When it comes to cars, what was it that ultimately shaped brand loyalty, platform preference or favored engineering for you?
My roots are relatable to most American millennials that grew up in the Fast & Furious era. As Japanese car culture exploded on the big screen and internet, I was drawn to it like a fat fly to a big bug zapper. My first vehicle was a 1991 Honda CRX Si (totaled), followed by a 1993 Honda Civic Si (stolen), and then a 2007 Honda Fit (boosted). Can you see a trend here? Things vectored a little off course after I moved to California and dabbled in affordable-at-the-time Europeans classics including a 1987 Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.3-16V and a 1970 BMW 2002. Eventually I returned to familiar Japanese metal with a 1969 Nissan Bluebird (see Speedhunters story here) that I held onto for many years.
The 510 was an amazing machine that I thought I would never sell, but after 12 years of various military assignments as a US service member, I had growing inch to return to my Honda roots.
In early 2019, I stumbled upon an old ‘for sale’ post from Skorj of Japanese Nostalgic Car, listing his well-known Honda S800M. This piqued my interest as I had been following the project for some time.
Unfortunately, the S800M had sold months prior, however something inspired me to reach out to Skorj and at least express my gratitude for providing such amazing ownership coverage of Honda’s first sports car for so many years.
Little did I know at the time, but this first contact began a long journey where – spoiler alert, if you cannot already tell by the images – I became the new custodian of Skorj’s former pride and joy.
For almost two years, no fewer than 263 emails crossed between myself, Skorj, his car collector friend that purchased the S800M (a man who owns two Toyota 2000GTs for heaven’s sake!), and their mutual Honda S-chassis master mechanic friend from a local enthusiast club. Then an opportunity manifested itself that was too good to pass up.
Once I was confirmed a transfer to Japan by the US military, I knew that this was a sign from the Honda gods. What began as an email saying thank you, had evolved into the purchase the very car that started it all for me.
As a foreigner, I just cannot fully in articulate the awe-inspiring level of hospitality, patience, flexibility and trust I received through this entire process. Whether is was answering my questions, providing images or advice, understanding travel delay requests or agreeing to change plans due to constraints on my part, I was accommodated all the way.
Back to the story… Late last year, I was finally on my way in person to complete the purchase. I had been on the island of Okinawa for almost a year, but then, yeah…COVID.
To my wife’s amusement, this was going to be a single day trip with departure and return within a 12-hour window, with roughly five physical hours on mainland Japan. With my omiyage (gift) secured and a coffee in hand, I awaited the short flight.
In no time at all it was wheels down at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, and I would be lying to say I hid my excitement well. The mechanic I mentioned earlier – a very kind and talented semi-retired engineer that is 30 years my senior – was there to pick me up. After an exchange of the usual Japanese greetings and respect (in typical gaijin form I am terrible at this), I was met with a very pleasant surprise.
The car I had only viewed on digital screens for eight years was now sitting in front of me in all its metal glory. Raining and chilled temperature be damned, I could not hide my enthusiasm and circled the small car several times.
We were scheduled to drive about an hour west to the mechanic’s personal shop, but since I did not know where we were going and had no hands-on experience driving an S800M, I was content on being a passenger.
Don’t worry, we did swap seats about halfway, and although I do not have images of me piloting the little beast, I will say it drove like a well-tuned vintage sports car on the same caliber of an early Porsche. Even with the weather, the Yokohama Advan Neovas attached to the 13×5-inch RS Watanabe wheels did a wonderful job holding grip. Being very tactile in my movements, I toyed with momentum available in a platform weighing under 850kg (1,875lb) with both of us onboard.
I also was surprised by the amount of grunt available throughout the power-band from just 800cc. As with all cars of this time, your senses are bombarded with analog wonders and visceral sounds and smells. The S800M’s driving position is very low, just above normal size car tires in traffic to your sides, and your feet almost stretch out in the deceivingly-long cabin.
Manual shifts were direct and smooth into each gear with little to no slop. The suspension was tight but not overly firm, and all lights, indicators and cabin functions worked as intended.
