Honda has become a Japanese-based global leader in car and motorcycle production borne out of one man’s vision, a foundation based on bravery, fortune and flops, but rising again and again on a stellar path to becoming a billion-dollar empire.
Its creator, Soichiro Honda, came from a humble background, but with a fascination for anything mechanical that became the driving force behind his desire to succeed.
Born in 1906 in Hamamatsu Shizuoka, Japan, Honda’s early days were accompanying his blacksmithing father to his bicycle repair company and being fascinated by the mechanical workings of the bike, which led him to create his toys.
Full of creative genius, his appetite for all moving mechanical things was topped the day he borrowed one of his father’s bikes and travelled 20 kilometres to watch from a tree the flying capabilities of a bi-plane piloted by Art Smith at the Wachiyama military airfield.
By his late teens, Honda had left his father’s business, and without formal education, to seek his fortune in Tokyo. There, he embarked on a car mechanic apprenticeship for six years, before returning home at 22 to begin an auto repair business.
During those formative years in Tokyo, the 17-year-old was the mechanic who rode alongside Shinichi Sakibahara as he raced an Art Daimler, a combo of an American Mitchell chassis and a Curtiss aircraft engine. Sakibahara captured the Chairman’s Trophy at Tsurumi.
For a decade, Honda honed his skills in the engineering world, manufacturing piston rings for small engines, before stepping up to produce small engines.
Motorcycling Production Moves up the Gears
In 1948, the Honda Motor Company was borne as he took the first, bold step of producing motorbikes, targeted initially to cater to the young Japanese worker. While he concentrated on the engineering expertise and experimentation, his ally Takeo Fujisawa oversaw the running of the company.
This combination led to the first Honda bike, known as Dream, to hit the streets. The 98 cc two-stroke motorcycle was a success, but there were failures along the way as the two mainly speculated to accumulate.
It was on the point of bankruptcy after another failed scooter design, he pinned his hopes in the Isle of Man TT races and at the fifth attempt saw the Honda bike capture the crown in 1959.
Fortunes rapidly turned, and Honda went from strength to strength. Its 1.5 litres V12, designed by Honda engineer Tadashi Kume, was produced for F1 Grand Prix and it was in 1965 the manufacturer prevailed, winning as entrant, constructor and engine supplier.
The legendary Jack Brabham took the Honda name to new heights, winning 11 consecutive races in 1966 at F2 level. The same year, Honda topped the Constructor’s Championships in all five motorcycle Grand Prix classes, followed later by Honda’s first F1 victory, when John Surtees swept aside the competition to win the Italian Grand Prix F1 race.
On the commercial side, Honda introduced the Super Cub brand to the US market in 1958 and was by that time, the largest Japanese manufacturer of motorcycles.
In 1959, Honda began overseas sales for the first time in the US, with its first branch in Los Angeles. First overseas production began in Belgium to meet the growing demand for their motorcycles in Europe.
The Super Cub has since been acknowledged as not only one of the most affordable, but remains in production today, making it the best-selling motorised transport ever.
While foreign investors came calling to produce the Honda bike, the company’s motorcycle business continued to assail all comers. In 1961 it was turning out 100,000 motorcycles a month and by the end of the decade, as many as a million units a month.
Domination was completed by the mid-80s, with Honda cornering 60 percent of the global market and production hit a peak of three million units a year by the 1990s. The company’s portfolio of motorbike brands even outsold Harley Davidson and Triumph in their domestic markets.
Dawn of Honda’s Car
As much as Honda was happy at being world leader in motorcycle production, his real desire was four wheels ever since he had since the Model T Ford. It was in 1963 that he ramped up production of the T360 mini-truck and the S500 sports car to much acclaim and popularity.
This fuelled Honda’s desire to enter the motor racing arena, and this decision quickly paid off, when the self-built chassis and engine enabled Richie Ginther to win their maiden victory in Mexico in 1965.
Honda also took on the challenge of exhaust fumes which up to then other competitors had failed to solve. Honda created the first Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion (CVCC) to reduce emissions.
The amazing CVCC engine was introduced to North America. Its combustion cycle was so efficient it exceeded the tough, new clean-air regulations in the US without the need for an exhaust catalyzer.
The CVCC sat between the spark plug and actual cylinder, receiving rich fuel/air mixture and enabling a cleaner burn when the spark plug fired. The environmentally-friendly device installed in the new 1975-Honda Civic gained popularity, and has witnessed ten generations and 24 million sales of the car later.
The CVCC is regarded as one of the most significant innovations in the automotive industry and helped inspire it since.
The Rest is History
From the mid to late-70s, the company was the first Japanese auto manufacturer to launch production in the US, and this was a springboard for models like the Accord and the CRX-HF to dominate the markets.
Indeed, the Accord drove sales to a point it was leader in the US by the late 80s. In that decade, it moved from the third-largest producer of cars in Japan to the third-largest globally.
Over the last three decades, Honda has continued to be a trend-setter and a game-changer not only for the industry but the driver as well. It was the first company to invent the world’s first map-based car navigation system in 1981 more than a decade before GPS sat nav systems.
Honda has since set up manufacturing plants across the world, launched its award-winning luxury brand and the dawn of the VTEC engine, making vehicles more economical.
Back on the race track, Honda delivered a masterclass in 1988 in F1 when the McLaren-Hondas won 15 out of 16 races. The team took the Constructors’ Championship, Ayrton Senna was the World Champion and his team-mate Alain Prost runner-up.
The company has also introduced the CR-V or Compact Recreational Vehicle and the pioneering compact SUV won instant acclaim.
Since the Millennium, Honda has again seized on the challenges of the day, with its engineers creating the first petrol-electric hybrid, a vehicle with low CO2. It was also the first hybrid car offered for sale in Europe.
Before marking its 70th anniversary, total global sales of Honda motorcycles and scooters reached 300 million, car production topped 100 million, and Honda also advanced the first production of the HondaJet, a six-passenger executive jet with a 2,200km range.
Soichiro Honda, who died of liver failure in 1991, was regarded as a man ahead of his time, and widely regarded as Japan’s Mr Henry Ford”. Nevertheless, he admitted his successes were merely a case of trial and error, but never gave up on his vision.