UK’s rarest cars: 1972 Honda N600 Hondamatic, the sole survivor on British roads

The diminutive N600 wasn't Honda's first car but it epitomised the integrity of Japanese engineering and the importance of reliability

1972 Honda N600 Hondamatic owned by Jane Weitzmann
Small wonder: the N600 was cheaper than a Mini 1000 and spearheaded Honda's drive to become a major car manufacturer

In 1968 the British motoring press was intrigued by a front-wheel-drive, transverse-engined four-seater that was faster, more economical and, at £589, cheaper than the mechanically similar Mini 1000.

Fifty-two years later, it is easy to understand why Jane Weitzmann’s Honda N600 attracts so much attention: “Members of the public tend to reminisce about either having one or neighbours having one. Whether they remember it being a Honda or just another small ‘Japanese mini’ I am not sure,” she says.

The original N360 debuted in 1966 as Honda’s entry into the “Kei class” market – between 1955 and 1965 Japanese cars with engines smaller than 360cc attracted lower rates of insurance and road tax, and similarly diminutive cars still enjoy special status in Japan’s crowded cities today.

However, the company’s management regarded 354cc as unsuitable for many overseas markets, not least the vast potential of the USA. Their response was the 1967 N600, which featured a twin-cylinder, 599cc overhead-cam, light alloy engine as well as disc brakes at the front.

The first Honda four-wheeler available in the UK was the S800 sports car, with sales commencing in February 1967, while the N600 went in display at that year’s London Motor Show.  

The equipment was good when compared with rivals of the time. The two-pedal version cost £90 more than the £589 manual gearbox model

The advertisements boldly stated: “If you’ve just bought a new small car, this will break your heart,” and “Put your foot down and you command a top speed of over 80mph.” As for standard equipment: “Extras? The N600 doesn’t believe in them.”

The Honda also featured several thoughtful touches such as reversing lamps and the “trapdoor” fresh air vents beneath the facia.

Weitzmann also points out how the release for the fuel filler is a pull-out catch hidden in the passenger door frame.

The N600 became available to the British public in late 1968, but some were unconvinced of its merits. Aside from grumbles in Liptons grocery stores about a neighbour taking delivery of “one of those Japanese cars” there were also complaints about the Honda’s noise levels. F1 champion Graham Hill even ranted in The Daily Telegraph magazine: “What a terrible little motor car! If this one costs more than the Mini, they must be joking.”

A 599cc, twin-cylinder engine replaced the original 354cc unit for export markets. Front disc brakes were standard

However, Car magazine thought the handling inferior to its BLMC rival but concluded: “So long as it holds its price at the current level it is bound to present a very considerable challenge.”

Production ceased in 1972, and this late-model example is thought to be the only remaining British model fitted with the optional Hondamatic transmission. This extra added £90 to the N600’s price, but as the brochure stated, it took “the strain out of today’s congested traffic problems”.

Weitzmann believes the set-up “suits the car – not a bad gearbox at all”. 

She came by this N600 about 14 years ago when “offered the Honda through a friend. He knew of the car and that the owner planned to possibly scrap it”. At that time, it was “in tatty condition, but not rusty” and so she “couldn’t resist and had her totally restored”.

Weitzmann bought the car about 14 years ago and couldn't resist having it restored immediately

Today, it is a reminder of a key model in Honda’s development as a manufacturer of four-wheeled vehicles (Soichiro Honda had started his company in 1946 to produce powered two-wheelers and Honda has been the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer since 1959).

Just as the two-seater S800 tempted several MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire drivers, the family-friendly N600 persuaded former Mini or Hillman Imp owners into ordering their first “foreign car”.

As John Bolster wrote prophetically in Autosport of September 1968: “Let us hope every British manufacturer will buy one and try it for himself, for this is where the challenge is coming from in markets all over the world.”

Thanks to Jane Weitzmann and JWH Classics 

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