By Brian Earnest
Bill Colford has had a lot of Honda 600s. Almost more than he can count. Pretty much every day since 1989, he has had at least one of the little landmark Hondas in his garage or driveway. So many, in fact, that he’s become perhaps the country’s No. 1 authority on the tiny two-cylinder creatures.
But he’s never had, or even seen, one any nicer than his fully restored 1972 600 Z coupe, and he probably never will. That’s because not only are there not many of the 600 Z coupes around anymore, it would be mighty hard to improve on Colford’s orange coupe. It has only 300 miles on it since its re-assembly, and has been built to stand as a pristine example of the car that Honda sent stateside to break into the U.S. market.
“I restored it back in 2001, and at the time the San Diego Automotive Museum was looking for something like this to show, and that sort of took it to the next level,” said Colford, a resident of San Diego. “I have probably had about 40 of them, I guess, but not all of them were restored, and not all of them ran. I put them together as daily drivers, but this one never was. This one has always been kept all-original and just used for display. The Petersen Museum has had it and it’s been in numerous local shows. Now it’s on display at the San Diego Museum again.
“About six of them [were daily drivers]. There used to be dozens of them outside in my yard. For a while, there wasn’t a Saturday that would go by where three or four [hobbyists] weren’t coming over to figure things out and look them all over.”
Colford was never a big “little car” guy to start with, and his hobby interests were mainly Cadillacs, Lincolns and Corvetts until he decided to take a flyer on a Honda 600 21 years ago. He figured sprucing up such a tiny car would be an interesting undertaking, particularly because so few people had shown interest in preserving them at the time. “I wasn’t working on anything at the time and I just ran across one in the paper for almost nothing, and thought maybe it could be a project,” he said. “From there I did a couple of restorations on them and drove them as daily drivers. I thought they were unique vehicles, and besides, nobody was doing anything with them. Nobody had a registry or anything.”
Colford has changed however. In addition to becoming an expert the little early Hondas, he has pieced together a network for 600 buffs at www.honda600owners.com. And he has become a bit of a “go-to” guy for other Honda lovers looking for cars, parts, restoration advice or general information on the 600s.
The Model 600 arrived on U.S. shores in 1969 and was Honda’s first effort at cracking the U.S. market. The car was based on the N360 sedan that had been around since 1966, but the U.S. version carried a bigger 598cc engine. The diminutive power plant was two a transverse-mounted two-cylinder, air-cooled unit that kicked out a whopping 36 horsepower at a hummingbird-like 6000 rpm.
The 600 was original available only as a two-door sedan, but for 1971 a two-door “Z” coupe was added. An estimated 15,500 coupes and roughly 35,000 sedans were built for 1972. The coupes carried a base price of $1,543, while the sedans could be had for just $1,395.
The early-1970s saw the birth of a lot of compact cars, and few in the mainstream were more compact than the Z600. They were only 123.5 inches long, tipped the scales at 1,312 lbs., rode on a 78.8-inch wheels base and had a tiny 6.9-gallon fuel tank. Top speed, downhill with a tailwind, was about 80 mph, and fuel mileage was a stellar 40 mpg.
The 600s carried a four-speed synchromesh transmission and front power disc brakes. The rear end had a rigid axle and leaf springs. The front suspension included struts and coil-overs. The steel unibody construction was mated to a small sub-frame in front. Everything rode on 10-inch wheels.
The coupes had a small hatch-type tip-up rear window and a tiny back seat. They also had rear-opening quarter windows in the back seat, and carried a different grille assembly than the sedans.
Honda original planned make its Hondamatic automatic transmission optional on the 600s, but the plan never panned out. “They didn’t sell them in the U.S., but they had them in a brochure and they brought a few in as test vehicles,” Colford said. “There are four or so that are known to exist … and I have one of them. I have the Hondamatic and it’s been in restoration since about 1995 when I picked it up.”
