Japanese car manufacture after World War II was initially shaped by regulations that favoured the smallest of cars. Motorcycle maker Honda was keen to move into car production and showed a tiny S360 two-seater concept car at the 1962 Tokyo Motor Show.
Officials decided it was too sporty to merit coveted ‘light car’ status, so Honda recklessly put in a 531 cc engine and launched the 5500 anyway. They were rewarded with good sales figures and pressed on to marginally bigger and better things, introducing the petite S600 in 1964, that contained a brute of a 601 cc motor.
But it didn’t stop there. At the urging of New Zealand racing drivers Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme, Honda upped the power again. The S800 was previewed at the 1965 Tokyo Motor Show and would succeed the very successful 5600 in 1966. The dinky S800 sports car was available in roadster or coupe form, with standard or SM trim levels, and extended the Japanese company’s growing reputation for technical innovation, wringing extraordinary performance and impressive economy from a 791 cc engine.
At first the S800 employed chain drive and independent suspension, but Honda soon switched to a more conventional live rear axle. The next upgrade involved front disc brakes, followed by a major reworking in 1968 aimed at opening up the American market. This involved creating the S800M in an attempt to meet US regulations. This had lean carburetion, dual-circuit brakes, safety glass, reconfigured tail lights, outside marker lights and flush door handles. Amazingly (considering all those massive V8s propelling home-bred American cars), the 5800’s tiny but high-revving engine failed to meet US emission control standards. With entry to the most important export market in the world thus barred, Honda quietly ended manufacture of the 5800 in 1970, after some 11,500 vehicles had built.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
1966 (until 1970)
791 cc Straight Four
Top speed of 97 mph (156 km/h); 0-50 mph (80 km/h) in 9.4 secs
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
The 5800 did its job by establishing Honda’s credentials as an innovative car maker. Following its discontinuation in 1970 – as the company concentrated on motorcycles and conventional passenger cars – there wouldn’t be another Honda sports car for three decades, until the Millennium saw the launch of the S2000.