Tran Nguyen's '72 Honda Z600
If you're an avid reader of Honda Tuning, or spend any amount of time on the automotive forums, you've no doubt seen the term "old-school" used to describe everything from mid-90s wheels to aero kits, and even an older chassis. With 20 years now firmly planted under its belt, the '88-91 chassis has, in many enthusiasts' eyes, earned the right to bask in the beloved glow of "old-school cool." What many don't know, or perhaps they've conveniently forgotten, is that there was in fact life prior to the early 90s, beyond the cult classic EF chassis. In 1970, after having found great success in the sale of their motorcycles on U.S. soil, Honda Motor Co. introduced their first automotive offering: the N600. Based on a two-cylinder, front-wheel drive, gas miser, the sedan seemed almost comical in comparison to the mammoth competitors of that era. Plagued by a crushing gas crisis, the tiny Hondas began to prosper by building on a reputation for their uncanny ability to avoid the dreaded gas pump. Just a few years later, Honda showed a change in direction as a much bolder z600 coupe was unveiled to the American public. For a brand-new automotive supplier in a foreign land, the "z" could only be described as a smashing success. The first-generation Civic would later be introduced, ending the reign of the little z600, but not before over 40,000 Americans had gladly handed over their hard-earned dollars for a "z" of their own.
When bystanders make eye contact with Tran Nguyen's '72 z600, they assume the car is a masterfully done restoration, or they ask "what else" came from the time capsule that must have hatched this micro-marvel. Upon closer inspection, the carbon-fiber bits and pieces backed by a set of ultra-rare rollers offer enough clues to deduce that its owner spent some serious time in the garage. Tran's love at first sight moment occurred at his friend's uncle's house, by chance. Tran recalls, "I saw the little z600 in his garage and just thought it was the coolest Honda I'd ever seen. About a month later, he called me up asking if I wanted the car since his uncle was moving away. Of course I had to get it. I mean, it was free, so why not?"
As with most restorations, Tran's starting point was less than desirable. Forty long years had taken their toll on the car's chassis. "There was a lot of rust, dings, dents, and the body needed some serious work. All of the weatherstripping had rotted away, and the body alignment was way off." Nevertheless, the car was towed to his parent's home where the couple was noticeably split on their son's decision. "When my mom first saw it, she hated it! She thought it was junk. But she pretty much hated all of my cars. My dad, on the other hand, loved it. He's been really supportive with this project, and he admires my work." With the reality of the project sinking in, Tran had no choice but to put the z600 on the back-burner as he was already committed to finishing his glass-top CR-X SiR. For a year and a half, the z collected dust, along with a stack of complaints from the city for harboring a non-operational vehicle on his parent's driveway. Unable to buy any more time, the CR-X was promptly finished, and attention was finally turned to the restoration project. "I wanted to make it sporty while still keeping the classic look. I did some Photoshop renderings and basically built it around that. I was worried about finding parts, until I ran across Bill Colford and Tim Mangs!" Tran makes countless references to the pair of z600 gurus, fascinated by the wealth of knowledge both men possess. "Bill supplies reproduction parts for these cars, including weatherseals, lights, head gaskets, basically everything. And Tim, he's like the king of all 600s. He knows every single bit about them. He does restoration, engine rebuilds, and everything else you can think of." With confidence at an all-time high thanks in part to his newfound friends, the restoration began on the car's weathered body. However, progress quickly stopped as a serious eye injury sidelined Tran for four long, grueling months. After enduring four painful surgeries that included a cornea transplant, the young builder was forced to wear an eye patch for six months. "When I was finally able to start working on my car again, I never thought it would be so hard. With only one eye, my depth perception was way off. I had difficulty welding, painting, even pouring a glass of water, I would miss." Not allowing his misfortune to slow him down, Tran poured his frustrations into making his dream restoration a reality, tearing the car down completely, including an engine that ran just fine. "I wanted to thoroughly clean everything and replace any parts that might be broken. I'm glad I did because one of the teeth on the transmission main gear was missing, and the timing chain tensioner was worn out."
With the majority of the work being completed with his own two hands, he wanted to take on the task of fabricating custom aero pieces. "People always ask me about the carbon-fiber aero. I did hours of research online to learn how to do it right. The hardest part was the front lip. There was so much measuring, sanding, and sculpting. I would spend hours on just one spot to get it right. If things didn't turn out the way I wanted, I would start over from scratch. I wanted it to be perfect." After completing the tedious carbon-fiber trim, a lucky search on eBay resulted in a set of classic 10-inch Volk wheels to complement the Waterborne BMW Imola Red II paint that included two coats of sealer, three coats of base, and three coats of clear. The result is a paintjob that looks as if it has yet to dry, in just about any lighting condition.
In 2010, the reborn z600 made an appearance at the coveted Japanese Classic Car Show (JCCS 2010) where it drew a crowd that couldn't help but notice the seamless culmination of multiple generations. It also earned a Third Place finish in the "Best Honda" category in a crowd of long-term competitors with years of experience. Although Tran wasn't even alive when the z600 was introduced, his customized restomod bridges a gap spanning four decades of Honda automotive enthusiasm; now that's old-school soul.
Bolts & Washers
Honda z600 specs
Layout: four-seat, 3-door coupe
Drivetrain: front engine, front drive
Engine: Air-cooled, SOHC carbureted two-cylinder
Horsepower: 36 hp
Top Speed: 75 mph
0-60: 26 seconds (estimated)
Length: 117.9 in
Width: 50.9 in
Height: 50.1 in
Wheelbase: 78.7 in
Custom 2-in. exhaust with glasspack
Custom test pipe
4-speed synchromesh transmission
Skunk2 CRX springs
DOT 5 brake fluid
Waterborne BMW Imola Red II paint
Custom carbon-fiber front lip
Custom carbon-fiber rear diffuser
Custom fiberglass rear wing
Custom foglight kit
Tim "Merciless" Ming, Bill Colford, Mom & Dad - I love you! My friends, my brothers,Nghia Ha, Duy & Dianna, Cro Cop, ANZHonda600owners group, Honda Tuning magazine, Tu aka Chubby - amazing detail work! And my auto body teacher Cecil Hernandez and welding teacher Bud.
Screen name or nickname
Building Hondas for how long
Your dream car
White Lotus Exige S and black '89 Porsche 911 widebody
Build inspiration Self-inspired
'89 CRX DX, '90 Glass-top CRX SiR
What's playing in your iPod/CD/MP3 player right now
2pac - I wrote this song in 94
Greatest movie of all time
IP Man I & II