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The Rearview Mirror: The Death of a Japanese Rebel

This week in 1991, Soichiro Honda, a rebellious auto mechanic who defied the Japanese Government and established Honda Motor Co., dies at the age of 84. His company found its greatest success in America, wooing a generation of young drivers who Detroit never got back. But his company’s rise was anything but likely.

young Soichiro Honda vert REL
Soichiro Honda started as a auto mechanic and evolved into auto industry leader. (All photos courtesy of Honda)

Honda’s beginnings

Born Nov. 17, 1906, in the Shizuoka Prefecture, Soichiro Honda’s father, Gihei Honda, was a blacksmith, his mother, Mika, a weaver. Soichiro developed an interest in machinery, becoming an apprentice at motorcycle manufacturer Art Shokai in Tokyo, serving as a riding mechanic. In 1923, the company began making race cars, including one fabricated from an American Mitchell automobile chassis and a Curtiss Biplane engine. It went on to win a fifth Japan Motor Car Championship in 1924. 

His apprenticeship ends four years later, Honda continues repairing cars and occasionally races, something he’d continue through 1936, just after marrying. His driving career ends after being thrown from a car in accident at the All-Japan Speed Rally. It’s the opening race at the Tamagawa Speedway, Japan’s first racetrack, and the incident comes after Honda sets a speed record of 120 kph (74.6 mph). According to Honda, “when my wife cried and begged me to stop, I had to give it up.” But his new wife, Sachi, told a different story. “Did he stop because of something I said? I think it was a lecture from his father that made up his mind.”

By this point, he shifts gears to become a manufacturer, forming Tokai Seiki Heavy Industry. He lands a contract to manufacture piston rings for Toyota Motor Co. Ltd in 1939 and Nakajima Aircraft. With Japan’s entry into World War II in 1941, Tokai Seiki is placed under the control of the Ministry of Munitions. The next year, Toyota acquires 40% of the company and Honda is demoted from president to senior managing director. The company manufactures aircraft engines for the Japanese navy. In 1945, he sells the company to Toyota.

Soichiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa REL
In 1948, Honda, left, and his business partner, Takeo Fujisawa, establish the Honda Motor Co. to manufacture motorcycles.

The birth of Honda Motor Co.

In 1948, Honda and his business partner, Takeo Fujisawa, establish the Honda Motor Co. to manufacture motorcycles. Honda oversees creation and manufacturing of bikes, while Fujisawa handles finances and marketing. Honda’s first motorized bicycle, the Type A, arrives that same year, powered by Honda’s first mass-produced engine, a two-stroke unit. It was sold until 1951. Honda’s first true motorcycle, the Type D, debuts in 1949 with a pressed-steel frame and a two-stroke, 96cc, 3-horsepower engine. It’s the first Honda Dream motorcycle.

By the mid-1950s, mopeds and light motorbikes were quickly replacing motorized bicycles in popularity. A replacement for Honda’s two-stroke motorized bikes was needed. A four-stroke engine was pushed for by Fujisawa because of its greater reliability, quieter operation, and fewer maintenance requirements. Since these vehicles were widely used for delivery in Japan, it was also essential that the bike be able to be ridden with just one hand so that the other could hold a tray of soba noodles. 

The Super Cub was ready by 1958. Two years later, Honda was selling 30,000 a month form a newly built factory. The company was now the leading manufacturer of motorcycles in the world.

An American foothold

Honda Motor Co. motorcycles founded 1948 REL
The Honda Motor Co. opened in 1948 with 34 employees and built motorcycles.

By then, Honda had already established its first foreign outpost, American Honda, in 1959. But certainly, Honda faced an uphill battle in a market dominated by large, powerful bikes. 

The Super Cub, renamed the 50 to avoid trademark conflicts with Piper Super Cub aircraft, would become famous after its famous ad campaign showing clean-cut Americans riding them accompanied by the tagline, “You Meet The Nicest People On A Honda.” By 1963, Honda was selling 84,000 units in the U.S. annually. 

Honda’s success was partially due to his management philosophy, dubbed “The Honda Way,” which demands respect for the Individual and encourages The Three Joys: The Joy of Buying, The Joy of Selling and The Joy of Creating.

Going from two wheels to four

first Honda motorcycle Marysville 1979 REL
Honda expanded to the U.S., opening its first motorcycle plant in Marysville, Ohio in 1979.

But Honda began investigating building cars, much to the chagrin of Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry, a government agency that ran Japan’s industrial policy. It saw Honda as a motorcycle manufacturer, not a carmaker. But ignores MITI, beginning manufacture of the Kei-class T360 mini-truck, followed by the S500 sports car in 1963. The following year, the company fields Japan’s first Formula 1 racecar, the RA271, at the German Grand Prix. It wins its first Formula 1 victory in 1965 in Mexico.

“Without racing, the automobile would not get batter,” Honda said. “Head-to-head competition in front of a crowd is the way to become number one in the world.”

Honda, ever the rebel, continued to defy MITI, begging exports of the N600 in 1969 as a 1970 model. Weighing a mere 1,200 pounds, and possessing 46 horsepower air-cooled 2-cylinder engine, it featured front-wheel drive, rack and pinion steering, and front disc brakes. It would be replaced by the more conventional Honda Civic, a three-door hatchback weighing a little more than 1,500 pounds. The front-wheel-drive Civic was powered by a 50-hp 1.2-liter 4-cylinder engine mated to a 4-speed manual or 2-speed automatic transmission. 

Its quality and fuel economy would lure a generation of Americans to reject Detroit iron, helping Honda become among the nation’s most popular automakers. Its smartness would as well, as its patented Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion engine, or CVCC, was clean enough to meet the requirements of the U.S. Clean Air Act for new cars in 1975 without a catalytic converter.

first Honda Accord Marysville 1982 REL
Honda brought car production to Marysville, here with the first Accord, in 1982.

Strengthening its American ties

Soichiro Honda was always a insurgent, and would build the first foreign motorcycle factory in Marysville, Ohio in 1979. Car production followed in 1982, a first for any Japanese automaker. The company then created Acura, Japan’s first luxury car brand, in 1986, debuting the Legend and Integra, two cars still revered by the Honda faithful.

By 1990, the Honda Accord became the bestselling car in America, a first for a Japanese car, and the first time that accolade didn’t go to a Ford or Chevrolet.

The following year, Soichiro Honda dies, a rebel who proved MITI wrong, and also won the hearts of millions of American motorists — on two wheels and four.

“Success represents the 1% of your work which results from the 99% that is called failure,” he said.

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