A Japanese 791-c.c. Twin-cam Roller-bearing Sports Car which accelerates like an M.G.-B, is very well equipped, and sells here for less than £780
Caption: Conventional appearance of the Honda S800 sports car (also available as a hard-top) conceals a remarkable advanced specification giving exhilarating performance.
Honda, a name respected in Europe on account of successes in motorcycle racing if not yet by dominance of Grand Prix car races, caused a sensation when they announced a new small sports car, of just over 790 c.c., but with a twin-cam roller-bearing power unit capable of sustained crankshaft speeds previously unheard of from production cars. I have now been able to drive one of these Honda S800s in England and the verdict must be that it is fascinating, fast for its size, very nicely equipped, and the greatest possible fun for those who are not too senile to tolerate some noise and a lively ride in return for excellent acceleration and quick sports-car handling.
The basis of this Honda S800 is a proper box-section chassis with a rigid back axle, having wishbone and torsion-bar i.f.s. and coil-springs and twin trailing arms at the back, and a water-cooled light-alloy 4-cylinder, 60 x 70-mm. (791 c.c.) twin-cam engine inclined at 45 deg. at the front of the car, driving through a 6½-in. Fujikagaku diaphragm-clutch and an all-synchromesh all-indirect gearbox giving four speeds and reverse, to a 4.7-to-1 hypoid-bevel final drive.
The engine has a roller-bearing crankshaft and develops 70 (S.A.E.) b.h.p. at no less than 8,000 r.p.m., with a maximum torque of 48½ lb. ft. at 6,000 r.p.m., or considerably higher than the safe rev. limit of many production power units.
The two-seater body, obtainable in soft-top or coupé forms, is of steel. Steering is by rack-and-pinion, braking by non-servo disc/ribbed drum brakes, the front ones being Sumatomo. The 12-volt electrical equipment is charged by a 300-watt Nippon Denso alternator, the test car was shod with British Dunlop SP3 145 x 13 tubed radial-ply tyres, and there are six grease points to attend to every 6,000 miles.
The sump needs fresh oil at 3,000-mile intervals. It holds 6½pints of lubricant, the gearbox 3.9 pints, the back axle 1.4 pints, while the engine coolant capacity, heater included, is 10 pints. Two keys suffice for all locks, the larger one having enamel inserts. The car comes with a good handbook, in English. The guarantee is for 12 months/12,000 miles. Reversing lamps are a standard fitting and there is full undersealing.
Much of the fun of trying a Japanese car is the unusual equipment encountered. The Honda has, for instance, two twin-choke Keihin carburetters, a Mitsuba electric fuel pump, Stanley lamps, Toya radiator, Vuas-a battery and 12-mm. N.G.K. sparking plugs. The test car had Britax seat-belts, which are an extra. The screen is of laminated glass.
In appearance the Honda S800 is chunky and attractive, of conventional sports-car form. The 13-in. tyres look quite big in relation to the body; the grille, with the turn-indicator lights set in it, is rather plain seen from a distance, as from another car. The turn-indicators are powerful and the hood has transparent panels which make for fairly good rearwards visibility.
Until the performance potential of the Honda S800 is appreciated, there is a tendency to compare it to the B.M.C. Sprite or Midget. These cost on average £101 less than the Honda; the Triumph Spitfire costs £62 less. But the Honda is priced the same, whether in soft- or hard-top form. I have tried to be fair to British cars and after my impressions of the Japanese product a colleague comments on a comparison between the B.M.C. and Honda small sports models. But it must be remembered that the remarkable little S800 accelerates to 60 m.p.h. and goes over a s.s. ¼-mile about as fast as an M.G.-B, which costs £140 more than the much smaller-engined car from Tokyo.
On the Road
Getting into (or out of) the Honda S800 does not prove too difficult, even with the hood up. The driver finds a bucket seat easy to adjust fore-and-aft, with a very shallow, hard cushion and non-adjustable, unshaped backrest, pedals nicely close to the floor but biased to the o/s because of the transmission tunnel, and a low seating position which is offset by the very prominent sighting-lines afforded by the front wings, which have a bead of plating along them. The small “power-bulge” before the driver does not interfere with vision. Although the seat feels hard and unsupporting, I found it quite comfortable in 200 miles of pretty continuous driving.
