Jay Leno’s Honda S600 Is a Prime Example of the Marque’s Unique History

Photography by Tim Suddard unless otherwise credited

Do something right the first time and there’s no need to do it over: It’s a philosophy that has served Honda well. In fact, when Honda decided to add automobiles to its lineup in the early 1960s, it skipped over four-door people-movers and other boring options and went right for the enthusiast’s jugular. The result was a remarkable little sports car called the Honda Sports, available in S500, S600 and eventually S800 flavors.

Dimensionally similar to popular small sports cars like the Austin-Healey Sprite, at first glance the Honda S600 is an underdog with a tiny 606cc engine. However, this car’s heart is far from timid, as it spins to a mind-blowing 9500 rpm and cranks out 57 horsepower in the process—and the car came out nearly 50 years ago.

Haven’t I Seen Him on TV?

Jay Leno, star of the “Tonight Show” and hero restorer of lesser-known cars of all shapes and sizes, had been keeping an eye out for a Honda S600 for several years when he stumbled across this 1964 model. He snapped it up without hesitation. 

Although Leno is perhaps best known for the crazier creations in his garage—the jet-powered motorcycle and 29-liter Tank Car come to mind—this little Honda is actually more indicative of his true tastes.

“I have mostly normal, stock, original cars like the Lancia Aureila, Triumph TR3, Jaguar XKE and others,” Leno explains. “It’s the outrageous ones that get the publicity. I like cars that are ahead of their time, in their time. I always respected Hondas—their bikes are legendary.”

The Honda S600 also pushes Leno’s technophile buttons. “The engineering on this car is amazing,” he says. “The chain drive, 9500 rpm redline and overhead valves are all fascinating. If it had a Porsche emblem on it, it would be a million bucks.”

The car’s list of standard features also reeled him in. “The Honda S600 is an amazing value as well,” he continues. “It has roll-up windows, heater, defroster and a bunch of other standard features that were rare at the time.” 

There was one downside, however. “Unfortunately, it was made with Japanese steel, which was not as good back then. These cars tend to rust badly.”

Motorcycle Roots

Considering Honda’s 1960 lineup was entirely composed of motorcycles, it’s no surprise that the brand's first car borrowed heavily from its top-shelf bike technology. The 1962 Honda S360 prototype gave way to the company’s first fully cooked automobile, the 531cc Honda S500. Several of the car’s primary components stood out as a result of their two-wheeled lineage.

Foremost among these was the engine, a tiny four-banger that brought true race technology to the street. Thanks to needle bearing crankshaft journals, twin cams, lightweight pistons and quality construction, this small wonder could spin to nearly 10,000 rpm with absolute reliability. The four Keihin carburetors were tricky to set up, but when properly tuned the engine made nearly 100 horsepower per liter.

A quartet of carburetors feed the small, high-revving, four-cylinder engine. It takes a moment to adjust to a tach that doesn’t redline until nearly 10,000 rpm. The Honda script emblem on the front fenders—unique to the Honda Sports—is a representation of how Soichiro Honda signed his name in English.

The power went to the rear wheels in a rather unconventional way. Downstream of the transmission, the rear differential sent power to a pair of axle stubs. Each of these stubs connected to a sprocket that was encased in a lubricated cartridge, and that sprocket connected via chain drive to another sprocket that drove a rear wheel. These two cartridge assemblies doubled as control arms, giving the Honda Sports a fully independent—and thoroughly unusual—rear suspension.

The S500 evolved into the slightly larger-displacement S600 for 1964, and the series ultimately progressed to the S800 before production stopped in 1970. By that time, the chain drive had given way to a more standard live axle setup. Honda’s Sports series lay dormant for 30 years until the debut of the Honda S2000 roadster at the turn of the millennium.

Leno’s Prerogative

When Leno acquired this 1964 Honda SM600—the M designates a rare upgrade package that included backup lights, radio, side sill protectors and other perks—the car had already been restored. Unfortunately, the job wasn't done correctly. In fact, one day the Honda caught fire while he was driving it.

Leno and his mechanics decided to dig deeper. When they removed the cylinder head, they found that some components were missing. A further teardown revealed that an incorrectly machined engine sleeve was hitting the crankshaft.

In the interest of doing things right, Leno decided to start over and completely re-restore the car. The body was stripped to bare metal and repainted in the SM600-specific bluish-green paint. All the brightwork was redone by Angel’s Metal Polishing, and the interior got the works, too.

The S600 isn’t a large car, but the drop-top allows even the biggest TV star to have enough headroom.

After Leno’s team had completely disassembled and cataloged the car’s components, Honda expert Brian Baker of Formula H Motorworks in New York flew in to assist Jim Hall, one of Leno’s primary mechanics, with the engine rebuild. Formula H specializes in early Hondas, and Baker has an impressive list of connections as well as quite a lot of parts in stock for the Honda Sports series.

A quality parts connection for these cars is critical, Baker explains, since S600 parts fall squarely in the realm of Unobtainium. Fortunately, a few resourceful individuals around the world have gotten into the reproduction of certain small, hard-to-find components like valves and piston rings.

Flowmaster fabricated a special muffler system for the car, and Leno, ever the horsepower addict, had the head ported and polished. Despite chiding from Honda purist Baker, Leno opted to run modern performance carburetors on his car. Baker insists that the stock carbs were understressed to begin with, but he does concede that the new units are easier to keep in tune.

Debut Hit

The fact that the Honda Sports was the company’s first-ever automobile is truly remarkable. The little sports car earned international praise from the automotive press for its engineering and style, and the hair-raising engine note at 9500 rpm is still thrilling to this day. Though there aren’t that many of them cruising around in the States, thanks to Jay Leno there’s at least one terrific example getting regular use in and around Los Angeles.

Leno has fallen in love with the Honda’s on-the-road behavior, too. “It has to be that 9500 rpm redline,” he muses. “So many cars drive the same. There are not many unique driving sensations out there, and the Honda S600 provides one of them. Going 60 mph feels like you're going 100. It's a real blast.”

Next time you’re surrounded by a few dozen Honda Accords in traffic, don’t scoff. Instead, consider their abundance a side effect of Honda’s particularly clever start with a very cool sports car.

 At full throttle near the stratospheric redline, the tiny twin pipes at the back of the Honda S600 emit a sound that few other cars can match. Though it sports all the visual cues of a 1965 model, the title—and the tag—say it’s a 1964.

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Comments
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Karl_M
Karl_M
9/25/20 5:21 p.m.

Great article about a very cool car. I own a LHD ‘66 S600 roadster, and I was reading the story looking for errors, and didn’t find any - you got it right.  Photos convinced me I need those narrow whitewalls! 

wspohn
wspohn Dork
9/26/20 10:15 a.m.

I prefer the S800 which had a driveshaft rather than chain drive. It also had 70 bhp. I prefer the coupe version, although getting in and out would be a slow painful operation if you were a 'mature' owner.

 

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