I could tell this was no garage queen; the entire package oozed the confidence of a well-cared-for automobile that sees more time on the road than collecting dust. It more than welcomed a few 9,000+rpm tunnel pulls when I was in the driver’s seat.
Arriving at the mechanic’s workshop felt like a proper part two to an already epic adventure. Despite not being set up for visitors, this personal shop would leave any Honda fan’s jaw wide open for the entirety of a visit.
Although space is at a premium, amazingly this garage has multiple efficient work bays, an engine building section, a collection of motorcycles stored away, and even walk-down pits for easy underbody work access. All around were various Honda S-chassis cars in different states of repair and reconstruction; some receiving a mechanical refresh, interior overhaul, or body-off restoration. There was even a full fiberglass body project waiting to be turned into a thoroughbred track car.
Before long, Skorj stopped by the shop in his new Porsche to see his old friend and meet me in person. He was also kind enough to walk me through the ins and outs of the S800M that was his for so many years.
I learned about some of the electrical upgrades he performed to make the car a more comfortable daily driver, such as installing a stealthy MP3 cable to the back of a period correct radio. He also gushed over the rare Auricoste 36-9 aviation clock selector that shares the same manufacture date as the S800M and adds some rally flair.
This particular car rolled off the assembly line at Honda’s Suzuka plant in late 1969 for the international market, and is the final iteration of the early S models. A heavy hand in design and brilliant engineering from company founder Soichiro Honda are present throughout.
These later evolution cars still maintain the ’60s styling cue of sweeping curves and sloping fastbacks of the era. The twin overhead cam engine with side-draft carburetors and a needle bearing crankshaft have roots in Formula 1. Am I justifying the awesomeness enough yet?
For me, this is the best version to own. Not only is it the most powerful but also benefits from the removal of many quirks found in the earlier cars like the dual chain rear-wheel drive systems and unique independent suspension, replaced with a more sensible and easier-to-maintain solid axle design with a spring/shock combo. Front discs with a dual-circuit brake system and an improved steering rack also came standard by this model year, which makes the car a lot more joyful and safer to drive right up to the limit, which is over 100mph. I have always preferred coupes over roadsters too, not just for better chassis stiffness, but the all-year practicality.
Only 1,548 examples were sent abroad between 1967 and 1970, making this specimen quite rare even before you consider its overall story. This specific vehicle spent most of its life in the United Kingdom before returning to Japan back in 2012, via Skorj.
If anyone wants more detail about these wonderful machines I encourage you to visit Skorj’s very detailed 22-page thread on Honda-Tech that spans years into his ownership.
Aside from its notability, a big reason I purchased this particular vehicle was because of its extensive service and maintenance history. Some of the major mechanical highlights are two engine rebuilds, a gearbox overhaul, carburetor refresh, installation of LSD, coilover suspension, a change from a generator to alternator system, an oil filter adaptor fabricated for modern replacements, and a fuse box conversion to make the whole package much more reliable.
To continue these efforts, I have scheduled the replacement of some rusted body sheet metal and the fabrication of a few custom suspension bits to bring the car in line with my vision. It will remain in the care of the mechanic for the duration of 2021.
Enough drooling on my end, it was time to seal the transfer of ownership. Purchase payment made in cash, just like that the S800M was officially mine.
I will say that the return to Okinawa had a bittersweet taste. After being so elated from the entire experience I knew this was just one step in a much longer process. At least I still have a very RADwood-worthy 1989 Mitsubishi Minicab 4×4 supercharged kei van to keep me entertained for now.
I also now have a vehicle log book with all the receipts from the S800M’s 50-year history. Furthermore, I was gifted a book on the history of the first Honda automobiles with detailed images. I will be reading this in great detail to become familiar with the original part functions, along with a service manual written for the European market that should fill in any holes.
With the S800M projected to remain in mainland Japan for the next year for the minor restoration work and continued modifications, it will be quite some time before I can bring a part two to this story. But rest assured, pending travel restrictions, I plan to take an epic road trip from Tokyo to southern Japan, followed by a ferry to Okinawa. Of course, all will be documented along with the car’s inevitable departure to the USA.
It seems like a lot of patience will be required moving forward, but I think it’s going to be well worth the wait.
Brian McIntyre Ray
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