Colford’s restored orange 600 came on a trade and with an assurance that all the paperwork was in order to trace the car’s history. “Well, I got handed a mess of little scripts and pieces and paper and they said, ‘It’s all there.’ And it really was all there back to the first owner. I had a copy of the last registration, but no title.”
The car also didn’t have its original motor, but after some detective work and persistence, Colford was able to recover the car’s first engine and gain a legal title. “The car had gone through a shop, and they had pulled the motor on it,” he said. “There was nothing else to do with it, I guess. It’s just one unit, and it’s so small, so they just threw back in a corner.”
“There are no motors in these cars that are in good condition. They all need to be resealed or whatever. I just took it all apart and rebuilt it. I put all new pistons and rings in it. The crankshaft was OK, which was important about these vehicles. There are all pressed together just like a motorcycle, so if you have a bearing that goes bad, it will eat itself up quick … If you can find them and they start, run and stop, they are restorable. The big thing is if you don’t have a crankshaft there is not a lot you can do. If you can find one, a crankshaft now will run you close to $1,800 to $2,000. There is a place in Germany that is supposedly building the crankshafts, but with the Euro the way it is, you’d have to really, really want to do that.”
Colford’s prize Honda was definitely restorable, but it needed help everywhere. Fortunately, Colford knew where to look for parts and had been down the same restoration trail before. “The car had gone though many hands and many pounds of Bond-O,” he laughed. “They’re small cars, had very little value and it was something that you could pull into the garage and tear apart fairly quickly without having a lot of expertise. And of course they were all aluminum, so people used to rip the threads out of everything.
“If somebody was starting out without having any other cars, it would be hard, yeah, but I had done a number of other cars, so I had all the parts, except the motor. I had swapped parts with other people and gathered things … I’d say I had it pretty easy compared to most people trying to put them together.”
But even though Colford’s orange beauty might be the nicest 600 around, it’s relatively Spartan, even for the breed. “Mine only has one option, and that was an AM radio,” he said. “But there were other things you could get, like pick panels for the bottom of the doors, and strips that went along the door sills. There were not a lot of things you could get, although the dealerships here had some options like vinyl tops, mag wheels, and they even had a unique steering wheel that a place out here in L.A. started putting on. It was a wooden wheel with three aluminum spokes. That was kind of neat.”
The Z coupe only lasted in production for 16 months, from April of 1971 through August of 1972, when the 1200cc Honda Civic made its debut. Colford’s car has a build date of January, 1972, making it one of the “second-generation” Z coupes. The first-generaton cars were built in both 360cc and 589cc configurations, with only the 589cc versions making it to the U.S. The cars were also produced in both left- and righthand drive, depending on the country that was importing them. The cars headed for the U.S. were given an “AZ” stamping, and only about 15,500 AZ coupes were produced for the American market.
The Z coupe was just a squirt by any standard, or in any era, but it had plenty of fans in its day and still provides a unique driving experience. The two hard-working cylinders can keep up with most traffic, the cars are certainly nimble and easy to handle, “and they are easy to park!” noted Colford. “I’ve even had them moved sideways in my driveway … They’re small, but, they’re actually pretty good size once get inside them.”
Nobody is quite sure how many Z600s are still around, but it’s not many. There maybe be some undiscovered cars hiding in garages and back yards, but for now, Colford’s best guess is fewer than 1,000 have survived, with only maybe 300 of the cars actually driveable. “I’d say there are probably 25 to 30 that are in full restoration stage right now throughout the country,” he said.
One survivor made news at the Barrett-Jackson sale in Scottsdale in January by changing hands for $27,500. Colford figures the best remaining cars will probably be kept off the road by their owners, most of whom are well aware of how scarce the good examples are. It’s likely that Colford’s Z600 won’t be the only one sitting in museum displays in the coming years. “I think that’s what we need to do, keep letting other venues display our vehicles,” he said. “I think think that is the way for people to appreciate the vehicles and what they do.”
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