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Car and Driver: Honda Celebrates Discovery, Restoration of Its First Car Destined for America


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Honda N600 Serial 001

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You can’t talk about the birth of Honda as a global automotive juggernaut without talking about motorcycles. And in the 1970s, when the Honda Civic—even on the West Coast—was somewhat of a curio, Honda’s CB750 was fully accepted as a complete and legitimate machine. While Honda’s Super Cub, backed by the storied, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” ad campaign, seemed practically an overnight success in the United States, the automotive market was a tougher nut to crack. Crack it, however, Honda did. And now American Honda is celebrating by chronicling the restoration of the car that drove the first tiny wedge into the market, a diminutive N600 bearing serial number 001.

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In 1967, Honda took 50 of its N360 keicars and fitted them with a larger 599cc engine, with the idea that power-mad Westerners might cotton to the frugal little beasts, if only they offered a bit more oomph. The 50 cars were shipped stateside and driven around as evaluation mules. Over the years, Tim Mings [pictured below] has found himself in possession of three of the first 50, including the first one built.

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Honda N600 Serial 001

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Among tiny-Japanese-car dorks, Mings is a bit of a legend. He’s spent most of his life around the cars, dating back to his uncle’s purchase of the family’s first 600 in 1970, the first year the N600 was actually sold in the continental U.S. The best part, as Mings notes in the video below, is that he had no idea he even owned the first car. It wasn’t until he wiped away considerable grime, muck, and possum dung from the machine that he saw the serial number.

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A few years later, a rep from Honda’s ad agency, RPA, stopped by. In passing, Mings pointed at the #1 car and casually mentioned what it was. In the late 1960s, Honda was not a company burdened by nostalgia. The first car built was the first car built, and it was sent out into the world to do its duty. Regardless, the ad guys immediately called American Honda, who offered assistance with the restoration.

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When mainland-U.S. sales began in earnest three years after the evaluation cars were built, the cars were sold through motorcycle dealerships. And when motorcycle shops who’d passed on the 600s were suddenly eager to sell the Civic, they were told no. The little cars fell into a no-mans land, where new dealers weren’t required to service them, nor were motorcycle shops who’d decided not to pursue selling cars. Beloved by their owners, enough 600s were parked with intent to restore that Mings has been able to make a full-time business out of their resuscitation and care. In the case of N600 #1, the car was felled by a catastrophic valvetrain failure at 22,000 miles, which suggests that it was parked early in its life. As a result, the body is in great shape, with only two minor rust spots just below the A-pillars.

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The engine, being a development unit, uses a different top-end gasket than the production motors, so Mings had new ones made up. In the end, #1 will see a complete restoration and display by Honda.

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Historical preservation is a combination of luck, expertise, and dedication, and the resurrection of the first Honda automobile built specifically for American shores came about at the confluence of all three streams. If Mings hadn’t been such a fiend for the little cars, dedicated enough to build an entire career around them, the car may never have been found, much less restored. Thankfully, that’s a future we need not ponder any longer.

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