Honda approach to UK car imports used a different tactic to the other Japanese companies and subsequently where always better received as a manufacturer compared to the mainstream Japanese marques. Honda had been competitively racing motorcycles in the UK since the late 50’s, with motorcycle sales starting in 1961, the following year reached over 25,000 bikes sales in the UK. It was recognised even before the cars arrived in the UK in October 1966, that Honda were considered engine and technology specialists – something that has been a connection that Honda have always maintained. They’d also had direct involvement in world wide Motorsports (including Formula 1) so would have been probably one of the first Japanese motor vehicle companies to become a household name. Honda became a solid well respected brand and appealed to middle class, and a somewhat older demographic.
The first cars arrived in the UK at the 1966 Motorshow with the high impact sports S800 roadster and coupe. They’d been feverish excitement at the show stand, and before the days of the 240Z and Rotary engined Mazdas, Honda had created the first credible Japanese sports car to be available in the UK. When deliveries started early in the new year, road tests proved that it could reach 100mph making it the fastest production 1-litre car in the world thanks to its high revving engine. The S800 was cheaper than both Triumph Spitfire and Mini Cooper.
Following the showroom appeal and interest in the S800, Honda followed it up with a series of small 2 door saloons with 360cc and 600cc engines. Typically the small engines would often out perform competitors with bigger displacements at a typically competitive price. Again the motoring press were very complimentary towards the car, and few buyers who did decide to buy a Honda over its natural competitor, the Mini were appreciative of the engineering, build quality and equipment offered in the car. The N600 was also offered with the ‘Hondamatic’, becoming the first small car equipped with a fully automatic transmission. The N360/N600 took the brand into the 70’s with minor modifications, updated engines and off shoot models (like the Z) but the brands real worldwide success came from the forthcoming Civic range of models.
They’d been some criticism that the series of then current Honda models were far too small for Western consumption. The first full sized car made by Honda, the Honda 1300 saloon and coupe was expected to be imported to the UK but suffered from engineering delays and its high Japanese price. These factors may have contributed to no official imports into the States and Europe. At this point its believed that Honda almost pulled out completely from the passenger car market, but decided to persevere in developing a supermini design which had become an in-vogue design movement in Europe. First imports didn’t arrive into the UK until 1973, simply due to the success and demand of the car in the states. Along with the new generation of Japanese imports, such as the Datsun 120Y and Toyota’s Corolla, the trend for good quality economical Japanese cars took America by storm. It soon became Honda top selling car, sales in the UK, didn’t quite reach that of the best selling Datsuns but easily outsold models made by Mazda, Colt and Subaru and on par with the Corolla. The Civic was often upgraded, developed and improved, its basic styling remained visually similar until the early 80’s. It was sold in the same basic body shell in the UK, available as a 2 and 4 door saloon and a 3 and 5 door hatchback. Estate models were also produced but never exported to Europe. One black mark that blighted the reputation of the Civic on the secondhand market was the widely reported structural rust issues, Honda USA recalled many cars to attempt to amend the corrosion spread and some cars were also recalled in the UK.
The second generation Civic featured a slightly larger body and improved corrosion protection. The car now featured new more powerful engines with greater refinement and expected build quality. This generation of Civic continued the body options as before, but the chassis was used for the Prelude and the Civic (known as the Ballade) 4 door saloon version was produced under license at the British Leyland plant in Cowley badged as the Triumph Acclaim. It was the start of a productive tie up between the 2 companies.
While the Civic was making successful inroads, selling almost 10,000 examples in the UK in its best year, Honda announced that it would be producing a FWD 3 door hatchback coupe model to compete in the higher end of the mid sized car market. The proposal was directly aimed at the American market, but featured a far cleaner and more acceptable body style to European eyes too. Again capatalising on Hondas progressive technology, high quality, fuel efficient manifesto it was launched to an appreciative market in 1976. The car was complimented by a 4 door saloon version a year later, which generally received positive feedback from UK journalist. The car was a more engaging experience to drive than most of its Japanese rivals and was recognised as a more upmarket alternative to the typical Japanese car.
By the end of the start of the new decade, it was joined by the 5 door Quintet hatchback and 2 door based Prelude models – both again technically interesting, although the Quintet sold in far left less numbers than hoped and was discontinued in the UK 2 years before actual production ended. The Quintet was sold as a Rover in Australia, more by association of the brands recent collaborations, rather than direct Rover input.
The compactly styled Prelude followed the trend set by the original Toyota Celica and received positive reviews and opinions, paving the way to even greater innovation and success into the 80’s. Based on the Accord floorpan, Honda desire to push the brand further upmarket was reflected on the specification and high price, but the compact dimensions meant that European sales were limited as the fiercely competitive sports car market offered other alternatives by long established sports model, made by the Italians and Germans. The styling may have also been too closely associated with the Civic, but the next generation of Prelude was startlingly unique and a far better seller.
The Legend model was launched with its British equivalent, the Rover 800 in 1985, initially both cars were assembled at Cowley however it soon became clear that the quality was not up to Japanese standards so the cars were not sold outside the UK. Subsequent version were very different to the original and the cars shared very few parts towards the end of the cars life. Honda’s version inherited the typical Japanese luxury car values, an abundance of equipment, a somewhat overdesigned idea of luxury and an adequate but typical definition of Japanese ride and handling. A coupe version was also sold with the later 2.7 V6 engine, but suffered from the inherited traits and a retail high price.
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