Honda S

The Evolution and Legacy of Honda’s S Line: From S360 to S2000

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The S2000 is considered one of the most popular Honda models worldwide, potentially second only to the NSX. It’s not just well-known but also one of Honda’s most sought-after creations. This roadster has a rich history and a notable lineage of predecessors including the S500, S600, and S800. While its place in this line is often debated among brand enthusiasts, its influence is undeniable. Thus, I present you the history of the S line.

In the late 1950s, one of Japan’s best-known motorcycle manufacturers decided to start producing cars, a move that did not go unheeded – the Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry promoted this move by Soichiro Honda, encouraging the construction of a vehicle for the common citizen, priced at less than 150,000 yen. A four-seater city saloon was born, but Soichiro wanted more – 1958 came with a sudden move on Honda’s part – he wanted a sports model too much, so he created the XA190 prototype. After another three years of hard work and refinement with Yoshio Nakamura, the prototype became a convertible and was officially unveiled in June 1962 at Honda’s 11th convention as the S360.

The roadster makes its shy entrance on the Suzuka track, with Soichiro Honda behind the wheel, with his trusted man Yoshio Nakamura – the head of the small roadster project – on his left. The S360 represents a new beginning for Honda, a brave project in a rather restrictive market, but Soichiro did what he did in general – he took risks. And we all know the result of his work. 

The S360 bore a DOHC engine underneath, fed by four carburettors, generating a total of around 33 hp at around 9,000 rpm, an incredible number of revolutions for those times. Another curious factor for those years was that it measured a total weight of only 510 kg.

Introduced in Tokyo in October 1962, alongside the S500 and T360, the little S360 roadster never actually made it to the production line. The Japanese eventually dropped the model in favour of the next in line – the S500. Well, a lot can be said about the S500 – it’s probably another well-known Honda model as well as a beloved one even today; in production for a relatively short time – between 1963 and 1964, the S500 is the first roadster model to see the light of day in Honda showrooms, yet it’s a rare model nowadays – only 1400 units ever made it out of the factory gate.

Honda S500

Visually, the differences between the two models – the S360 and the S500 – are quite small, but the latter is characterised by a sportier look and feel than the previous one. Measuring about 3.3 m long and 1.2 m high, the S500 was noticeably larger than the Japanese’s first roadster, but the installed engine – the AS280E (an upgraded version of the AS250E fitted to the S360), 531 cmc, built entirely from aluminium – generated about 44 hp at 8,000 rpm, 11 hp more than on the previous variant, the engine still being DOHC, but with a different construction and a single carburettor – the horizontal Keihin CVB type. Thanks to the light but quite powerful engine for the period, the S500 became one of the most sought-after roadsters on the market at the time. So the little S500 puts important data on its resume, such as a top speed of around 130 km/h and rear-wheel drive – yes, this “little” detail has been preserved and respected to this day, becoming a special feature of the S line. The Junior S500 was sold until September 1967, only a limited number of 1353 units – but the most important detail is that the S500 was produced exclusively RHD (right-hand drive), for the Japanese market, the only two models with the steering wheel on the left side of the car were produced strictly for showrooms – the car was never exported.

Honda S500 ad

Hurriedly or to avoid leaving an empty spot on its roster, Honda quickly replaced the model with one already developed since ’64 – the S600. And I say already developed because the Japanese already marketed it at the same time as the small S500, but the S600 was more fortunate it seems, as the roadster managed to break the borders, and was exhibited at the Paris Motor Show, thus enjoying not only marketing in Europe, but also in Canada and Australia. The Honda S600 thus becomes the first Honda model to be exported, which helps sales soar – compared to the S500, which sold around 1400 units, the S600 adds another zero to that figure, with total sales of around 13,084 units (well, not quite a zero, but close enough anyway).

Since every Honda model of that period brought some novelty or innovation, the S600 didn’t disappoint – the AS285 engine was enlarged to 606 cmc, generating about 57 hp/5,700 rpm – with the red zone of the tachometer raised to the round figure of 9,500 rpm. Weighing in at a mere 690 kg, the little S600 accelerates from 0 – 100 km/h in 18.7 seconds, reaching a top speed of 145 km/h. These figures are small today, and nothing seems impressive, but in the 1960s car market, Honda was making history with these little roadsters, and not only.