The 15-in. dia. wood-rim steering wheel is low set and from the slender part of the carpeted transmission tunnel which divides the driving compartment rises the little slender-knobbed, well-positioned gear-lever, which has commendably short movements. This provides quick, very precise control over a gearbox with well-spaced ratios, but the action is a bit notchy and synchromesh can very definitely become non-existent when snapping from 3rd into 2nd gear. The gears are quiet and reverse is easily engaged by lifting the lever and thrusting it beyond the bottom-gear location. The clutch is apt to be sudden and even to come in with a bang when making racing starts, but reasonable care will ensure a smooth take-off. The engine starts immediately, cold or hot, needing momentary choke in the former state. It makes a most intriguing howl and underlines the outstanding feature of this Honda S800, its capacity for very high revs. The tachometer is red-sectored from a remarkable 8,500 to 11,000 r.p.m. It is perfectly permissible to go to eight-five or over in the gears in normal driving and in top at Britain’s legal maximum speed, which is fairly easily reached on ordinary roads, the engine is turning at around 6,000 r.p.m.; even observing the town speed-limit the little 791-cc. power unit is doing 2,500 r.p.m. Yet it is by no means fussy at low speeds. Power comes in at around 3,000 r.p.m. and it is better to drop down a gear rather than slog at under 2,000 r.p.m. But the neutral idling speed of 1,000 r.p.m. caused no trouble and the engine is then almost inaudible; it picks up cleanly from any reasonable speed and is wonderfully smooth right “into the red.” It is quite the most covetable small-car power unit I can think of! Taking it to 9,000 r.p.m. gives lower-gear maxima of 31, 51 and 75 m.p.h. Normally, around 7,000 r.p.m. suffices, but really high revs, produce the splendid Honda yowl!
Photograph caption: Inclined all-alloy, twin-overhead camshaft engine delivers 70 b.h.p. from 800 c.c. The engine, which is fitted with two twin-choke carburetters, will run satisfactorily up to 9,000 r.p.m.
I was just going to criticise the designer for not providing an oil-gauge with such a fast-turning engine when I remembered that this is a racing-type roller-bearing unit which will operate safely at very low oil-feed pressures. Incidentally, another unusual item is a separate dipstick for the gearbox. Typically Honda, both these accessible dipsticks are marked with contents at upper and lower level-markings.
It is only when you measure the Honda’s acceleration that the performance of this very willing smallest-capacity sports car is fully appreciated, the more so when it is realised that, laden, it weighs over 19 cwt. That it can give an M.G.-B a very good run for its money is impressive, coupled with a top speed of 95 m.p.h. in spite of the low gearing which the high-revving engine makes feasible. It has to be admitted, however, that the penalty is rather heavy fuel consumption, fast driving bringing this down to 26 m.p.g., my average under varied conditions being 27.8 m.p.g. On the other hand, before this is condemned too hastily, it must be explained that the fabulous Honda engine, for all its racing pedigree, asks for no better than two-star petrol in spite of a 9.2-to-1 c.r. and very good breathing. Indeed, I found it quite happy on the cheapest grade of Total, and moderate motoring, including London traffic, will produce better than 29 m.p.g.
As to its manner of running, the Honda S800 is much as other small sports cars. The noise level from the twin exhaust pipes or from the twin carburetters, which have a big box-like silencer. is not too bad, even with the hood up, the ride is very good for the size of car over all but disgraceful roads, when the back axle can transmit upward kicks of some severity, but, far more noticeable, the steering wheel then plays-back viciously. This kick or rocking on the wheel is never really non-existent and can reach very pronounced proportions over rough surfaces. It seems to be encouraged by some scuttle shake.
As for handleability, the Honda sticks down very well indeed, on wet as well as dry roads, understeering mildly, the quick, accurate steering, geared a mere 2½ turns, lock-to-lock, with hardly a trace of free-play, making it a very pleasing, as well as essentially safe, car for fast driving, in traffic as well as open-road conditions. There is no need for me to tell Motor Sport’s readers of the way in which a sports two-seater seems somehow to handle better and feel more responsive than a saloon of equivalent size and power, and anyway this is difficult to convey in words — go out and drive a car like this Honda and you will know what I am trying to say. In the case of the S800 this eagerness and responsiveness is enhanced by its definite individuality, through being made so far away, and because it has an engine that not only sounds and runs like something out of a motor race but which develops real power into the bargain.
Yet in spite of its quick steering, good road-clinging, and brakes which I couldn’t fault, Insurance Companies will frown on this safe and likeable little car; Honda have their own insurance arrangements and how some of the rates operate is shown in an accompanying panel. Turning to the fittings and controls, these are of high quality and very practical. The hood, 100% rain-excluding, folds into the well behind the seats and can be erected from the driving seat, being secured to the screen by three toggles, with locating peg in the centre one. The “weaker sex” found this peg hard to engage. They were also apt to regard the ride as too hard over bad going — even so, they would hardly “put the Honda down,” regarding it as the ideal open car. There are glass windows in the doors, the winders taking four full turns. With the hood erect, as it so often will be in Britain, the interior of the Honda gets very warm, and even with the blower on (it is horribly noisy at full speed) there is nothing one can do about it, except put up with draughts from the partially-lowered windows. Fully lowered there is not too much draught, but this is a car that might benefit from openable quarter-lights.
