I’ve been waiting to drive a Honda S800 for over 35 years, ever since I saw it in dealership in London as a teenager. It was a Japanese MGB, miniscule yet maverick, mini yet clearly mighty.
That’s down to the motorcycle derived engine. A 791cc four-cylinder producing 70bhp in a lightweight two-seater roadster (though it was also available as a coupe) capable of accelerating it from rest to 60mph in 13.6 seconds and reaching nearly 100mph. That may not sound like much by today’s standards, but back then it was very acceptable and besides, it’s all about how this thing ‘feels’ on the go.
Debuting at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1965, that’s just two years after the motorcycle manufacture first got into making cars. It was preceded by the S500 and S600 sports cars, but after the S800 ran from 1966 to 1970, there was no further ‘S’ series until the awesome S2000 three decades later. The S800 was imported to the UK from 1967, only around 1500 were sold here and it appears less than a 100 survive.
So this recently restored 1967 example bought by Honda UK in 2016, is rare and valuable. Not just because of how much they’ve spent fixing it up, but values have doubled in just the last two years. Today you’ll need mid-£30k to get one like this, the very best examples rising to £40k
The substantial concerns I had over collapsing my 6ft 2in long-legged frame into such a tiny car – it’s 3.3m long, 1.2m tall and just 1.4m wide – soon subside. My legs are comfortably extended, albeit bizarrely angled off to the right. But overall it’s actually quite comfortable, particularly as I keep the hood down.
The interior has been beautifully retrimmed, the time-warp dashboard displays classic instrumentation, and the large wood-rimmed steering wheel has genuine period patina. On the go, the steering lightens up and despite initial play is responsive but also transmit a fair amount of information about what the front wheel are doing and feeling.
Similarly, the rigid chassis does the same, telegraphing every bump and ripple in the road to your behind, so much so that you start to skirt around the potholes you notice, though some you won’t.
Of course, it’s also noisy and rattly, but this car is 53 years old. NVH refinement was not a thing back then. I hardly use half the revs this thing was designed to do, 10,000rpm, but still enough to get it up to legal speeds around town. It’s positively a hoot as you work the stubby little toggle-switch style gear lever, staying in the first three gears as much as possible. It does its best work from around 3500rpm.
The brakes are way better than expected, and the grip is plentiful. The S800 is darty and precise, eager and grippy, feeling racy even at pedestrian speeds. Once you get used to it, you don’t want to stop driving it. If there were more of these around and therefore, less precious, you’d want to drive it every day.
Sometimes it’s right to say ‘don’t meet your heroes,’ thankfully, this isn’t one of those moments.