Soichiro Honda built a global car company out of WWII surplus. His first car, the S600, and his last, the Beat, show how he did it.
Jan 19, 2024 at 12:00pm ET
In 1946, at age 40, Soichiro Honda founded his second company. The company which bore his name built motorized bicycles using World War II surplus generator engines. Three years later, Honda built its first completely original motorcycle, the Dream Type D. From there, the company became a powerhouse. By 1964 — just 18 years after that first motorized bicycle — Honda became the world’s leading motorcycle manufacturer by volume, entered its first Formula 1 race, and launched its first global four-wheeled vehicle: the S600 sports roadster, seen here on the left.
In the decade after the S600’s launch, Honda flourished as its cars were sold in more and more countries, including the fickle-but-lucrative American market. Soichiro Honda formally retired from Honda Motor Co. in the 70s, but remained directly involved in his company’s product planning until his passing in 1991 at the age of 84. The final project he approved in his lifetime can be seen here on the right: the mid-engined, Pininfarina-bodied 1991 Honda Beat, which went to market shortly before Honda-san’s death.
These two machines bookend the legacy of a man who changed the automotive industry permanently. Driving these cars back-to-back reveals that despite decades of shifting tastes, emissions standards, and safety guidelines, Soichiro Honda never forgot about the most important element of a sports car: the driver.
The S600 followed in the footsteps of Honda’s T360 work truck and the S500 sports car, both Japan-only limited-production models. Honda’s third road car proved more ambitious: it would be sold across the world and target higher production numbers.
By the time the S600 launched in 1964, Honda was a successful motorcycle manufacturer with the ability to build high-performance engines in house. As Soichiro Honda himself had been an avid racing driver in his youth, he wanted his company’s cars to be fun to drive, vehicles which emphasized free-breathing, high-revving engines like those found in Honda’s motorbikes.
As such, the S600 was remarkably advanced for a first stab at a mass-production car. A 606cc dual-overhead-cam inline-four sat longitudinally in the engine bay, fueled by a quartet of Keihin carburetors. The motor was water-cooled with an aluminum block and full-length headers; it was no tractor engine plopped into a convertible.
It didn’t drive like one, either. The S600 produced 57 horsepower (which calculates out to 94 horsepower a liter — not bad for 1964) on its way to an absurd 9,500 RPM redline. Thanks to a sub-1,600-lb. curb weight, the S600’s power-to-weight was on par with British roadsters of the era, despite the diminutive engine.
The rest of the S600’s drivetrain was just as innovative, albeit not as refined. Power routed to the rear wheels via a four-speed, fully synchronized manual transmission… and a final chain drive at each wheel. This novel design was the one component of the S600 that revealed Honda’s roots as a motorcycle manufacturer. Though the chain drive was less civilized than a traditional solid rear axle, it did allow for a fully independent rear suspension that preserved camber under compression — another rarity for affordable 60s sports cars.
Despite concessions to affordability, the S600 proved an impressive first entry to the global sports car market. It was up to that market to decide whether Honda’s fledgling automobile business would succeed.
Of course, there’s no surprise reveal. The S600 succeeded and helped launch Honda Motor Company into a global automotive powerhouse. The Honda Beat bowed 27 years after the S600, in 1991, and to say that Honda had set the stage for its arrival is an understatement. Acura—the first luxury marque from a Japanese manufacturer— launched in 1986. Shortly thereafter, the Ferrari-benchmarking mid-engined NSX was released, and immediately became a darling of critics and buyers alike for its exotic performance and everyday reliability. By 1991, Honda was at the peak of its dominance in F1, about to win its sixth straight Constructors’ Championship and fifth straight Drivers’ Championship as an engine supplier. Soichiro Honda had built his humble motorized bicycle company into one of the most respected vehicle manufacturers in the world, and he had a case full of trophies to prove it.
The Beat, therefore, wasn’t intended to take on the world. Instead, it was envisioned as a specialty car for Honda’s home market in Japan, sold in the kei class. Kei cars are vehicles that meet diminutive size and displacement regulations in order to receive tax benefits. In 1990, Japan modernized its kei regulations. The new regs allowed larger physical dimensions (cars could now be about 4” longer, for a total length of 130 inches), with engine displacement boosted 20 percent, from 550cc to 660cc. Within a year of the law’s change, brand-new purpose-built kei sports cars hit Japanese streets.
The Beat was Honda’s stab at a sporting roadster to fit within these new rules. Its body lines came courtesy of Italian design house Pininfarina. The design stretched the Beat’s wheelbase as long as possible (the Beat is 129.7 inches fore to aft, and Pininfarina managed to make 90 of those inches wheelbase). A naturally-aspirated 656cc three-cylinder with an indicated redline of 8,500 rpm — but fuel cut well over 9,000 RPM — sat behind the driver and sent power to the rear wheels. The Beat was exclusively equipped with a five-speed manual, and a gentlemens’ agreement between Japanese manufacturers limited the engine’s horsepower to 63 and reined in the cars’ top speed to 87 MPH, although the Beat with the limiter removed can almost touch 100.
