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July 2013 Road Rage - History Repeating

Aaron Bonk
Sep 12, 2013

The story of America's fascination with Honda's cars doesn't begin with the company's first domestically launched vehicle, the N600; it begins with a series of cars that were neither designed for nor intended to be sold to Americans.

U.S. servicemen stationed in Japan throughout the 1960s were the first Americans to test Honda's automotive waters, bringing home with them at their tours' completions their own S500, S600, and S800 roadsters--cars of which continue to characterize the Honda brand today. The line of technically advanced, high-rpm-friendly sports cars that were introduced in late-1962 and that were never intended for U.S. consumption did more for Americans than we're led to believe, though, and as it turns out, the lessons the trio of machines taught Honda are just as profuse.

Only 25,000 S-series roadsters were ever produced, which made their way throughout Japan as well as limited parts of Europe, even Canada, but the car's time line reveals Honda's preparations for global sales that would include the U.S. By the time the S800 was developed, it featured niceties Americans had come to demand from their cars, like reduced emissions that would satisfy a soon-to-be-formed EPA, braking systems that lent themselves to a society of tailgaters, and stronger glass that met then-rigorous crash standards--all obvious elements of any production car today but, in the 1960s, developments that Honda was just beginning to figure out and, ultimately, lend to its first U.S. export, the N600. More importantly, though, those first roadsters were exciting automobiles, which is what attracted U.S. military personnel to them in the first place. S roadsters were fitted with a quartet of carburetors, dual-overhead cams, four-wheel independent suspensions, and engines that were designed to spin as high as 9,500 rpm. It was race car technology paired with motorcycle innovation at a time when such carburetor configurations were meant for V-8s, cams were destined to be located inside of engine blocks, suspensions were to consist of live axles, and rotating assemblies had no business revving upward of 5,500 rpm.

Traces of Honda's S roadsters are evident nearly 50 years after their first being bred. The S2000, released in late-1999 proves as much--a car that remained in production for nearly a decade. Honda's S roadsters weren't the last of technology-inspiring cars to materialize from the brand, though. For obvious reasons, the NSX did something similar, helping mainstream technologies like variable valve timing, under-piston oil squirters, dual-stage intake paths, and limited-slip differentials into the company's commuter car lineup, like its Civics, Accords, Integras, and Preludes.

In the wake of a new NSX that's said to be available sometime during the next couple of years, Honda has found itself in a position similar to where it was during the late-1980s when its S roadsters were regarded as history and its more benign Civics and Accords were being produced, as were the makings for an all-new luxury car line that put significant emphasis on things like perforated leather interiors and proper-feeling switches. Today, not unlike 25 years ago, the company's most recent high-revving roadster has been absent for some time and, once again, we find ourselves on the cusp of a new supercar--a car that, admittedly, will be out of reach for the every man, but will likely lend itself to developing more mainstream technology than anything we've seen from Honda since, well, the last NSX.

We don't know much about the all-new NSX's powertrain except that it'll be a unique combination that consists of a mid-mounted, direct-injected V-6 gasoline-electric engine matched with twin electric motors up front that wasn't developed for the benefit of hippies but for those who value going fast. That alone is the makings for technical adulation worldwide. The car's torque-vectoring AWD system--much like what the new RLX is fitted with-will reportedly distribute power to each wheel not by means of a traditional AWD system's series of differentials and gears but through comprehensive, computer-controlled torque management. Once traction diminishes at any particular corner, torque decreases at that wheel; when traction is regained, torque is redistributed to the appropriate corner. It's a whole new implementation of hybrid technology, and one that promises to appeal to the performance community, not unlike small engines revving to 9,500 rpm, overhead cams, and fully independent suspensions.

By Aaron Bonk
405 Articles

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