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S500 Morph

Brian's Japan Trip - 1998 - Part II
If you missed [Part I Click Here]

Monday morning, (November 9) we took the subway to Honda Headquarters at Aoyama Plaza. Just the same as last time, they had seven or eight brand new, unlocked vehicles on display in front of the building in the space between the building and the sidewalk. Nothing is missing from these vehicles. The radios, knobs, and all small parts are all there. And no security, either! Just try that in downtown Manhattan or Los Angeles! Just an elderly gentleman, whose job it was all day long to make sure that all dust, dirt, and fingerprints were removed from these cars.

Upon entering the building, you are greeted by the "Honda Ladies", and usually given some pamphlets or brochures. You can wander around for hours, and not be hassled or made to feel like they want you to leave. Quite the contrary, in fact, when everything they have makes you feel like they want you to stay! I think a lot of western businesses could learn a lot from our friends at Honda Motor Co., Ltd.

In addition to having almost every new model on display, they have an oversized video screen with something interesting playing constantly, a section devoted to motorcycles, a section devoted to power equipment, a small cafe, and my favorite, the boutique.

I think that we all dropped some serious Yen here, grabbing all the latest memorabilia, books, pins, posters, clothing, etc. A virtual Honda lover's paradise! My largest (by size) purchase was an S car wall hanging, that I just could not imagine carrying home with me on the plane. The Honda Ladies very kindly protectively wrapped it for me, so that I could take it to the local post office, and mail it home.

Speaking of post offices, I'm not sure what they are like in other countries, but in Japan they had what I thought was a very nice system, similar to what we have here in the U.S. at our deli counters. You take a tag with a number, and seat yourself on a nice couch across from the counter. There is a large, electronic screen showing the number being served, so that, even if you don't speak the language, you still know when it is your turn. Nothing Earth-shattering here, and certainly not pertaining to Hondas, but a small attempt at giving you, dear reader, some local flavor not relating to Hondas.

After coming back to headquarters from the post office, as previously agreed upon, we all met outside. While I was at the post office, Jeff was inquiring with the Honda Ladies about every Honda sales brochure ever produced, and the others had struck out on their own to find some lunch.

Food? Who needs it when you're in the land of Honda? Certainly not me. Just ask Steve, or anyone who has been to an S Car Gathering. When Hondas are around, food takes a back seat with me! Next, we set out for Book Garage. This was a place that Koji had suggested we visit the last time we were in Japan, and it was an absolute must to return.

If you look up "hole in the wall" in the dictionary, there is a picture of this place next to it. It is a tiny, little storefront no more than 10 feet wide and 20 feet deep located down a tiny, narrow alley, but oh, what it has within those four walls! Tons of original manufacturer's sales brochures, old car magazines, old car books, car post cards, car posters, die cast models, plastic model kits; you name it, they've got it!

When I came here in 1994, I think I made the young gentleman who waited on me salesperson of the month, and quite possibly, the year! I spent over $1,100 in this place last time! This time, I felt a little dejected as I left having only purchased about $190 worth of goods. Jeff's friend, Hideyuki Numajiri, who works for Mugen, had met us there, and kindly gave us a ride back to the train station. He also set up plans for meeting us tomorrow (Tuesday) at Twin Ring Motegi. We went back to our hotel rooms, packed for the overnight stay at Motegi, and took the train to Utsonomiya, where we then tried to figure out the best way to actually get to the facility at nine o'clock in the evening.

During the day, there are buses, but at that hour, it looked like our only alternative was a taxi. We asked a waiting taxi driver for an estimate on the price to take us there. He thought about it for a few seconds, consulted with a colleague, and told us it would probably be around 1,100 Yen. Well, that was an easy decision, especially since it would be split three ways (2 taxis with 3 people in each). Well, after about an hour and a half taxi ride over twisty, narrow, hilly mountainous roads, we arrived at our destination with a mere 11,000 Yen showing on the meter. Clearly, something was lost in the translation! Oh well, what are you going to do?! We were here at Twin Ring Motegi, and that's what mattered.

