Clean Air Act without a clunky catalytic converter. It was a bold move on Honda's part to reinvent the wheel... or individual piston combustion system, but it proved to be a viable technology for cars as America dove head-first into the oil crisis.
That all begs the question: if Honda had decided to stick with exporting motorcycles and keep the cars to themselves, would the Civic have ever been built? Maybe eventually, but I'd like to think the N600 and Z600 gave Honda a platform.