UNCOVERING THE UNCONVENTIONAL

Despite never having seen or heard of Honda’s diminutive 1300 Coupe 9 before he stumbled across it in a Johannesburg basement, Stuart Grant  became enamoured thanks to some interesting and not-so-common engineering, ingenuity and stylishness. Oh yes, and there is the fact that it was a somewhat private project spearheaded in a rather dogmatic approach by Mr Soichiro Honda himself, with customer satisfaction outweighing any engineering or production compromises.

In 1971 Sports Car World magazine succinctly summed up just how different and odd-ball this car was with the following lines: “Four cylinders… fair enough. Air-cooled? Well, it's been done. Transversely-mounted engine? That's been done, too. Forced-induction air-cooling? Not all that new. Front-wheel drive? Not new. Four carbs on a four-banger? Standard procedure, for Honda. Dry-sump? Been popular in performance cars for donkey's years. Cross-over swing axles? Extremely rare! But combine all these features in one super-sporty little coupe, and you've got what looks on paper to be the weirdest little motor car ever!"

The Coupe 9 story goes back to the mid-1960s, when Honda set about building mainstream export market cars to run alongside its motorcycle production. His brief was not an easy one: it called for a well-priced, family saloon powered by an air-cooled 1.3-litre engine that featured interior dimensions of the average 1.5-litre Japanese sedan while performing like a 2-litre engine. Add in to the mix that it should deliver fuel economy figures in the same league as a small 1000cc car and that the engine should emit no more noise than water-cooled 4-cylinder petrol and it is understandable that the engineering team got a bit jittery.

From then on the relatively inexperienced car designers and engineers had to put up with Mr Honda standing over their shoulders and insisting that they change the design when he felt it would not work. When lead designer Hideo Takeda, under pressure to get manufacturing going, retorted: “I hear what you say, Mr. Honda. But they are about to start mass production at Suzuka, so to make additional design changes would only bring chaos to the line", he was met by red-faced Honda sternly barking: “Dammit, chaos on the line is nothing compared to what our customers would have to suffer. Can't you understand that? Now, go to Suzuka and take care of it, right now!"

Under this constant pressure and pursuit of perfection for the customer the team managed to churn out a fleet of prototype cars by its 21 October 1968 unveiling at the Akasaka Prince Hotel in Tokyo. Known as the H1300, the show cars were small 4-door saloons and the media reception was favourable. Honda claimed 96 horsepower and a top speed of 175km/h and threw in the fact that they recognised their social responsibility to ensure an active safety design, with powerful brakes and supreme comfort. At the unveiling one unit was fired up for journalists to hear how quiet the 1298cc engine was and apparently Mr Honda was heard to say that the engine was far quieter than a certain well-known German rear-engined automobile.

By 15 April 1969, following a slight delay in production as Mr Honda had designers fettling what he thought was a bland aesthetic, the first production H1300s were ready and the media were let loose in a whack of them at Nagoya’s Suzuka Raceway.

Aimed squarely at the Toyota Corona, Mitsubishi Galant, Nissan Bluebird and Mazda Capella, the H1300 was Honda’s largest car to date, measuring in at 3885mm x 1465mm. Two derivatives went on sale immediately: the first was known as the Series 77 and came with a single carburettor 100hp mill, and the second was the Series 99 that had four Keihin carburettors, making it good for 115 horses. For top dollar a Series 99 Custom Saloon was also offered, featuring an automatic gearbox and air conditioning. The H1300 saloon competed favourably with the rest of the Japanese makes when it came to performance, driving enjoyment, specification and comfort departments but failed in the pricing war.

It was in February 1970 that the Coupe version raised its head to the public. Although both sport a so-called ‘Mohican’ nose structure, the Coupe is definitely a better looking machine. Some say that the designers saw how fond Mr Honda was of his Pontiac GTO, which also wore a Mohican, and penned it with this in mind. Another, more plausible, theory is that it allowed for more body rigidity and removed the need to solder panels, which concerned Mr Honda because of the unhealthy soldering gasses breathed in by employees while doing this. Saloon mechanicals and engine specs were carried across with the single carb variant badged as the Coupe 7 and the quadruple carb version the Coupe 9.

Road testers complimented the handling, often commenting that if you didn’t pop the bonnet you’d have walked away thinking you’d just driven another front-engine, rear-wheel drive vehicle. Front suspension sees A-arms rubber-mounted to the sub-frame and McPherson struts, while the Honda inventiveness shines at the back end with each rear wheel mounted on a swing axle that pivots on the opposite side of the chassis. The axles are sprung and located longitudinally by semi-elliptic leaf spring with a floating connection to prevent the leaves twisting as the axle rises and falls. This thought benefitted the ride and handling by lowering the roll centres and reducing the wheel camber change and jacking effect.

All very clever but the real gem in the crown is that air-cooled motor. Mr Honda stated that “since water-cooled engines eventually use air to cool the water, we can implement air-cooling from the very beginning". His R&D crew came up with a system called Duo Dyna Air Cooling where the cylinder head and block have airways or passages like the water channels of liquid-cooled engines. An impeller is mounted directly to one end of the crankshaft and provides cooling by pumping air through these passages. Added to this were external cooling fins cast onto the engine casing. The result was triumphant, with the system doing just as efficient a job as a traditional water-cooled lump.  While most other air-cooled suffer with noise issues Honda’s internal channels meant that the external fins were short in comparison, and this prevented vibrations and high-frequency ringing.

Lubrication came via a dry sump unit with two pumps: one sending oil from a tank mounted on the upper right of the engine bay to the motor and the other pumping it from the crankcase back to the tank. Of course this tank also featured some cooling fins in the casing.  An OHC engine configuration was used but the performance of the little 1298cc was enhanced by hemispherical combustion chambers and an alloy cross-flow head layout.

In Coupe 9 4-carb guise the maximum break horsepower is measured at an incredible 7 300rpm but the Honda pulls all the way from 900rpm without a hassle. Only a Mazda RX2 Rotary could rival the smoothness and lack of engine and transmission vibrations. Max speed came in at around 160km/h and a naught to 100km/h sprint accomplished in just under 12 seconds.  Gearshift on the fully synchromeshed 4-speed manual is swift and thanks to the decent tractability, third is only needed for a quick overtake on a back road. Weighing in at 960kg, the discs up front and drums at the rear do a top-notch job.

Although aimed at the export market, the Coupe numbers are not huge with 35 804 Coupe 7s, 7 881 Coupe 9s and 1 788 automatic models claimed to have been made between 1969 and ’73. Of those only 1053 left Japan, and records show that 731 of these ended up in Australia. With Japan being a right-hand drive market this shipment to Australia is not that surprising, but how three made it to the United States remains a bit of a mystery. The remainder seem to have found their way to various pacific islands but Zimbabwean motorists seem to recall seeing some on their roads back in the day, as well as another Japanese cult Coupe – the Isuzu Bellette. How many made it to South Africa remains a mystery.

No matter how hard I try I can’t find much fault with the Coupe 9. Perhaps back in the day the negative could have been the pricing. Or maybe that it was marketed as being able to carry three rear passengers when in reality it is two teenagers at a squash. But as a collectable classic I can’t really slate it – after all it has the look, goes well, is rare and even reasonably economical in the fuel usage stakes.  

But wait…  I found one big negative – you are not going to find one in the local classifieds. And if it is that hard to find the car itself, imagine trying to source the spares to keep it delighting your senses on the road…

 


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