There is a lockable cubby-hole (it will not take a Rolleiflex) and instead of a parcel’s tray by the gear-lever, this is located on the shelf behind the seats. The fact that the S800 is a sports car is apparent when the lockable boot lid is lifted (it has to be manually released), because in spite of the spare wheel living in a wind-down tray beneath the floor, the petrol tank occupies so much of the boot space that even a medium-size suitcase will not allow the lid to close. The black-matt facia carries a small “real” 3½-in. dia. tachometer and matching 120-m.p.h. speedometer, made by Denso, properly calibrated, the latter with decimal total-and-trip mileage recorders. The speedometer was accurate to 50 m.p.h., then characteristically optimistic, reading 72 at 70 m.p.h., for instance. The odometer was optimistic. All controls and warning lights are very neatly named in full, in English, as to their purpose, except the heater knob, which is lettered “H.” To the left of the main dials are the fuel gauge and a combined thermometer and “ampere” meter, for former recording just below or just above 180 deg. F., according to air temperature. The fuel gauge is steady-reading but most exasperating, inasmuch as the needle sinks to “E,” rising for a time under hard acceleration, but suggesting that the tank is nearly empty when over 80 miles’ supply remains. The absolute range was 268 miles, suggesting that more than the maker’s 7.7 gallons can be got into the tank. The quick-action filler is ideally placed for filling from a can and can be locked from the side.
Photograph caption: Neat, well-laid-out facia panel has sensible and legible instruments, and a very comfortable driving position is a good feature of the Honda. AII controls are clearly labelled and even the dip-sticks are calibrated,
The horn is sounded by a long flick-switch protruding from the right-hand side of the facia and working in both directions, the idea being that it can be used without taking a hand from the wheel whether this is being turned left or right. This is a good idea, providing one is an accurate finger-prodder. The same applies to lamps’ dipping (or dimming, as Honda term it), because the switch is on the facia, beside the lamps’-selection switch. The l.h. stalk controlling the turn-indicators, or pulled in, flashing the headlamps, is very well placed. The crash-padding before the passenger is moulded to incorporate a hand-hold, but there is a dangerously-projecting catch on the cubby-hole lid.
I had no occasion to try the heater but its controls are neat, and again precisely labelled, but the only temperature-variant is a tap under the bonnet. Heat can be selective, on the o/s or n/s of the car. Reverting to the hood, there is a cover for it when it has been folded and there is a detachable tinted wind-deflector to attach to the windscreen when the car is open. A visor is fitted on the driver’s side, not always found in open cars. The central console below the facia contains a pull-out ash-tray, space for a radio, and the knob for the 3-speed heater fan. A separate metal panel carries the choke, 2-speed wipers’-cum-powerful washers’ knob, and the lamps’ switches. There is a hand-brake warning light on the main facia and the big central frameless mirror is mounted on a vertical wire and can be slid up or down it after a wing-nut has been slackened. There is also a door-level external mirror. The doors have plastic “pulls” and effective keeps. The slender, plated hand-brake is very conveniently located on the right of the transmission tunnel and works effectively. The bonnet is self-propping but has to be manually released. The test car’s tyres were at 20 lb./sq. in.; for high-speed work they should be inflated to 24 lb. Even so, the ride became impossibly choppy on real cross-country going.
In a distance of 650 miles the sump required 2/3 of a pint of oil. Castrolite being recommended. The gearbox needed no oil. Nothing went wrong with this enjoyable little motor car, although the starter-ring sounded as if it had at some time been abused, like using the starter with the engine running, rough roads produced a thump on the o/s rear as if the exhaust pipe was hammering the chassis, and a trace of exhaust fumes was noticeable with the hood up, there being, perhaps, some connection between these two shortcomings. The Japanese cannot be accused of copying us over the Honda S800, because if it is in the Spridget class, its exciting light-alloy, rollerbearing, twin-cam engine is much more attractive than an iron pushrod power unit. Some people may rate the Honda a toy; if so, it is a very enjoyable and satisfying toy! — W.B.
Photograph caption: Not big enough even for a medium-size suitcase, the Honda’s boot is more suited for soft baggage. But it is, after all, a sports car and a pocket should perhaps be sufficient tor the tooth-brush, lipstick, and whatever that overnight travellers may need …