There are two kinds of N600 owners – those who’ve managed to painstakingly restore Honda’s archetype hatchback down to the very last factory-approved cotter pin, and those who stuff the drive wheels out back and a bike engine up front nearly twice as big as what Honda thought the car ought to have.
If there were a club for period-correct and restored N600s and their caretakers, Dean Williams would’ve been ousted from it a long time ago. Vintage revivals and things like engine swaps, non-native suspension changeovers, and a flip-flop of the little three-door’s business end all suggest that Williams’ renovation is more heresy and less purity. But the 105 hp that the motorcycle engine turns out (the N600 made as little as 36 hp) and the 127 mph that Williams will tell you that the whole thing’s capable of—whether or not it’s in flippant defiance of any classic car rulebook—says that purity’s overrated and that every cut, chop, and weld was worth it.
Engine swaps don’t get any more unfamiliar than what Williams, a Central California middle-school English teacher, has drummed up, but for him this one couldn’t make any more sense. The N600, he says, was an easy choice, and is merely a sentimental stand-in for the ’72 he’d owned back in college.
“Driving that car was like being in a race that no one else knew they were in,” he says about the scant three-door that, when new, sold for around a buck a pound. “You had to drive it hard to keep up, which was half the fun.” For Williams, the engine is just as logical, of which he borrowed from his own sport bike, a Honda Interceptor, the basis of which is a fuel-injected, V-4 box of aluminum with an 11.8:1 compression ratio, and that somehow fits within the N600’s recess. “I adored that bike,” Williams says, “and still feel a bit of guilt for tearing it down.”
The guilt is short lived, though, and that’s mostly because its the 782cc, twin-cam engine that makes Williams’ N600 so special. It’s also what, according to Williams, was able to fit within the car’s “oddly shaped” engine bay yet still turn out the sort of power he was looking for. “The fifth-gen 800 is such a sweet little lump,” he says about the mill. “[It’s got] enough power for my needs, a flat torque curve, and an exhaust note that’ll make your soul smile.” And for the guy reading this who’s wondering why in the world he didn’t stuff something like a 240hp, six-cylinder Odyssey engine in front of the driver, Williams would like to have a word with you: “At the outset I wanted to avoid extending the nose of the car, and I wanted to leave the firewall alone, so the space available led me to the relative cube shape of the VFR platform.” He also didn’t want to end up with an overpowered, 1,500lb coffin.
N600 collectors won’t be done throwing their hands in the air even after the hood’s been shut. Camaro bumpers have been grafted onto each end, a first-generation Miata lent its underpinnings to the car’s now four-wheel independent suspension, and if you think the seats look like they belong to a sand buggy, that’s because Williams nabbed them from a Polaris RZR. And, as it turns out, this N600 can’t even be flicked into reverse. “I struggled for a long time [trying] to integrate reverse,” Williams – who executed the whole project on his own and has already experimented with various transmission configurations – says, “but once I got the car running, I realized that [it] was so light and easy to push that the hassle and weight penalty of integrating reverse wasn’t worth it.”
There was no wavering when Williams spotted the 45-year-old Honda in the California desert a few years back, wheel-less and plopped right onto its mangled and rusted hubs that, he says, had been sitting that way since ’84. He knew the engine swap was going to happen. He knew he’d manage that rear-wheel-drive conversion. And he knew he’d drive it back and forth to work just about every day.
“I knew from the beginning where this build was meant to go,” Williams says about the foresight he had with the project that, after owning nearly two dozen other cars and trucks—the most notable of which was a fully restored ’53 Ford pickup—isn’t all that surprising. “I like to always have a project going—some sort of problem or puzzle to solve,” he says. That Ford, he admits, “started as a total basket case, but eventually it morphed into a beautiful little truck, and as my family grew, I had to let it go and let someone else enjoy it.”
Williams’ N600 will likely follow a similar fate. In fact, he admits he’s accomplished just about everything he’s set out to do with the car and is just about ready to move on to something else. “I’ve done all I intended to [do] with this build,” he says, “and I’ve enjoyed buzzing around in it for the last several years, so it’s probably time to pass it on to the next guy and put my energy into my next build.” Williams’ next project is anybody’s guess, but one thing’s for sure—it won’t be following anybody’s rulebook.
Q&A WITH DEAN WILLIAMS
Honda Tuning: Why the motorcycle engine?
Dean Williams: The short answer is packaging, but there’s more to it. It was one of the very few bike motors that I could squeeze in there. I’m quite glad I went this route. I didn’t want to end up with an overpowered [or] temperamental motor with a narrow powerband.
HT: Why the N600? Were there any other candidates?
DW: After blowing up an N600 [engine] back in college, I wanted to come back to the model and modify it to my liking. I thought it’d be a fun challenge to update the engine and underpinnings and see what came of it. In hindsight, if I had been more aware of the S600 [and] S800 coupes, I probably would’ve chosen one of those.
HT: There had to have been a lot of challenges with getting all of this to work. Tell us about that.
DW: I struggled with space and clearances throughout the car. With other builds I’ve done, I’ve become accustomed to clearances measured in inches, where as in this car, many components are within just a few millimeters of each other.
HT: What’s it like to own a VFR800-swapped N600?
DW: I drive it most every day unless it’s raining. I’ll also occasionally take it to a show. I’ve autocrossed it and had it out at Buttonwillow; both were memorable. I’ve also found it’s quite the rush to take it out on a barren highway and run it at its limit, which I don’t condone, as that would be breaking the law, but what a rush!
HT: Anything else we need to know?
DW: I’m always asked: “How fast will it go?” I’ve topped out at 127 mph but it was absolutely terrifying. In such a small car with a stubby wheelbase, it felt much, much faster than it was. It seemed like with one wrong move I’d be swapping ends and barrel rolling down the highway. Having said that, it will cruise all day at 70-75 mph.
|Bolts & Washers|
|Engine:||105hp 1998 Honda Interceptor VFR800 engine, transmission, and ECU transplant; custom headers and exhaust system; custom 8.2-gallon aluminum fuel tank; Dynojet III fuel controller; RWD conversion; Ford Thunderbird rear differential; Barnett clutch assembly; custom driveshaft with integrated flex disc|
|Suspension:||Custom Mazda Miata subframe, suspension, and steering rack conversion; Koni shocks|
|Brakes:||Custom Mazda Miata brake system|
|Wheels & Tires:||13x5.5 Western wheels; 175/50-13 tires|
|Exterior:||Modified first-generation Chevy Camaro bumpers; custom fiberglass fenders; modified front and rear valances; custom hood struts; shaved drip rails, door handles, side-marker lights, front turn signals, taillights, reverse lights, license plate bracket, trunk hinges, fender emblems, windshield wipers, hood bubble, and antenna|
|Interior:||Polaris RZR front seats; VFR instrument cluster; Signal Minder; Speedo Healer; custom paddle shifters|