The Rear View 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 had its greatest success in America, courting a generation of young drivers that Detroit never had. return. But the rise of his business was anything but probable.

Soichiro Honda started as an auto mechanic and became the leader in the automotive industry. (All photos courtesy of Honda)

Honda’s beginnings

Born November 17, 1906 in 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, as a riding mechanic. In 1923 the company began manufacturing racing cars, including one made from an American Mitchell automobile chassis and Curtiss Biplane engine. He went on to win a fifth Japanese Motor Car Championship in 1924.

His apprenticeship ended four years later, Honda continued repairing cars and occasionally racing, which he would continue until 1936, just after his marriage. His racing career ended after he was thrown from a car in an accident during the All-Japan Speed ​​Rally. It’s the opening race of Tamagawa Speedway, Japan’s premier motor racing circuit, and the incident comes after Honda set a speed record of 120 km/h (74.6 mph). According to Honda, “When my wife cried and begged me to stop, I had to give up.” But his new wife, Sachi, told a different story. “Did he stop because of something I said?” I think it was a conference from his father that decided him.

At this point, he shifts gears to become a maker, forming Tokai Seiki Heavy Industry. He landed 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 was placed under the control of the Ministry of Munitions. The following year, Toyota acquired 40% of the company and Honda was demoted from chairman to senior managing director. The company manufactures aircraft engines for the Japanese Navy. In 1945, he sold the company to Toyota.

Soichiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa REL
In 1948, Honda, left, and its business partner, Takeo Fujisawa, set up the Honda Motor Co. to manufacture motorcycles.

The birth of Honda Motor Co.

In 1948, Honda and its business partner, Takeo Fujisawa, established the Honda Motor Co. to manufacture motorcycles. Honda oversees the creation and manufacture of the bikes, while Fujisawa handles finance and marketing. Honda’s first motorized bicycle, the Type A, arrives the 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, debuted in 1949 with a stamped steel frame and a 96cc, 3 horsepower two-stroke engine. This is the first Honda Dream motorcycle.

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

The Super Cub was ready in 1958. Two years later Honda was selling 30,000 a month from a newly built factory. The company was now the world’s leading motorcycle manufacturer.

An American foot

Motorcycles Honda Motor Co. founded in 1948 REL
The Honda Motor Co. opened in 1948 with 34 employees and builds 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 powerful big bikes.

The Super Cub, renamed 50 to avoid trademark conflicts with Piper Super Cub aircraft, would become famous after its famous advertising campaign showing sleek Americans riding them accompanied by the slogan “You Meet The Nicest People On A Honda”. By 1963 Honda was selling 84,000 units in the United States each year.

Honda’s success was partly due to its 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. .

Go from two wheels to four

first motorcycle Honda Marysville 1979 REL
Honda expanded into the United States, opening its first motorcycle factory in Marysville, Ohio in 1979.

But Honda began to investigate building cars, much to the chagrin of Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry, a government agency that ran Japan’s industrial policy. He viewed Honda as a motorcycle manufacturer, not an automobile manufacturer. 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 introduced Japan’s first Formula 1 racing car, the RA271, to the Grand Germany prices. She won her first victory in Formula 1 in 1965 in Mexico.

“Without racing, the automobile would not be beaten,” Honda said. “Competing one-on-one in front of a crowd is the way to become world number one.”

Ever-rebellious Honda continued to defy MITI, begging for exports of the N600 in 1969 as a 1970 model. front wheel drive, rack and pinion steering and front disc brakes. It would be replaced by the more conventional Honda Civic, a three-door sedan weighing just over 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 cause a generation of Americans to reject Detroit iron, helping Honda become one of the nation’s most popular automakers. So would its intelligence, as its patented Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion, or CVCC, engine was clean enough to meet US Clean Air Act requirements 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.

Strengthen its American ties

Soichiro Honda has always been an insurgent and built the first foreign motorcycle factory in Marysville, Ohio in 1979. Car production followed in 1982, a first for a Japanese automaker. The company then created Acura, Japan’s first luxury car brand, in 1986, launching the Legend and the Integra, two cars still revered by Honda loyalists.

In 1990, the Honda Accord became America’s best-selling car, 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 fours.

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

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