Rodrez: Your Honda knowledge runs deep, but even you, the self-proclaimed Honda nerd, have probably never seen a 1972 Honda 1300 Coupe 9 GTL in person...or even online for that matter. It's the unique coupe that sort of snuck right by as Honda's Civic line, followed by the arrival of the Accord and global sales managed to steal the spotlight for the automaker. Honda's legitimate underdog story can really be fortified within the story of this model but to get there, a bit of Mr. Honda's history has to be revisited.
Jacob Brown: Soichiro Honda built his company on innovation, excitement, and excellence. Perhaps there was no greater example than his magnum opus, the Honda 1300 Coupe 9—the last car Honda personally oversaw and the culmination of the career of one of the auto industry's most prolific icons.
The son of a blacksmith who made his living building bicycles from recycled parts in the early 20th century and a weaver who fabricated her own looms, young Soichiro grew up amid machinery. His favorite toys were the spare parts his dad gave him. He loathed formal education; his classroom was a shop. His first love wasn't a girl. It was a Ford Model T he saw driving past when he was a kid.
"I could not understand how it could move under its own power," he's quoted as saying in The Six Men Who Built the Modern Auto Industry by Richard A. Johnson. "And when it had driven past me, without even thinking why, I found myself chasing it down the road, as hard as I could run." Honda fell to the ground trying to catch the Ford. He found a drop of oil it had left behind and inhaled its aroma. It changed his life.
After barely finishing high school in 1922, Honda moved to Tokyo at age 16 to become an apprentice with the Arto Shokai mechanic shop. The youngest employee by a considerable margin, Honda swept floors, made meals for Shokai, and was often relegated to diaper duty for Shokai's infant son. Yet, Honda still found time for his chosen craft, and he stuck closely to the senior foremen.
A few years later, he expanded Shokai's shop with his own franchise in his hometown, Hamamatsu. Becoming particularly skilled at building race engines, he landed a job as a mechanic for Shokai's Curtiss-powered race cars, later going on to race them for himself until a near-fatal accident ended his driving career in 1936.
But Honda's heart never left racing. Nor did his itch to tinker with engines. After parting from Shokai's garage, he started producing piston rings with disastrous results. Under testing, his parts crumbled. After contacting a professor of mechanical engineering at Hamamatsu Technical School, Honda discovered he needed silicon in his alloy. He soon attended school there to hone his skills.
He never graduated. Refusing to take final exams, Honda said, "A ticket to a movie theater will get you into a theater, but you cannot even see a movie with a diploma." He pressed onward. Slowly. Toyota placed an order for 50,000 Honda piston rings but rejected them after finding only three in a sample of 50 passed inspection. Honda sold them to smaller automakers instead, gradually improving his design until Toyota absorbed his company following World War II.
Honda's heart, though, was set on creating an engine company. With 20 workers, he founded a motorcycle business in 1946. His 98 cc Dream motorcycle followed in 1949. He hadn't planned to build motorcycles; it just seemed to make sense.
As the company expanded, so did Honda's ambitions. He created the Honda S500 in 1962, a sports car with a chain-driven, 0.5 liter four-cylinder engine modified from a motorcycle design. The N360 followed four years later, with Honda concurrently becoming an engine supplier for Formula 1. But both the S500 and N360 were toy cars, too small and impractical to be competitive on a world stage. Honda had to create something bigger, better—a vehicle unlike any he had ever built. He planned to create a family sedan and coupe to compete with the Toyota Corona and Datsun Bluebird in the emerging foreign car markets in Western countries. Outside the United States, a family sedan was more the size of a Volkswagen Beetle than a Chevrolet Malibu, and Honda's 1300 came in at 164.0 inches long.
Honda revealed his car to the world on October 21, 1968, at the Tokyo show, in both coupe and sedan body styles. Honda introduced his bold new 1300 by saying, "The basic management philosophy of our company is originality, and accordingly our goal has always been to spur demand by introducing products that only Honda can create."
It was no idle boast. At the Tokyo show, Toyota president Eiji Toyoda walked over to study the new 1300, standing in front of the display for a good 10 minutes before calling over some of his engineers. "Honda's car produces 100 hp with a 1,300 cc engine. Why can't we do the same thing?"
Toyota was the automaker ordained by the Japanese government to expand the country's economic clout. And suddenly, here was Honda coming out of nowhere and building a more advanced car. At that time, the most powerful engine in Toyota's rival Corona was a 1.6-liter inline-four with a paltry 90 hp. For the production 1300, Honda wasn't satisfied with the 100-hp Series 77 engine. In the months leading up to the car's May 1969 introduction, Honda fought against delays as his engineers readied a 116-hp version of the Series 99 engine. The most aggressive model to roll off assembly lines, the 1300 Coupe 9, featured this very powerplant.
Honda made 7,881 Coupe 9s out of more than 45,000 Coupe 7s and 9s produced between 1969 and 1973. All were right-hand drive. Only 1,053 were exported to other markets in the Pacific. Two are in the U.S., both owned by Myron Vernis of Akron, Ohio. A longtime collector whose penchant for obscure cars first brought him to German fare, Vernis has recently gotten into older Japanese cars, the archetypes for what elevated the automotive industry to what it is today.