We checked in, and went to our rooms. I was pretty tired at this point, so I just went to bed. I think the rest of the group went out exploring, with some of them ending up in the bar.

We arose the next morning (Tuesday, November 10) to look out the window of our hotel room, and found it filled with a view of the entire race track facility! Certainly, this wasn't a place to be for the faint of heart where it comes to racing. Steve, Jeff, and I decided to go out for our morning run. Jeff had consulted earlier with the lady at the front desk as to a desirable route for us to take. She had advised him of a perimeter route that would take us around the entire complex, and be around 7 kilometers in length.

We headed out from the hotel, down the road we had come up the night before in the taxi. It was a very steep, twisty, downhill road with a hairpin turn in it. Of course, we found out on our return run that what goes down, must come up!

The road around the facility was breathtakingly beautiful as it gave us great views of the entire facility from virtually all angles, with many of them from altitude. This whole place really was carved out of the mountains, and seeing it made me think about what an incredible amount of work it must have taken. There was terracing everywhere, just to give this place some flat land in which to build upon! (Later in the day, we had asked Hideyuki if he knew how long it had taken to build the facility. He wasn't certain, but thought that it was about four years. Ken later told me that he had read something, somewhere that said it cost Honda about $400,000,000!)

During the course of our run, we were able to get a good view of the layout of the road course, the oval, pit lane and the grandstands, the concessions, the Honda Fan Fun Lab, and from a distance, the Honda Collection Hall.

After getting back to the room, and getting cleaned up, we got ready for what was to be my favorite day of the whole trip. We took a small shuttle bus from the hotel over to the Collection Hall. It was incredible! The building itself was magnificent; three stories, each with a North "Tower" and South "Tower" (wing), all connected by a three story lobby with a grand, wooden staircase.

Immediately upon entering, you are greeted by large, round, glass sculpture celebrating Mr. Honda's "Dream". Behind this, in the center of the lobby, is a small , circular display, representative of all of Honda's products from the past. This includes some power equipment, old racing motorcycles, an N360, an RA272, and best of all, the Honda-owned, white S500.

As you proceed through the lobby to the left (the South Tower) on the first floor, you come upon the gift shop, a couple of small offices, a "Document" room, and the Museum Cafe. To the right, in the North Tower, is the "Special Display" room, which was hosting a very nice concept of having similar products from the past and present displayed side by side. This included power equipment old and new, old bikes next to their modern equivalents, a first generation Civic next to a modern Civic, a first year Accord next to a 1998 Accord, and so on. The best display, of course, was a red S600 roadster displayed alongside a white NSX-R!

Outside the building, behind the North Tower, is a smaller building called the "Restoration Room". Here, through large windows, you can see Honda associates at work restoring the vehicles for the Collection Hall. They also have a small "Mini-course" beside the building for test driving the finished products.

Parked in between the two buildings were a blue NSX, an orange, Mugen-prepared City Turbo II racer, and a yellow S800 roadster. While Jeff was salivating all over the City, one of the curators was kind enough to open the bonnet and door of the S800 for me to videotape and photograph it in greater detail. (He did the same for Jeff with the City.) I was shocked to see that under the bonnet, there were; incorrect bolts; corrosion around the master cylinders; incorrect hose clamps; rust bubbling under the paint by where the chrome strip meets the windshield; modern, red, braided fuel hose with a circa 1980 Civic in-line, plastic filter; and an N/Z 600 fuel pump! The myth of factory perfection had been shattered! Don't get me wrong; it was still a very nice car, but certainly not restored to the level that I am used to dealing with.

On the second floor in the South Tower, they have more racing motorcycles than you can shake a stick at! Unfortunately, I'm not as knowledgeable at old Honda race bikes as I am at old Honda cars. So to avoid embarrassment, I won't try to go into much detail here, other than to say that they did have the complete collection of all of the NRs. That was a pretty impressive sight!

