How Honda went for humble roots to automotive powerhouseOct 9th, 2018
Childhood memories often stick with us forever. For Soichiro Honda, when an early automobile drove through his village in his youngest days, the smell of its oil sparked his lifelong interest in almost everything mechanical.
Honda was born in Japan’s Shizuoka Prefecture in 1906. His father was a blacksmith, his mother a weaver, and Honda grew up fascinated with machinery. He apprenticed at Art Shokai, a shop that repaired engines and worked on cars. He helped the owners build a racer that went on to win the 1924 Japan Motor Car Championship, with Honda as the riding mechanic.
Four years later he opened his own Art Shokai shop. Repairs paid the bills but Honda wanted to be a manufacturer, and in 1936 he started making piston rings. After a couple of years getting over the learning curve, he began selling rings to Toyota, which had founded its automotive firm in 1937, and to an aircraft company.
Honda’s factory was destroyed in the Second World War. He attempted a few projects when the war ended, but everything changed when he visited a friend’s house in 1946 and saw a small generator engine for a wireless radio. He thought it could be used to power a bicycle.
Such vehicles already existed, but they were rare and expensive. Honda built a workshop on the grounds of his ruined factory, calling it the Honda Technical Research Institute. He and a dozen employees made the bicycles. Sales were good but his supply of war surplus engines was running low, so he started designing an engine of his own.
The new engine entered production in 1947, and Honda built a small new assembly plant to manufacture it. On September 24, 1948, the company became the Honda Motor Company Limited. The following year, it introduced its first true motorcycle, the Dream D-Type. Around the same time, Honda met Takeo Fujisawa, whose background was in sales and banking. The two immediately hit it off and became lifelong business partners, with Honda concentrating on manufacturing his products, and Fujisawa on selling them. Under Fujisawa’s leadership, the company was able to survive the difficult economic times of Japan’s postwar years.
Honda got bigger as times got better, moving its head office to Tokyo and opening a new motorcycle plant. It also introduced the Dream E-Type, its first motorcycle with a four-stroke engine. Honda had always sold its products on consignment through shops, but in 1952, Fujisawa developed a dealer network that bought motorcycles up front and then retailed them to customers. The following year, Honda was Japan’s largest motorcycle manufacturer.
The next step was to go global, and in June 1959, the company established American Honda Motor for motorcycle sales. Meanwhile, at home, Honda was working on four wheels as well as two. To help promote products that could compete in world trade, Japan implemented a policy that favoured automakers, providing they could quickly go into production. In June 1962, under the wire for the deadline, Soichiro Honda arrived at a dealers’ meeting and got behind the wheel of the new S360 sports car and T360 mini-truck.
The first car sold through Honda’s American subsidiary, in 1969, was the 600, a tiny two-door, two-cylinder, front-wheel-drive model that made 36 horsepower. It was $1,275, but jumped to $1,522 if you wanted an automatic transmission. Within the year, Honda sold 4,195 of them in the US.
Two things went Honda’s way in 1973: it introduced the Civic, and the US experienced a Middle East oil embargo that sent gas prices skyrocketing and left some stations without any fuel to sell. American automakers were primarily making big, thirsty cars, and that year, the fuel-sipping Civic sold 38,957 copies. The larger Accord arrived in 1976, and in 1979, when the Prelude rounded out the automaker’s offerings, Americans bought more than 353,000 Honda vehicles.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was also mandating emissions, and most automakers were meeting the new standards by adding heavy, expensive catalytic converters to their exhaust systems. Instead, Honda came up with a system it called CVCC, for Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion. Each cylinder had a small extra chamber and spark plug, where a rich fuel mixture was ignited. This was then fed into a leaner mixture waiting in the combustion chamber. CVCC received the EPA’s approval and began appearing on US cars in 1975.
Honda broke ground for a motorcycle plant in Ohio that began production in September 1979. In November 1982, Honda added the Accord, becoming the first Japanese automaker to assemble vehicles in the US. In November 1986, Honda’s first Canadian plant, in Alliston, Ontario, built its first Accord as well. That same year, Honda launched Acura through 60 unique American dealerships, becoming the first Japanese automaker to spin off a luxury brand.
Soichiro Honda was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. He died on August 4, 1991 at the age of 84 – one of his last outings being taken around a test track in his company’s new NSX sports car. It had been a long and eventful ride from that blacksmith’s shop in rural Japan.