"I was exposed to some of the great stuff that was happening that we never got here," Vernis, who's known to sneak into the garages of vacant properties at the Glenmoor Country Club estate in Canton, Ohio (which he manages) for extra space, says. "To get younger people into the hobby, we need to expose them to the cars we grew up with—the Hondas, Nissans, and Toyotas." Somewhat nervous before my drive in this rare machine (which also has its steering wheel on the wrong side), I ask Vernis about his ground rules.
"First of all, it's in kilometers," he says. "Second of all, no."
I keep this in mind as I fall into a racing bucket that cocoons the kidneys, an unsurprising touch since so many of these cars were used for rallying or driving across the Outback during the 1970s and '80s, as well as vying in Australia's grueling Bathurst 1000 touring car race. Holding the brake pedal with my toe as I heel the accelerator to feed gas into the four Keihin carburetors, I start up the 1971 Honda 1300 Coupe 9 GTL, its exhaust reverberating with a noise akin to a lawnmower tuned by Formula 1 engineers. High-strung. Angry. Glorious. With the engine making the bulk of its power at a peaky 7,200 rpm, I figure the 1300 will be undrivable around the suburban stretches surrounding Vernis's garage. It isn't. In fact, with the exception of my having to tug at its faux wood-finished, thin-rimmed wheel at low speeds (it lacks any sort of power assist), the car behaves as well as any modern Honda, climbing smoothly through its four gears, clipping apexes with utter control and neutrality. Above 5,000 rpm, the real magic happens. The car feels lithe and sprightly; like it wants to be pushed ever harder. While it can be driven around town, it isn't until you push it that you realize this car was meant to scream.
The 1300 Coupe 9 was the last project Soichiro personally led before retiring in 1973, and he poured every ounce of his 50-some years of know-how into it. It was his pi?ce de r?sistance, a car surely designed to show the young guns quickly filling Honda's office that the old man still had some tricks up his sleeves. Tricks such as the rear swing axle design that essentially links each suspension arm to the opposite side of the car, preventing the off-camber bucking that generally comes with a swing axle (prompting Ralph Nader's assault on the Chevrolet Corvair). Australia's Wheels magazine professed in 1971 that "the nicest thing about driving the Honda 1300 coupe is that you'd never know it was front-drive unless you peeped under the bonnet first."
That's not the 1300's only party piece. It also has a dry-sump oil pan feeding the air-cooled 1.3-liter four-cylinder, an engine design Honda had worked with all his life and preferred. Because air-cooled engines are notoriously louder than their liquid-cooled counterparts, the 1300 employs shorter, fatter fan blades to quell the noise. Air is fed to the engine with Honda's so-called Duo Dyna Air Cooling system, which uses a crank-mounted fan to shove as much air into the mill as possible, helping warm the car on cool days just as easily as cooling it on warm ones. The 1300 also employs redundant electronics systems—two sets of wiring for everything—just in case the head- or taillights suffer a shorted fuse.
You could say the 1300's looks are evocative of an old-school BMW, with two round headlights per side and a pragmatic, Teutonic shape. The cockpit cants toward the driver; the dash includes a no-nonsense layout of a speedometer, fuel gauge, and 8,000-rpm tachometer sitting in front of the driver. But rest assured Mr. Honda's tastes leaned more toward the big American Pontiacs he so loved. It wasn't a BMW that inspired the 1300's grille; it was Honda's personal Firebird, with a kink in the front fascia that tapered in on the headlights. From the rear, its American influence was more evident, with a fastback-like rake to its rear window that looked nothing like the traditional boxes coming out of Japan.
During the car's construction, body panels were supposed to be soldered together. Honda found it not only dangerous for his workers to be inhaling the fumes emitted, but also inefficient for such a widely produced car. So he devised building it with more welds, requiring new fabrication methods that made the 1300 stiffer still. Honda still uses the same 40-year-old welders on Japanese-produced cars today, in fact.
Despite its mass-market intentions, the 1300 was never the hit Honda hoped. The CVCC Civic grabbed that honor a few years later. Honda's then-head of research and development, Hideo Sugiura, said, "Simply put, we didn't quite understand what kind of product the automobile should be. We did not pay sufficient attention to the customer's perceptions. We knew it was important, but the need to satisfy engineering objectives had ultimately won out."
For the CVCC, Honda's engineers wanted a more affordable water-cooled engine that could satisfy tightening emissions standards. But Old Man Honda wouldn't have it, headstrong in his desire to push his roadgoing Formula 1 technology. Finally, Takeo Fujisawa, vice president of the company, intervened.
"Mr. Honda, do you want to stay with Honda as president of the company, or do you want to stay as an engineer?" Honda was taken aback by the brash executive but realized he was right. He retired in 1973, departing with the title Supreme Adviser. He'd remain a figurehead until his death in 1991. The 1300 Coupe 9, an ostensibly simple touring car crammed with the most outrageous technologies, probably wouldn't even make it past the concept stage in today's risk-averse, bean-counting corporate culture. But we wish it could. We wish that for every 350,000 Accords sold each year, we could have a handful of cars like the Coupe 9, a machine built to amaze and to captivate the heart. Specialness on two wheels and four. That's what Soichiro Honda wanted.