Articles: Sporting Hondas – Classic Buyer’s Guide – 226

With its strong background of high performance motorbikes, it was not surprising that Honda’s first prototype cars in the early ’60s were sports cars — the 1962 S360 and S500 sports cars shown domestically at the Japan Motor Show. Other sporting Hondas have graced the Honda line-up over the years, and a mid-to-late ’80s favourite was the little CR-X coupe. We profile these two models in the first of a series on Honda sports-mobiles.

Honda S500

The reception at the Japan Motor Show in 1962 was favourable, with the S500 getting the nod for production as the larger motor made it a more attractive prospect for international sales.

In 1963 the first S500s rolled off the production line, featuring much of the technological expertise that Honda had built up during its years of motorcycle production. It featured an aluminium 531cc water-cooled, dohc four-cylinder engine. The S500 (as well as the later S600 and S800) used an interesting induction system in the form of one carburettor per cylinder. It produced 33kW at an astounding (for a road car built in 1963) 8000rpm, and it would continue to rev to a 9500rpm redline thanks to the needle roller bearing crank that ensured smooth, high rev limits safely and reliably (these engines also possessed a reputed ability to rev to beyond 11,000rpm!).

The drivetrain broke new ground, with a four-speed gearbox driving to a differential, which spread the drive to a sprocket each side. The wheels were actually driven, motorcycle-style, by chain, with the chain-case acting as the suspension arm, giving both longitudinal and some lateral location. It was an effective independent rear suspension set-up that kept unsprung weight to a minimum. Front suspension was also independent, with double wishbones.

Perhaps the only negative part in the chassis design was the use of drum brakes front and rear, but the fact that the S500 only weighed 725kg meant they did an adequate job.

The neat styling took few risks, borrowing more than a few cues from the British sports cars of the time. It was available only in convertible form, though Honda did sell an optional hard-top.

Honda S600

Released in 1964, the S600 was effectively a revised S500 that featured styling changes to the front of the car, to the grille, bumper and headlights. Perhaps the main talking point was that the S600 was available in coupe form as well as the convertible, with the coupe only weighing 15kg more than the convertible. The new 606cc engine was of similar design to the earlier engine, and produced 43kW at similarly astronomical revs, with peak power at 8500rpm and again redline at 9500rpm. It retained the suspension, brakes and driveline of the S500, and stayed in production till 1966.

Honda S800

Honda once again revised the design and debuted the S800 in 1965. Still available in roadster and coupe guises, it reached production in 1966 and remained in production until 1970. Honda made further styling changes to the front and rear of the car that would last the lifetime of the model, but under the skin more noticeable changes were made. The displacement of the engine was increased to 791cc, which helped the driveability as the earlier smaller motors lacked torque, and really needed to be revved hard to make quick progress, though in practice even the 791cc motor was still low on torque. It now made 52kW at 8000rpm and this was enough to let the little Honda just reach the 161kph/100mph barrier flat-out.

The innovative chain drive units that functioned as suspension arms in the S500 and S600 were replaced early in the life of the S800 in 1967 with a more conventional shaft drive to a live axle rear end, and soon after, a long-awaited upgrade to disc brakes in the front further helped the S800’s sports car credentials.

None of the S series of Honda sports cars were big sellers, even in Japan, as at the time few people were prepared to take a leap of faith on a somewhat unproven marque when the British and Italian sports car industries were flourishing, and the discerning buyer had the choice of Spridgets, Spitfires, MGBs, Fiat 850 and 124s etc.

First Generation Honda CR-X

In the early ’80s, Honda noted a lack of a small, affordable sporting car in its line-up and introduced the CR-X sports hatchback in 1983/4. A rakish fastback built on the latest Civic saloon platform, it was soon a successful seller. The Civic was dynamically competent anyway, but Honda modified the suspension, making it lower and stiffer, so the CR-X handled impressively with predictable handling and lots of grip to exploit. The CR-X was sold in multiple specification levels, from a simple poverty spec 1.3-litre to the hotter 1.5 12-valve injected motor boasting around 75kW.

In 1986, late in the life of the first generation CR-X, it was fitted with the motor that really made the CR-X, a 1.6-litre twin-cam unit with 93kW. The 1.6 CRX could run to 100kph in eight seconds and reach 200kph flat out, which was finally enough performance to see off those pesky European GTis that would previously have outrun it.

Second Generation Honda CR-X

In 1987, the second generation CR-X was introduced. It kept the compact, aggressive proportions of the original CR-X but now had smoother, less angular styling to create a more up-to-date look.

Dynamically it was a superior car as Honda had engineered a new fully independent suspension design, with double wishbones front and rear. The CR-X retained the 1.6 engine with a slight power boost to 97kW to offset the minor weight gain.

Once again, like the first CR-X, the second generation would be fitted with its hottest motor half way through its lifespan when, in 1989, the Honda CR-X SiR was the second Honda (after the Integra XSi) to be fitted with Honda’s brand new 1.6-litre twin-cam engine with the VTEC variable valve timing system. It was a whole new engine that shared nothing with the previous 1.6 unit. Thanks to the VTEC system it was able to be driven normally at low revs with excellent response and good fuel economy, and when the driver revved the engine above the 6000rpm point it would switch over to an aggressive secondary camshaft profile that made the full 119kW available. The VTEC-equipped engine was very powerful, especially for its capacity (it reached the 74.5kW per litre mark) and it rewarded enthusiastic driving to keep the revs in the power sweet spot. Some lower-spec models were fitted with a 1.5 fuel injected engine, but they were more of a poser-mobile than a proper sports hatch, and we’d recommend sticking to the 1.6 Si and the SiR models for maximum sports-car entertainment. The second generation CR-X was phased out in 1992.

