Honda S800 retro road test: the godfather of VTEC

Published:30 December 2020

The Honda S800 from 1967. Photographed for CAR magazine by Alex Tapley
  • At a glance
  • 4 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 3 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

► We test an immaculately restored Honda S800
► It’s 1967’s precursor to the modern S2000
► Tiny roadster, 771kg, 8500rpm redline!

If you want to know where Honda’s inspiration for high-revving VTEC engines came from, consider this delightful S800 roadster from the late 1960s. Widely considered the grandfather of the modern-era S2000 convertible, this diminutive soft-top has a spec sheet that’ll likely get enthusiasts in something of a lather.

We purists love lightweight cars, right? The Honda S800 tips the scales at a featherweight 771 kilos. Hate turbos, love natural aspiration and high redlines? This 53-year-old museum piece revs to 8500rpm! The virtuous circle of minimal mass means there’s not much punch required to cleave the air, and the S800 was the first production Honda to crack 100mph, even with just 791cc to play with.

It might have sat outside Japan’s contemporary Kei-car rules, but it’s gobsmackingly small in real life; it looks like you might just be able to pick it up and put it in your pocket, which is very much what I wanted to do after spending 48 hours in its company.

Honda S800 is small: CAR magazine's James Taylor for scale!

It’s a tiny slip of a car, as ably demonstrated by CAR magazine’s deputy features editor James Taylor (above). The Honda S800’s key dimensions are:

  • Length 3335mm
  • Width 1400mm
  • Height 1215mm
  • Kerbweight 771kg

What was the Honda S800 and why is it important?

Honda only flipped from making motorcycles to cars in 1963, remember, so this S800 is one of the very earliest models in its four-wheeled collection. Derived from the first S500 and S600, it was sold as a coupe and convertible and 1548 found homes in the UK between 1967 and 1970. 

Early examples had chain drive, but ours is the more modern iteration with the four-cylinder engine up front with a four-speed manual transmission sending drive rearwards via a conventional propshaft.

Honda S800 bonnet and wheel

Its think-different engineering encapsulates what we love about Honda and the brand’s motorcycling credentials shine through in the engine spec: each cylinder’s capacity stands at just 198cc, breathed upon by a pair of valves operated by twin cams and fed by Keihin carbs. Maximum power stands at 70bhp at a dizzying 8000rpm, while torque peaks at a modest 49lb ft at 6000rpm. Which sounds very VTEC-like, doesn’t it?

Performance and specs

Not huge outputs, granted, but then there’s very little mass to get going, don’t forget. Honda quoted a power-to-weight ratio of 91bhp-per-tonne and it’s enough for a top speed of 100mph and a 13.6 second 0-60mph sprint.

The claimed quarter mile time stood at 19.2sec.

1967 Honda S800 photographed by Alex Tapley for CAR magazine

As with many old cars, it feels faster than those tame performance figures suggest. The featherweight mass just keeps the S800 feeling light on its toes and driving cross country becomes an exercise in maintaining momentum.

Needless to say, the more important smiles-per-hour are off the scale.

What’s it like to drive?

The tiny footprint dominates the driving experience. The S800 is awkward to climb into and yet, somehow, my 6ft 3in frame folds inside the cockpit and I do fit. Just. With the roof lowered, entry is much easier and looks less like a game of festive Twister. Reach out your arm and you can easily tap the passenger door – two up is something of a squash.

You face a delightful bank of ’60s dials and the (relatively) long bonnet sweeps out ahead, a power bulge hinting at the revvy powerplant beneath. This exquisitely restored Honda UK example has only just been finished, and once the battery has some charge starts first time, settling to a buzzy idle. Select first in the sweet-feeling four-speed gearbox, ease out the clutch and we’re off.

Honda S800 interior

It’s anyone’s guess why steering wheels became the leaden, airbag-stuffed dullards they’ve turned into, because the Honda S800’s rim is delicate and thin and tells you exactly what’s going on at the front wheels. There is no need for power assistance here, as we thread through Peterborough city streets, checking our blindspots and pedestrians’ winning reaction upon seeing this bright red slice of Honda history sweep past in mid-winter.

Once out of town, we can more fully enjoy the 0.8-litre box of fireworks under the bonnet. The first three ratios are nicely spaced and are all we need on cross-country roads, fourth acting as an overdrive for more relaxed cruising. The manual’s action is a joy, hinting at the Type R’s rifle-bolt change in years to come, and it lets us keep the engine on the boil. Past 4000rpm, the engine note adopts a banshee scream and that motorcycle DNA keeps shining through as we hold our nerve and rev past 6k, towards 7k.

My duty of care for a 53-year-old museum piece holds me back from the full 8500rpm redline, but the sonics of 7000rpm are enough to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. The little S800 flies along, its compact footprint allowing easy positioning on the road, the suspension keeping the roadster flat and on line. The brakes aren’t great, granted, but we’ll best call them period items.

After an hour behind the wheel, we’re utterly smitten yet feeling a little twisted; the pedals are quite heavily offset to the right, despite this being developed as a right-hand drive car and even shorter drivers emerge feeling uncomfortable. This despite the most exquisitely upholstered leather sports seats that are in themselves perfectly comfortable.

Honda S800 specs: just 791cc capacity, twin cams and four Keihin carbs

Special mention also to the stubby gearlever, whose action is a joy to cog-swap. There’s an oiled precision to gearchanges that calls to mind the sweet shifts of the S2000 roadster, original NSX, Integra Type R and various fast Civics over the years. Driving the S800 now provides more context and appreciation for the numerous fast Hondas that have followed.

It’s an apt time to be testing the Honda S800 – a sublime example of everything that we cherish about the old-world order: revvy engines, sweet transmissions, the immersive experience of driving a combustion engine car – a joy of which society will soon be robbed.

Verdict

The Honda S800 was designed as a Japanese take on the European – and especially British – sports cars of the 1960s and it manages to riff on this western design blueprint beautifully. You could easily swap the Honda H badges for an MG octagon and I’d argue few would notice. Japanese car design hadn’t fully diverged at this point.

Yet the engineering beneath is very eastern-flavoured and the S800’s Japaneseness shines through in the spec and the motorcycle-inspired engineering. The godfather of VTEC is a thrilling roadster in its own right and one fizzing with Honda’s think-different DNA. The brand’s subsequent history now makes more sense to me.

More Honda reviews by CAR magazine

Specs

Price when new: £779
On sale in the UK: 1967-1970
Engine: 791cc four-cylinder 8v DOHC, 70bhp @ 8000rpm, 49lb ft @ 6000rpm
Transmission: Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 13.6sec 0-60mph, 100mph, fuel economy and CO2 n/a
Weight / material: 771kg, steel
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 3335/1400/1214mm

Photo Gallery

  • One of the very first Hondas: the 1967 S800
  • Honda S800 roadster cost £779 back in 1967
  • Modest 145/13 Dunlop SP3 tyres provide the grip
  • Honda S800 interior: strictly two seats only
  • Chrome brightwork done well: the Honda S800 face
  • S800 followed in footsteps of the S500 and S600 early Hondas
  • Honda S800 spec: four cylinders, 791cc and a puny 70bhp at 8000rpm
  • Honda S800 boot: surprisingly practical
  • Honda S800 is small: CAR magazine's James Taylor for scale!

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

Comments