Honda S600 Coupe

Honda’s S600 became the first model to feature two body styles – roadster and coupe – introduced in 1965, boosting the overall weight to 715 kg, 20 kg more than the roadster version. Production of the latter ended in 1966, and the S800 soon replaced it. The S800 is much bulkier than its predecessor – about 35mm longer and 20 kg heavier; the model is available in the same typology as the S600 – roadster and coupe. This time too, the changes are not massive in terms of bodywork. Still, the brand lover’s keen eye will easily notice the chrome front grille that now incorporates the Honda logo, the dashboard finished in a matte black, the taillights lose the round shape that existed on previous models, and the new ones are now elongated. The engine – AS800E – is now increased to 791 cmc compared to the previous generation, generating about 70 hp / 8,000 rpm.

The performance of the little S800 raises the Honda benchmark – 0 to 100 km/h in 13.7 seconds and 0 to 400 m in 16.9 seconds, reaching a top speed of 160 km/h. In 1967, the small convertible was declared the fastest mass-produced car with an engine under 1 litre. No wonder the car became such a hit, being successfully exported to both the European and American markets – in fact, the American market is also to blame for the radical changes it underwent – both the rear and taillights were restyled to meet the road safety standards of the time, the side skirts quickly made their way into the front wings, the drum brakes on the front axle were replaced by discs in standard equipment and the list goes on. For Europe, the little S800 was a model that offered customers good value for money for the time, and what’s more, Honda also offered a fairly long list of equipment for the little European.

More than 11,000 units have been sold worldwide – a heaven-to-earth difference between the firstborn of the sport line – the S500 – sold in only 1,500 copies, and the penultimate model – the S800. I say penultimate because it was followed by the much-loved S2000. And the last S in the line.

I say in “the line” because the S2000’s membership of this line is questionable – brand purists know what they are talking about. I think the only thing it shares with the aforementioned S’s is the idea of convertible, soft-top and traction, as we’re talking about two different categories here – the S360, S500, S600, and the S800 were part of the Japan-specific category – the Kei car.

S2000 – a lot can be written here. An entirely different car from anything Honda had built before – launched in 1998, out of a desire to improve the line-up – the Japanese had just “put to sleep” the production of the delSol targa, leaving an unfilled gap in the model list. Moreover, Honda needed that sports model accessible to the general public. Well, that didn’t happen overnight. In 1995, Honda launched a prototype called SSM (Sports Study Model) in Tokyo, the first appearance of the final model taking place in April 1999, in Geneva, on the occasion of Honda’s 50th anniversary, where the roadster promptly won “The Cabrio of the Year 1999” award. How? It’s quite simple – both the SSM project and the S2000 had that quelque-chose – and here the credit goes to its chief designer – Shigeru Uehara.

Shigeru Uehara
Shigeru Uehara – the father of the S2000

But now, as a small aside – let me tell you something about Shigeru, our key character: not only is he responsible for the design of the S2000, but also for the entire NSX project. Yes, he’s the “mad scientist” who managed to give life to a legend (sorry, two legends) that still lingers to this day. Moreover, Shigeru was also the project leader for the Integra DC2, but in that case, his contribution was less on the design side. But about Integra, on another occasion.

Concept SSM

Through the design of two models, he incorporated everything that many have failed to do over the years. You don’t believe me? Look at an NSX today, more than 24 years after its launch. The same goes for the S2000 – a model still turning heads more than 15 years after the model’s life. This time back to the very youngest of the S line – the S2000 roadster was available for sale for ten years – from 1999 to 2009, with two versions – the original AP1, followed by the AP2 facelift in 2004.

It’s worth remembering, however, that despite the update, the changes were subtle and more detailed, the roadster retaining its identity until the end. Following the success of the SSM in 1995, Honda returned with the final version in 1998, on the occasion of Honda’s 50th anniversary. In April 1999, the successor to the S line was finally unveiled to the world in a near-final formula – the final dimensions have been revised to keep the S line’s styling consistent with its predecessors from the 1960s. The only aspect where not much could be changed was the length – the S2000 was over 4 m long.

