Guilty pleasures: Honda 1300

| 23 Feb 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Honda 1300

The official Honda history books make no attempt at sweeping the 1969 1300 under the carpet.

It is not skipped over or brushed aside, but almost lingered on as a noble failure, an example of how even the best of us can mess things up occasionally.

Never sold in the UK, the 1300 caused the resignation of Mr Honda himself and near mutiny among the firm’s engineers.

Soichiro Honda, having built his reputation on ’bikes, had a ‘thing’ about air cooling and had deployed it successfully in the tiny N360 and N600 small cars.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Honda 1300

The N360 was Honda’s breakthrough car in its domestic market

But when the time came, in the mid-’60s, to design a family-sized front-drive saloon, he was still pressing for air cooling, much against the better judgement of his engineering staff – led by Tadashi Kume – who were worried that the new engine might not meet future American emissions legislation.

Water cooling, they argued, was vital if they were to achieve the even combustion chamber temperatures needed for a clean exhaust. 

But Mr Honda was having none of it: if air cooling was good enough for his ’bikes (and even his racing cars), then it was good enough for the new 1300.

Kume decided he was getting nowhere and quit Honda for a quiet life on an island, although he was later tempted back.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Honda 1300
Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Honda 1300

The Honda N360’s air-cooled parallel ‘twin’ powers the front wheels with a chain-drive to the clutch

The 1300, pictured at the top of this page, was revealed at the Tokyo show in 1968, delayed a month or two because Mr Honda didn’t approve of the prototype’s styling.

At the front it had a split grille, probably inspired by the Pontiac Firebird Honda was driving at the time, but was otherwise very much in the Italian breeze-block school of the period.

The really interesting hardware was under the bonnet: dry-sump lubrication and Honda’s sealed ‘Dual Dyna’ ducting, whereby the outside air cooled the outer walls of the engine, while a fan sucked air in through a duct to the internals of the engine.

This, combined with cooling fins designed not to resonate, meant that the 1300 didn’t rattle like a VW Beetle but, according to Mr Honda, was ‘as quiet as Citroën 2CV’.

What’s more, it would spin smoothly to 8000rpm and developed 96bhp at 7200rpm – which made it, by my reckoning, the most powerful 1300cc mass-production saloon on the planet in 1969.

The 1300 also had independent suspension all round, front disc brakes and a four-speed full synchromesh gearbox, with the option of a three-speed automatic. 

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Honda 1300

The new Honda Coupé GL of 1970 tried to increase the model’s appeal

Technicians loved it, drivers didn’t. It was fast in a straight line, up to 110mph, but lost the plot through corners.

The heavy engine (the car weighed 930kg, despite its alloy block and heads) mounted way out at the front, combined with front-wheel drive, meant terminal understeer and weighty steering.

Despite the introduction of a coupé version in 1970 with 116bhp and a change of name, the 1300 was a slow seller.

Honda was haemorrhaging money on the car, and it had to be replaced by a water-cooled version, the 145, in 1972. The public did not want air cooling in mainstream cars any more, as VW was learning to its cost, no matter how smooth and refined.

After discussions with his right-hand man Takeo Fujisawa, Mr Honda finally agreed to let his engineers proceed with a new generation of water-cooled designs, which they had been working on in secret.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Honda 1300

A new look for the Honda Coupé Custom of 1971

From here on Mr Honda began to take more of a back-seat role in the company and, in 1973, effectively retired when he took on the honorary title of Supreme Advisor.

For any other company, the 1300 could have been a fatal stumble, leaving the range without a strong-selling four-wheeler. But Honda had its ’bikes to fall back on and hit back strongly, with the Civic, in 1972.

A handful of Honda 1300s have turned up in the UK and occasionally come up for sale. Hopefully, one day, I will blag a drive in one and see if it’s as bad as they said at the time. 

Images: Honda/James Mann

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