It was sold solely as a convertible, and delivered to customers via Honda’s Primo dealerships in Japan. The Japanese bubble economy burst in 1992 just after the Beat’s launch, which cut short its chances of becoming a major success; as a result, Honda sold just over 33,000 examples before discontinuing the model entirely just five years after its introduction in 1996. Honda-san died shortly after the Beat’s launch in 1991. He was 84 years old.
To explore the bookends of Soichiro’s life, I drove both cars — a well-loved 1965 S600 and an even-more-well-loved 1991 Beat — back-to-back on a quick test loop around Washington’s Puget Sound.
At first glance, the S600 reminds one of the British roadsters it aimed to compete with. I found the minimalist cabin and its vinyl seats visually pleasing, but as a 1,576-lb. car, there wasn’t much weight wasted on ornamentation (or sound insulation). My head brushed against the optional removable hardtop and I had to lean down to view traffic lights. This was unsurprising for a car with a 78.7-inch wheelbase and 47.2 inches of overall height; the S600 is tiny.
My hands were greeted with a massive wooden steering wheel to lever the unboosted steering rack. That rather daunting wheel combined with the (finned!) drum brakes at each corner meant I wasn’t planning to get too brave with this 59-year-old machine.
At least, that was the plan. Below about 4500 rpm, the S600’s engine feels pretty gutless, but its character changes drastically once the 5000-rpm mark ticks by. By 7,000 rpm, the cabin is buzzing, the 606-cc. engine screaming; I glanced down again and again at the tachometer, expecting the need for a shift, but no, the engine had 2,500 RPM left to give and it was still pulling hard. The climb to redline in this car feels unbelievable; the only modern analog I’ve ever experienced is, appropriately, the Honda S2000, and that still taps out 500 RPM earlier than the S600.
When I finally hit the 9,500 RPM redline and shifted to third gear, I was even more pleasantly surprised. The transmission, somehow, was still as mechanically precise as modern Honda gearboxes are. Every Honda I’ve ever driven with a manual gearbox has a fantastic throw, the platonic ideal of rowing your own gears. It turns out that’s been the case ever since the first Honda sports car left the factory.
The S600 as an overall package wasn’t perfected, equipped as it was with a rudimentary chassis, chain-drive axles moaning horrifying noises from time to time — but its drivetrain was a thing of beauty, one that encouraged me to drive it hard. Compared to the industrial-feeling power plants under the hoods of contemporary MGs and Triumphs, the S600’s twin-cam four-cylinder belonged in another league entirely. Somehow it was Honda’s first try.
Despite the constraints of kei car dimensions, the Beat feels remarkably similar to the S600; the cars are within two-tenths of an inch of each other in overall length and width. The 27-year-newer Beat leverages 50 more cubic centimeters of displacement and one fewer cylinder than its elder, but output is only up by six horsepower. The biggest differences, of course, are the 90s-looking interior plastics, zebra-striped cloth seats (standard equipment!), and the engine’s placement behind the driver.
In motion, the Beat’s drivetrain is just as joyful as the S600’s. The Beat’s more-modern dashboard vibrates less as the 0.6-liter rockets towards 9,000 RPM, but that’s the only notable difference. Scoop-style intakes directly beneath my ears funnel induction noise into the cabin; the exhaust still resonates with the high-strung buzz that’s the trademark of a naturally-aspirated Honda. The transmission, like the S600, was also a virtually-perfect affair, with short throws and taut engagement. Every positive sensation of the S600 is replicated here. The Beat’s drivetrain benefits from electronic fuel injection and more advanced material science, for sure, but on a Sunday pleasure drive, I began to feel like the S600 and the Beat could have been contemporaries.
That notion faded the moment I threw the Beat into a corner.
All of the weaknesses of the S600 were contained within its chassis. It was an incredible first attempt at a sports car, with a drivetrain that felt like the work of an established marque, but the body and suspension were solidly like a relic of the MG B era — fun, but vague and unrefined. The Beat cures all of that.
Its steering feels tack-sharp. The short gearing means that despite the lack of power, in second gear on wet pavement, the slightest bit of steer-by-throttle is made possible. The Beat is tuned so expertly, a Miata feels cumbersome by comparison. I wanted to buy one after I drove it; I can’t imagine having more fun on a daily commute short of riding a Honda motorcycle to the office.
At the end of my day with this duo, I learned Honda built good motors from day one. Same goes for its nearly perfect manual transmissions. Obviously, the Beat represents 27 years of progress since the S600, and the driving experience is commensurately improved.
What surprised me was how Honda drastically improved its cars without getting boring. So many manufacturers update their cars with new technology and in doing so, strip away the things that made them enjoyable to begin with; look to Nissan’s GT-R or Toyota’s Supra as examples. The Beat, meanwhile, felt every bit as visceral and fun as the S600, while eliminating the older car’s weaknesses.
Soichiro Honda understood that if you satisfy the person behind the wheel, you’ll have built a perfect machine. The S600 proves he understood that from day one. The Beat proves he never forgot that lesson. Together, the pair are joyous evidence of a career well-spent and a life well-lived.
Gallery: 1991 Honda Beat + 1965 Honda S600