The 1968 Honda S800 you see pictured and probably remember stealing much of show goers' attention during 2019's SEMA Show week isn't the product of a 60-plus-year-old with the urge to bring up nostalgia, nor is it the rushed effort of a build team slapping together a car in time to be pushed onto the red carpet at Las Vegas' biggest annual convention. Furthermore, it didn't result from a lifelong Honda fanatic that just had to have a crack at something older and rarer than their long line of CRX and Civic builds. In actuality, this reimagining of Honda's '60s icon came about after a lust at first sight (and sound) encounter followed by a near death experience and a second chance for its owner to take some personal time and simply do what felt right.
As an actor, director, producer and family man, Daniel Wu isn't often left with bouts of free time. A few years ago, between his work and home schedule, he managed to put together his ideal vision of a Datsun 510, built by Troy Ermish, that made its way to the Toyo Treadpass section of SEMA back in 2017. Thoughts of taking on the logistics of yet another project for 2019's event weren't at the forefront of his to-do list, but that all changed when Wu found himself in the hospital with a burst appendix—something he initially thought was food poisoning. Grunting through the pain and discomfort, a few days later, that decision proved to be a huge threat to his very existence as he was rushed into surgery immediately but with a septic condition, surgeons weren't able to complete the procedure and he spent the next 10 days on an antibiotic drip to get healthy enough to attempt the removal again. Fortunately, the follow up surgery was a success and he remained in the hospital on the mend with plenty of time to reflect. He adds, "While I was there recovering, I just realized life is too short and I wanted to do stuff I'm really interested in. I really needed to take some time off work after spending four years working on Into the Badlands, which had really taken a big physical toll on me, and this car was my excuse to take some time off and learn how to build."
Euro Styling, Nasty Revving
Life and direction changing, the hospital stay prompted Wu to get to work on finding the right car to break down and build back up. But why a Honda S800? Look at Wu's current stable of cars and you get a mixed bag that includes the aforementioned 510, along with a Focus RS, '88 Porsche, 2018 GT3 Touring and even a '61 Lincoln Continental. Go back through his 30 years of vehicle ownership and you're in for a lengthy list of models from various eras and styles, but very little Honda involvement. Wu recalls, "I'd never even seen an S800 or any Japanese car that looked like it. It has this European styling, but the proportions are very Japanese, like a Kei car." Beyond the slender, sporty look, it was the sound that really set things in motion. Over the phone, Wu's voice perked up considerably as he reminisced about his first encounter and the unofficial origin of the build. "I found an S800 sound clip on YouTube with the car revving like crazy! That nasty sound that comes from it just attracted me to it—especially the high-revving engine and that loud exhaust."
Friends in High Places
While he was still in the hospital, Wu began putting ideas together for his version of Honda's classic coupe. A conversation with friend and wildly popular automotive aero kit designer Kei Miura of Pandem fame helped shape the eventual exterior treatment. "Miura-san sent me stuff through IG and he wanted to do a 510 for SEMA that year, but I said, 'what about this?'" Referring to his new infatuation with the S800, Miura liked the idea and was on board to design some custom pieces for the project to truly make it one-of-a-kind.
Fresh out of the hospital and arriving back in the U.S., Wu had not only recovered from his health scare, realizing a bit of enlightenment that reminded him it was time to take a much-deserved break from work, but he also managed to source the actual project car. The S800 was taken to the SEMA Garage for a complete, precision 3D scan and that information was forwarded to Miura overseas who designed his signature aero pieces from scratch. "That was an interesting part of all of this because the parts that Miura-san designed fit incredibly well, without even having the car in person to work off of," Wu notes.
Miura-san's additions include fenders flares at all four corners tasked with widening the sleek S800 shoulders and hips without losing the very charm that the car is lauded for. Those slick fender extensions are employed to cover the reworked factory wheels that maintain their 13-inch status but have been re-barreled and now tout a 7-inch front, 8-inch rear measurement. Modern Toyo R888R in 185/60 front and 205/60 rear take advantage of the new sizing and offer a footprint this chassis was never intended to experience. To complement the wheels' new attitude, a gold powdercoat was applied to the faces with the hub caps coated in gloss black to match the body, both offset by a touch of red that further drives home just how much Wu thought out the minute details of the project.
The cute, quirky front end of the S800 hasn't been transformed as much as it has been refined under Wu's interpretation. Miura-san's lower front fascia does away with the chrome front bumper entirely, wrapping itself tightly around the coupe's fenders. Serving as essentially half of the front end, its top line rests just a hair below the factory grill and its lowest point, sculpted and jutting forward ever-so-slightly, brings the front of the car to a much more respectable height. Ominous yellow S.E.V. Marchal headlights glow in place of the ancient stockers and offer superior guidance for any sort of night adventure. Without a doubt, a good portion of the success of the restomod's outward appearance can be attributed to the pristine paint and bodywork by DG Vintage Coachworks—an outfit in Seattle that you'd typically find working their magic on a Porsche, BMW or Mercedes. The level of DG's skills can be seen and appreciated in the accompanying photo set, but as cliche as it sounds, in person it goes well beyond belief—especially when you consider this chassis has over 50 years under its belt.
Scoot past the slightly bulging rear quarter panel and you'll likely spot the Pandem decklid extension that confidently closes out the swooping, unabashedly European-influenced, 60s-era design language. Just below, a custom-made Remark/GReddy stainless-steel exhaust system exits from under the center of the rear, rather than under each taillight, as the OEM version once did. The improved exhaust flow of course helps to open up the engine's output, but the margin isn't big, being that the carbureted, 791cc DOHC powerplant screams to its 8,000rpm redline with just over 70hp and 49lb.-ft. of torque. The engine swap you've come to expect from most Honda builds is nowhere to be found, and instead, Wu found solace in completely freshening up the coupe's native heart. If you recall, the S800s brash song served as one of the main motivating factors in this project getting underway.
The classy exterior makeover would be all but lost on a half-assed interior treatment and to that end, Wu's vision and direction, combined with DJ Designs masterful cut and sew skills, delivered a stunning cabin that not only updates the 5-decades-old materials, but leans even further into the European feel. Deep red leather delivers the sort of contrast that, even when called upon to fight for attention with such a sleek exterior, demands attention as it virtually glows, even at a distance. The modernization was kept to the lush material treatment while OEM gauges and switches were preserved.
On the rare occasions we've come across Honda's S800 coupe, they've either been in dire straits or in a state of traditional restoration. We've yet to encounter a restomod armed with such a modern take on one of Honda's first offerings. The line between restoration and modernization has always been a fine one, but Daniel Wu, with help from some of the industry's very best, found a way to merge them together seamlessly in an OEM+ offering that not only stole the show in the Honda booth at SEMA but will certainly stand the test of time.
Daniel Wu's previous SEMA build, a 510 project was dubbed "The Tanto," in reference to the shorter blade worn by the Samurai class of feudal Japan. Wu notes, "I felt the 510 is like the little brother to the 240Z, much like a Tanto blade is the little brother to the Katana sword. The Tanto maybe small, but it's equally as deadly." For his S800 passion project, another intricate nickname was chosen after taking inspiration from the Porsche and Alfa Romeo groups that often refer to this restomod style as "Outlaw." To give that label a Japanese spin, Wu refers to this project as "Chinpira," which is often used to refer to young Yakuza in training or general troublemakers. "It's a small noisy sports car with aspirations to become a big sports car - much like a Chinpira aspires to rise in the ranks. I took the concept further by making all design decisions as if I were a Chinpira of that period, trying to make my car look tougher."