In the North Tower, they have all of their racing cars. Everything that you can imagine from F3000, to F2, to F1 from the 60s to the 90s! They also include some of the club racers, and spec class cars such as Civics, Accords, and Cities. As much as I am in awe of the Formula 1 racers from the 60s, of course my true favorite was the beautifully restored RSC racing S800.

This car won the GT-1 class at the 1968 Suzuka 12 Hour Automobile Race, and finished 3rd overall, in spite of competing against cars with engines as large as 3,000c.c.! Its engine displacement was increased to 872 c.c., which along with all of its other modifications, allowed it to produce 100 horsepower at 10,500 r.p.m.!

Moving on to the third floor, the South Tower was filled to overflowing with street motorcycles. I thought that they had a lot of race bikes! Well, let me tell you that the size of that assortment pales in comparison to the magnitude of the street machine collection! Here again, I picked out a few favorites, but the magnitude of the collection defies description, and after all, we're supposed to be talking about S cars here anyway!

On the terrace that connects the South Tower to the North Tower on the third floor, they have a large, sandwich-board style placard. This contains a month-by-month, year-by-year history of their significant milestones.

As you enter the North Tower, you are greeted by a wonderful display of vintage Honda power equipment. They have many neat displays here, including some of their earliest general-purpose engines. Moving beyond this, you come to my favorite section, the passenger cars and light trucks. Here, in my opinion, is the Honda Holy Grail! You name it; it's there. S, T, L, P, N, TN, Z, Life, Vamos, 1300, 145, Civics, Accords, Preludes, Quints, Integras, Vigors, Legends, Cities, Todays, etc. in all generations!

Of particular interest to me were; the blue T360, with a separate engine on an engine stand right next to the truck; a red S600 coupe, parked alongside a red S800 roadster with a separate S600 engine on a stand behind them; and last, but not least, the most forgotten about members of the S family, the beautiful, blue L700 station wagon (What we call a station wagon in the U.S., Honda called a "light van", and I know that in some countries it is referred to as an "estate".), and a lovely, green P800 pick up truck.

For anyone not familiar, these station wagons and trucks were produced in the same time frame as the S series of cars. I find them all very interesting, as I would hope that everyone involved with S cars would, since they are the true siblings to our beloved little sports cars. The T360 and T500 used slightly modified versions of the S engines, some with the familiar 4 Kei Hin carburetor set up, others with a pair of twin-throat Solex-Mikuni carbs.

The L700 and P700 used what was basically a modified, bored-out 600 engine with a pair of down-draft carbs sitting on top of a more conventional manifold. The carbs look more like diaphragm style side-drafts modified to sit on their ends than they do down-drafts. The L800 and P800 used what was essentially a stock S800 engine, and detuned it with a diaphragm style, single side-draft Kei Hin, mounted at the back of a conventional looking manifold.The T series was produced from 1963 to 1967. The L series and P series were both produced from 1965 to 1967.

After finishing all of my videotaping and photographing, I went downstairs to the Gift Shop. I wandered around there for quite a while, visually taking in all of the memorabilia. I purchased a few goodies, but didn't go overboard.

I've got to say to those people who think it's difficult to find memorabilia relating to our favorite, little sports cars, consider the following: There, on some shelves on the left hand side of the Gift Shop as you walk in, were some boxes boldly proclaiming in large, red letters, "Honda S800 Cheese Cake." Yes, that's right folks; a Genuine Honda S800 Cheese Cake, freshness dated for your protection! (No, I didn't buy one. It never would have survived the trip home, although I wish that I had gotten one of those boxes to add to my collection!)

