The 1300 was a hugely significant car for Honda, but not in the way it was intended to be.
Since it was never properly sold in Western markets, the Honda 1300 is rather an unknown in Europe. Introduced in 1969, it looks pretty generic; it might be any ordinary European saloon of the time, maybe a Fiat. Though, if you think that the front hints at a Vauxhall Viva HB, that’s because they both took a cue from a common source – in Honda’s case the link being Soichiro Honda’s own Pontiac Firebird. But, beneath the skin, the 1300 couldn’t have been more different from the mediocre and ultra-conventional Vauxhall. Honda has never been like other Japanese manufacturers, because Soichiro Honda was never like other Japanese car company bosses.
From the start, he was a hands-on engineer. In just 20 years, since 1949, he had built Honda into the largest selling motorcycle company in the World. In 1963, Honda produced its first production car, the jewel-like S500 sports car and, in 1967, the N360 kei car. Both of these drew heavily on the motorcycle side and, when the time came to produce their first ‘proper’ car, a four door saloon to compete with the likes of the Corolla in Japan, and to establish Honda as an international car manufacturer, Soichiro Honda saw no reason to change.
He used the logical train that, if a flow of air was necessary to cool any engine, then it was wasteful to use liquid coolant as an intermediary. Honda had been making air-cooled motorcycles for years, why change for their cars? This obsession also stretched to demanding an air-cooled Formula One racer, the RA302, a hurriedly developed car that, in 1968, claimed the life of Jo Schlesser in the second lap of its only race.
So the 1300 motor was air-cooled, but without the external fins we would have seen on the likes of a VW or Citroen flat four. The ‘Duo Dyna Air Cooling’ featured fans both pushing and pulling air through a jacket cast in the cylinder head, occupying the area that would normally hold coolant. With a dry-sump and revving to 8,000, on paper the 1300 seems more like a racing engine and the results were suitably impressive, being available in basic 77 Series, single carburetor 100 bhp form and 99 Series, four carburetor 115 bhp form.
As a comparison, Vauxhall’s reasonably modern SOHC 1.6 litre four fitted to the larger Viva variants gave a, then respectable, 83 bhp, and even the excellent Lampredi designed 1300cc OHC of the Fiat 128 only produced 75 bhp. Testers reported that engine noise levels were on a par with water-cooled cars and that the car’s performance was excellent, especially the 99 Series which particularly impressed, though possibly less so when you needed to balance those 4 carburetors. But others at Honda remained convinced that this was not the way to go, particularly in view of imminent emissions legislation.
It wasn’t just the transversely mounted engine. Little about the 1300 took the easy way. The transmission had power taken to it by a chain and sat behind the engine from where equal length driveshafts with CV joints and sliding spines drove the front wheels. Engine and the lower arms of the front suspension were mounted on a subframe. It’s slightly surprising to find MacPherson struts at the front, since Honda shied away from them for so long, but the rear suspension is entirely unexpected, featuring full width swing axles on semi-elliptics. Obviously this set-up minimised the camber change problems normally associated with swing axles.
Throughout its gestation, the 1300 was a work-in-progress, with Soichiro Honda ordering changes whenever he saw a better way. Praiseworthy though this might seem, it was hardly commercially sound; at one point, before the car was put on sale, the production line was run in reverse, disassembling cars so that parts could be changed or modified. Some longer term innovations came from the project. For the coupe, to eliminate the need for solder filling of joins, an unhealthy process, Mr Honda instigated a process for making more complex, integrated side panels which resulted in the now-familiar ‘mohican line’ running along either side of the roof panel, which has since been copied by many other manufacturers.
The 1300 was not a success for Honda. In Japan it was seen as rather expensive and, even if one can see where the money went to justify its being more costly than a Corolla, buyers didn’t seem to be willing to fork out. And, in terms of potential Western markets, the dimensions of the 1300 saloon were really a bit too small, particularly its width. Honda lost money on every car they sold.
But, despite the relative failure of the President’s brainchild, and although his viewpoint and working practices were by no means shared by all at Honda, there was no palace revolution. It wasn’t needed. Soichiro Honda had been an inspiring and effective leader who led by example, and this attitude had been the reason for Honda’s success for its first 20 years. But it had now become a liability. Soichiro Honda’s ultimate reaction to the problems experienced with the 1300 was wise and, for a motor industry boss, dignified.
When his closest associate, vice-president Takeo Fujisawa, who had been with Honda since the beginning, pointed out that he must choose between being an engineer or a president, Soichiro chose the latter, making the path clear for Honda’s engineers to develop water-cooled cars that would meet future emissions regulations. This is a crucial part of Honda’s history, and one about which they are remarkably candid. The entire 1300 project was a difficult period, but they take justified pride in the fact that, ultimately, the right decisions for the company’s future were made.
In 1973, the 1300 was replaced by the 145, based on the same body but with a fuel injected, water-cooled engine, though this too sold poorly only lasting until October 1974. But, in any case, by then the car was already part of Honda’s past. In mid 1972, the first Civic was introduced with perfect timing, an economical car at the start of an energy crisis and, in 1975, it received the first CVCC engine, a powerplant so efficient that, at the time, it met US emissions standards without a catalyst. In 1976, the Civic was joined by the larger Accord.
Soichiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa retired jointly in 1973. Nevertheless, one has to ask whether the admirably ambitious, yet sometimes fatally blinkered attitude shown by Soichiro was ever entirely expunged from Honda, both for good and for bad?