For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
Situated about two hours north of Tokyo in the rolling hills and forests of Tochigi Prefecture, the Honda Collection Hall at the Twin Ring Motegi complex is a bit tricky to get to, but well worth a visit.
Built in 1997, the site includes impressive oval and road-course race circuits, a hotel, a kart track, hiking trails and camping areas, as well the museum.
Featuring treasures from Soichiro Honda’s pre-war racing, via the birth of the motorcycle company right up to its more recent history of Formula One, sports car and IndyCar racing, the collection celebrates Honda’s philosophy of ‘creating products that serve people’.
The cathedral-like atrium displays a podium encapsulating Honda’s history: a 1960 RC143 125cc GP racing ’bike, ex-Richie Ginther V12 RA272 Grand Prix racer, S500 sports car and Honda 50 Cub step-through moped.
Also on the ground floor is an exhibition of the early days of the marque, with the Curtiss OX-5 Special from 1924 that young engineer Honda worked on at the Art Shokai automobile service station in Tokyo and competed in as a riding mechanic.
The 8237cc overhead-valve Curtiss V8 aircraft engine is mounted in a bespoke chassis, with a multi-plate clutch.
Also in this hall, which is laid out as a timeline, is the 1949 Dream, Honda’s first proper ’bike. Before this, Soichiro had repurposed a small engine used by the military to power field-radio equipment, reworking it for auxiliary bicycle propulsion.
The new ’bike featured a 98cc single-cylinder two-stroke and a pressed-steel frame well suited to mass production.
Honda’s first automobile didn’t arrive until 1962, the pretty little S360 sports car developed using much of the firm’s motorcycle technology and featuring a 356cc four-cylinder engine.
With chain-drive and weighing in at just 510kg it was effectively a prototype and never reached full-scale production.
Capacity was marginally increased for the production model: the S500 reached the market in 1963 with 530cc, but it did have a quad-carb, twin-overhead-cam engine and was capable of an impressive 85mph.
The final iteration of the S-series was the S800M, available as a roadster and a coupé.
With dual-circuit brakes, front discs, a four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox and 70bhp it could reach 100mph.
Upstairs, the collection is split into cars on one side and ’bikes on the other, with road vehicles on the first floor and racers on the second.
Honda Power Products are displayed here, so if you love a classic rotavator this is the hall for you.
There are also many innovative small pick-ups and compact cars, such as the air-cooled and front-wheel-drive 1969 1300.
It was then Honda’s biggest car to date and featured Soichiro’s innovative Duo Dyna Air Cooling, a system that forced cooling air from a fan mounted on the flywheel through a cast jacket around the four-cylinder engine.
The Civic from 1972 is here, too, of course. It set a new worldwide standard for sub-compact cars.
The styling was modern, with a powertrain layout mimicking the Mini’s: a wheel at each corner, a transverse engine and front-wheel drive.
In 1973 the Civic was the first car fitted with Honda’s CVCC low-emissions engine to meet the stringent new US Clean Air Act.
Next to it is a rarity that we never saw in the UK, the Country estate that arrived in Japan in 1980 with the then-new Honda-matic two-speed automatic ’box, featuring innovative sliding rather than planetary gears to reduce drag.
The tiny Honda Z is particularly eye-catching. With wacky dayglo colours right on trend for 1970, it was one of the first specifically designed city or kei cars.
Initially sold through the firm’s motorcycle dealers before the mainstream Civic spawned car concessions, the Z was available with a range of air- and, later, water-cooled engines and remained in production until ’74.
Cars were built in the UK under the Honda Legend and Rover 800 tags, and marketed in the US as the Sterling. Powered by a2493cc V6 driving the front wheels, it featured a number of firsts for the firm including traction control, anti-lock brakes and a driver’s airbag.
Among the racers is a fantastic line-up of early F1 cars, starting in ’64 with the 1.5-litre V12 RA271.
The engine was mounted transversely and revved up to 14,000rpm; it was clearly motorcycle technology.
The following year the first Japanese car to win a Grand Prix, the RA272, made its debut in Monaco with Richie Ginther and Ronnie Bucknum. It was fast but initially fragile until the final race in Mexico, when Ginther took the lead on the first lap and stayed there right through to the chequer.
For 1966, a new car was needed for the revised 3-litre rules and the RA273 was built. Retaining a V12, but now mounted longitudinally, it was heavy and struggled to be competitive.
A new, lighter chassis was built for 1967’s RA300 and John Surtees scored victory at the Italian Grand Prix.
There was more power for the following year’s RA301, but unreliability plagued the team and Honda bowed out at the end of the season.
Also in this area is the 1983 Spirit that marked Honda’s return to the Grand Prix circus, along with Keke Rosberg’s Williams FW09 that secured the firm’s first win in the new era.
Nigel Mansell’s FW11 from 1986 is on display here, too, with its extraordinary screamer of a V6 that could deliver up to 1200bhp in qualifying trim. The model brought constructors’ honours to Honda power for the first time, as Mansell and Nelson Piquet won nine times.
In 2004 the immensely successful Honda 3-litre V8 took the top three places for the 88th running of the Indy 500 and that year’s winner is on display alongside Jenson Button’s RA106 and the GT2 class-winning NSX from the 1995 24Hours of Le Mans.
Honda has come a long way since those humble beginnings.
Images: James Mann
- Name Honda Collection Hall
- Address 120-1 Hiyama, Motegi, Tochigi, 321-3533 Japan
- Where 90 mins north of Tokyo
- How much? Adults ¥1200 (about £7), kids ¥300-600, parking ¥1000
- Opening hours 9:30am-5:00pm every day, save public holidays
- Tel 0081 285 64 0001
- Web global.honda/heritage/collection-hall.html