When we left the Gift Shop, Hideyuki took Jeff and me over to the Honda Fan Fun Lab. This is a building designed for some hands-on exhibits, show casing present and future technologies. It has an amazing array of exhibits including; clean-burning, zero level emissions gasoline engines; cut-away outboard engines and motorcycles to see how all of the internals actually work; a display exhibiting Honda's advanced and patented efforts at recycling whole, used-up cars; an interactive motorcycle riding simulator that both Jeff and I spent some time on; solar powered cars; future power products; special vehicles for disabled persons; electric vehicles that you could actually rent and drive around the facility; a display of their ICVS (Intelligent Community Vehicle System) future car network concept; new, not yet produced recreational products; some racing vehicles and displays; a scaled down assembly line to detail just how cars are assembled; displays of advanced heating and air conditioning systems designed by Honda; a display of the P2 and P3 robots, designed and built by Honda; and, amazingly, all of this and much more that I'm not even mentioning was all centered around the experimental MH-02 Honda jet plane, and a large, circular theater, appropriately called the Cylinder Theater (very similar to the Canadian Circlevision theater at Epcot) that rotated, and moved up and down over two floors, that showed an inspirational film about Honda associates all over the world.

After Jeff and I had tortured Hideyuki by spending a couple of hours there, the next stop on the tour was the paddock and pits along the front straight. Hideyuki led us up some stairs that put us on top of the pit buildings. As Jeff and I scanned our surroundings, and shot some video, Hideyuki disappeared for a few minutes. Upon returning, he had a smile on his face, and announced that he had some "very good news" for us.

It turns out that while he was away, he had gone downstairs to speak with some of the personnel. What he had done was ask one of their professional race car drivers to take us for a few, quick laps around the road course in a track-prepared NSX-R!

I can honestly say that it didn't take much time for us to say "yes" to this offer! We practically ran down the stairs into the pit, where they were supplying us with some helmets, and getting the car ready. Jeff was so excited, he had to make a trip to the men's room, so I got to go out first! I walked around to the left (!) side, put on my helmet, got in, and buckled up. As soon as I got my camera rolling, we were under way. The yellow "R" sounded fantastic-very throaty and free-breathing. As the driver chirped the tires heading down pit lane and out onto the course, the smile on my face just kept growing!

The road course has a very interesting layout, which made it very enjoyable, between the long straights, hairpins, other unique bends, hills, and tunnels, which are a necessity with the way the facility is arranged by incorporating the oval.

The first lap was thoroughly enjoyable, but slow by comparison with the second and third, as the driver was bringing the tires up to temperature. The second and third laps, however, were indescribably delicious as the driver, who gave me total confidence in his abilities, really slammed the car around the course. On the straights, we were pegging the speedometer. He was using the curbs through the turns where ever it was appropriate, and when it wasn't, we were right on the edge between maximum lateral Gs and the tires just starting to break free! I was having a hard time keeping the camera upright during the turns! The car LITERALLY felt like it was on rails. Of course, he was using the engine revs to their maximum potential throughout. I cannot possibly describe to you the disappointment I felt when, at the conclusion of the third lap, I felt him slowing down to pull into pit lane!

Upon exiting the car with many "domo arigatohs!", I found it almost impossible to remove the helmet from my head as it kept getting stuck on the grin on my face that stretched from ear to ear! Next, it was Jeff's turn, which I filmed from just behind the pit lane wall. According to Jeff, his ride was no less enjoyable than mine. As they pulled into pit lane, it was getting dark, signaling the end of our day at Twin Ring Motegi.

Hideyuki very graciously offered to drive us all the way back to Tokyo as it saved us a train ride, it was close to his home, and it gave him company for the long ride back. This was made possible because everyone else in our contingent was unable to keep pace with me and Jeff at the Collection Hall and the Honda Fan Fun Lab. So, they left earlier in the afternoon to head back to Tokyo to do some shopping. Needless to say, they missed out on our NSX adventure! Hmmm... Shopping or a drive around the Motegi road course in an NSX-R... I wonder who had more fun?? When we arrived back at the hotel, Hideyuki presented me with a large poster, and a promotional videotape of the S2000. Two very nice mementos to go along with the brochure that I had picked up on it at Honda headquarters. He also presented Jeff with an object of his fantasies-a Mugen instrument cluster for Jeff's City Turbo II! After another incredible day (and making the others jealous of our NSX-R ride), we headed off to dreamland.

Here ends Part II - if you want to continue reading Click Here for Part III

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