The First-Ever Honda in the US Gets a Second Chance at Life

N600 serial number one escaped the crusher. Now it’s being brought back to life.

byBrendan McAleer|
History photo

It should have been crushed. When Honda's first fleet of 50 prototype N600s finished winter testing in the MidWest in 1967, they were sold for scrap to a junkyard down the road from the company's California-based headquarters. A few days later a Honda employee saw one beetling down the road—it turns out the enterprising scrapyard owner decided to make a little money on the side as America's first bootleg Honda dealer. Honda made sure the remaining 47 cars were crushed, but three N600s had already escaped into the wild. Now, N600 specialist Tim Mings is restoring the very first of these first-wave Hondas: N600-1000001, serial number one.

The N600 is a sprightly little thing, its importance overshadowed by the commercial success of the Civic that followed it. Powered at first by a 45 hp, two-cylinder engine (later detuned to 36hp due to a tendency to blow up on the broad US interstates) it's best thought of as a sort of Japanese Mini Cooper. Tackling the US market with such a tiny cricket of a car was audacious at best, particularly in the age of big cubic engines and block-long behemoths.

But people fell in love with them. Like a Mini, the N600 is quick and zippy and light on its feet. "You meet the nicest people on a Honda," read the company's ads for their motorcycles, and the cheery little N600 attracted that same crowd. It's a car many Honda fans are nostalgic about, and while not all that rare it is unusual to see them running. This one, though, is a total unicorn.

"They took 50 [Japanese market] N360s off the assembly line," Tim Mings says, speaking from his shop in California, "And installed these hot-rod 600cc engines. You can see how many of the parts are early prototypes, lots of sand-cast metal."

Mings (N600 fans call him "Mings the Merciless") is the only dedicated N600 and Z600 shop in the world. The little cars seem to find their way to him, and serial number one is no exception. Mings found one of the three escapee '67 prototypes sitting on a trailer in Pomona, and made an offer. As it turned out, the owner had another N600 in his garage and asked if Mings wanted that one, too. He bought the car sight unseen and took it back to his garage where it sat for several years. Until one day he scraped off some of the debris covering the VIN, and there it was: N600-1000001.

Honda America has commissioned a full restoration of the car, even giving their tiny ancestor its own website. The paint is faded, the weatherstripping fossilized, the headliner in tatters. However, Mings has most of the parts needed in the huge treasure trove of new-old stock parts he's amassed over the years. "The one thing that's eluding me," he says, "Is a new rubber floormat." The rest of the car is surprisingly complete.

"This car will be finished by mid-September," he says. If you want your own chance to see the first Honda in America, jot the Long Beach Japanese Classic Car Show on your calendar. Now in its 12th year, Mings calls the show a must-see event. After that, serial number one will be tucked away in Honda's private museum in Torrance, which isn't open to the public. At some point, it'll head to Ohio, to Honda's heritage center, near the assembly line for the new Acura NSX; Honda's first-ever American car, sitting just across the way from the company's current, American-made supercar.