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-engine automobile.