S2000

Much work and care went into the roadster’s chassis from the engineers – thanks to the X-structure, the S2000 is not only very stiff but also much more resistant in the event of a collision, a detail that was a bit of a problem, especially in the 90s, when the SSM was poking its nose into society.  What’s more, the chassis has been specially developed to achieve the same level of rigidity as a compact car – the front tunnel is the same height as the left and right chassis frame – the “trident structure” – with the weight dispersed over the sills, tunnel and floor structure.

Honda S2000
Honda S2000 x bone structure

Returning to the S2000, to ensure an ideal mass distribution, the engine was carefully designed to correspond to the engineers behind the project. Positioned longitudinally in a central-front position, under the aluminium hood, it fits in well with Honda’s philosophy – small, but efficient. Named F20C, the engine measures about 1,998 cc DOHC, in 4 cylinders, producing no less than 240 HP / 8300 rpm (the version produced for Europe, with the special version for the Japanese market climbing another 7 HP, due to increased compression). Two engines were available throughout the model’s life – F20C and F22C1, completely different from the other F-series engines owned by Honda (found on many Accord models from the ’90s).

Honda F20c

Even more, the F20C won the “Best Engine” award many times and is still admired today by brand purists and others. However, this is not surprising, as the yield offered by the 125 HP / per litre is quite remarkable for a mass-produced atmospheric engine, being officially named the most powerful aspirated engine of the moment. However, this was nothing new for Honda – engineers had already hit the jackpot with the tiny CRX and its 1.6 DOHC 160 HP and Integra Type-R – 1.8 DOHC and 190 HP. This wild little heart was connected to a six-speed manual gearbox, equipped with a Torsten LSD. All these, along with the reduced weight of only 1,240 kg, allow a 0-100 km/h of only 6.2 seconds. And to put the icing on the cake, in July 2000, Honda launched a limited version called VGS (Variable Gear ratio Steering – aka Variable Assisted Power Steering) on the Japanese market, this new technology appearing for the first time in the world on a production car through this S2000 Type-V (Japan exclusive version), this model also representing one of the few effective proofs of this new technology.

Honda S2000 VGS

The marketing of the model started in April 2009, over the years having various special versions, improvements at the level of suspension and steering, body structure and various other details. In 2004 the production of the model moved to the Suzuka factory, the S2000 benefited from a facelift the following year, along with a new engine – F22C – 2156 cc and 242 HP/7800 rpm. With the engine, the S2000 also gets various “star” technologies of the moment, such as drive-by-wire – a small aspect that has sparked controversy among model lovers, pro and con, followed in 2007 by the VSA system (Vehicle Stability Assist), a system that is part of the package of technologies dedicated to active safety, an increasingly important characteristic for car manufacturers dedicated to reducing the risk of accidents. Since Honda was the first Japanese car manufacturer to equip its production cars with ABS (the name in the first years being A.L.B.) and also the first car manufacturer in the world to develop a traction control system for a front-wheel-drive car, the next on the list was, of course, S2000 – the small rear-wheel-drive roadster.

In 2007, Honda launched the Type-S version – stiffer suspension, special aerodynamic kit, stiffened chassis, even reduced weight – about 40 kg lighter than the factory version. Unfortunately, the Type-S version remains only on the Japanese market, and in 2007, in the United States there is a similar Type-S version – S2000 CR – sharing almost all the qualities of the aforementioned, as well as an aluminum hardtop.

The European market remains protected from sports models, receiving only special, more and more exclusive versions. Until 2009, the last official launch date, the S2000 knows and dresses different versions, for Europe, the USA or Japan – those for the export market being much better equipped than those destined for the Japanese market, such as the 40th Anniversary edition, in 2004, specially launched to celebrate 40 years of Honda’s existence on the French market – a version that benefited from a hardtop and beige leather upholstery, 2000 RJ – a tribute to F1 pilots Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button, as well as the last S2000 version launched on the market, in 2009 – Ultimate Edition – edition available exclusively in the Grandprix White colour, grey-graphite rims and red leather interior. Ah, and the hardtop, let’s not forget about the hardtop.

A period of silence followed. Several years long. But Honda has promised us that the S line will return to the podium, along with the company’s other sports models – Civic Type-R and NSX. The two are already stars today, so we hope to hear something good about the S line soon. Stay close.

Finally, as a bonus, I share with you the emotional speech of Shigeru Uehara, at the meeting of Honda S2000 fans in the United States in 2015. 🙏

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