CR-X Del Sol

Enthusiasts around the world waited with bated breath for the announcement of the new CR-X. They were somewhat disappointed! Unfortunately, from the outside the new CR-X (also known as the Del Sol) was somewhat of a styling departure from the earlier cars, and was not as well received. It is, however, an underrated car because dynamically it was still an engaging drive, and since it used an updated version of the 1.6 VTEC engine (with a little extra power, up to 123kW) it was still a fast, fun little car. However, the new Targa-type styling was not in keeping with the previous coupes, and while it was cleanly styled, it missed the mark and many enthusiasts stayed away. The Targa roof meant that the car featured extra bracing over the admittedly slightly flimsy coupes, and so weight jumped up to just over 1100kg for the Del Sol SiR rather than less than 1000kg for the previous CR-X SiR. Some CR-Xs came with the optional power-operated retractable Targa roof — effective and interesting while it worked, but it is plagued by motor and gear issues which are not cheap to fix. The system also added approximately 50kg to the base weight of the CRX.

The Del Sol was also available with a single-cam VTEC 1.5-litre from 1992 until 1995, and a 1.6-litre version from 1995 on, which developed 97kW. The single-cam VTECs are designed primarily for economy over performance, and should not be confused with the performance-tuned 1.6 twin-cam VTEC engines.

The third generation CR-X stayed in production to 1998.

Buyers’ Guide S500/600/800

We can’t really offer any type of guide to buying a S500, S600 or S800 as there are very few in NZ, and those who have them will be hanging on to them! If one ever does surface, be aware of rust problems, and engine wear, as those high revs eventually take their toll, and parts are very thin on the ground worldwide.

Buyers’ Guide CR-X/Del Sol

The first CR-X models are hard to find these days as they succumb rather easily to rust, and many have been thrashed into submission. There are still some running about, but be careful if buying, as rust can be prevalent throughout the vehicle. Mechanically, like your average Japanese car they are simple and quite reliable, the motors good for 200,000km-plus, but the gearboxes tend to wear much more quickly, especially if they have had a hard life.

You may not get a large variety of these to choose from since there aren’t many left, and we would recommend looking for a second generation car as arguably they are a better choice. That said, if you happen to find a first gen car that has been looked after nicely (there are some out there) jump on it, as they are still an entertaining drive. The second gen cars are our best buy suggestion, as dynamically and performance-wise they are the strongest CR-X. Rust is less of a problem with these later cars, though you may find some in the hatch area, but generally they survive quite well. The engines are also strong; the VTEC ones, despite the complex valvetrain technology, are very reliable, also capable of well over 200,000km. Once again, the gearboxes are a weak point. You will notice worn synchros, graunching at high revs, and difficulty changing gear in the lower ratios if the ’box is worn.

The good thing is that there are a fair number around, and many parts are shared with the same generation of Civic, so parts are not a problem. The bad news is that finding a good one is now difficult. There are some still out there though. Expect to pay $2.5-4K for a tidy CR-X Si and $5K-plus for a nice CR-X SiR. We would suggest the SiR as is it packs a very sweet, responsive engine; it is an excellent drive; and you get a lot of bang for your buck.

The Del Sol is probably the easiest to buy since it is less popular among enthusiasts and has generally lived a quieter life. Rust is minimal unless the roof has leaked (not unknown). Stay well away from the transtop electric roof unless you like unreliable, unnecessary gadgets. Mechanically the Del Sol is very similar to the same era Civic and very reliable, with no major issues.

Specifications

Honda S500
Built: 1963-1964, 1363 built
Engine: 531cc four cylinder, eight valve 33kW (44bhp)
Body style: Two-seater roadster
Performance: Top speed 129kph (80mph)

Honda S600
Built: 1964-1966, 11,284 roadsters and 1800 coupes built
Engine: 606cc four cylinder, eight valve 43kW (57bhp)
Body style: Two-seater roadster and coupe
Performance: Top speed 145kph (90mph)

Honda S800
Built: 1966-1970, 11,536 incl roadster and coupe
Engine: 791cc four cylinder, eight valve 52kW (70bhp)
Body style: Two-seater roadster and coupe
Performance: Top speed 154-161kph (96-100mph)

Honda CR-X 1st Gen
Built: 1983-1986
Engine: 1488cc four cylinder, 12 valve, 57-78kW (76-105bhp), then 1590cc four cylinder, 16 valve, 93kW (125bhp)
Body style: 2+2 sports hatch
Performance: Top speed 167-201kph (104-125mph), 0-100kph 8.0-9.5 seconds

Honda CR-X 2nd Gen
Built: 1987-1991
Engine: 1493cc four cylinder, 12 valve 79kW (106bhp), 1590cc four cylinder, 16 valve 97kW (130bhp), 1595cc four cylinder, 16 Valve VTEC, 119kW (160bhp)
Body style: 2+2 sports hatch
Performance: Top speed 180-200kph, 0-100kph 7.0-9.5 seconds

Honda CR-X Del Sol
Built: 1992-1998
Engine: 1493cc four cylinder, 16 valve sohc VTEC 97kW (130bhp), 1590cc four cylinder, 16 valve sohc VTEC 97kW (130bhp), 1595cc four cylinder, 16 Valve VTEC, 123kW (165bhp)
Body style: 2 seater Targa sports car
Performance: Top speed 180-200kph, 0-100kph 7.0-9.5 seconds

Words: Philip and David Cass

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