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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

October 07, 1998

The Honda Motor Company is 50 years old this year and as we drive to work in our solid, reliable Honda Accords or spend the weekend touring the backroads astride our posh Honda Goldwing motorcycles or watch on TV as Dario Franchitti wins another Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) premiere auto race aboard his Honda-powered Reynard race car, it behooves us to reflect on the Horatio Alger-like success of the founder of the company. It reads like a vintage Hollywood movie script.

Soichiro Honda died a decade ago at the age of 85 and his life was a classic study in perseverance. He was an uneducated working class county boy who went to the big city, bucked "the establishment" and after many trials and tribulations, became an international success.

Honda's father was a village blacksmith who, like smiths around the world at the turn of the century, also engaged in bicycle repairing. Obviously, his son took after him. At age 16, the younger Honda struck out for Tokyo to become an apprentice mechanic in the fledgling Japanese automobile business, mainly repairing vehicles damaged in a devastating earthquake in 1923. Six years later, his employer financed him into his own repair shop in his hometown.

And also like other young auto enthusiasts around the world, he was bitten by the racing bug. Honda built and drove a race car of his own design and somewhere in my archives, I have a photo of that first Honda racer, a single-seater with high, wood-spoked wheels and a narrow body. The powerplant was reported to be a Ford of some vintage and while leading in the All Japan Speed Rally of 1936, he crashed into a slower moving competitor at 75 mph and was disabled for more than a year. It was then that he gave up his dream of becoming a race driver and concentrated on operating his fledgling business.

But it wasn't long before Honda decided that fixing broken cars was a finite enterprise and that manufacturing things was more challenging and gratifying. In 1937, he borrowed enough money to start a small "cottage industry" company that produced piston rings and it was a low spot on the learning curve for Honda. It was initially a dismal failure. He was totally ignorant about metallurgy and when on the brink of financial disaster, he felt the need to go to Shizuoka University where he got advice and instruction from a professor of engineering. This must have been a tough decision to make since he apparently had a total distrust and distaste for higher learning and degrees. In later life he was quoted as saying that he put more value in a ticket to a movie than in a diploma from a university. .

That his piston ring factory was eventually successful is attested to by the fact that it was a target for American bombers during World War II. The plant was totally destroyed.

A year after the war ended in 1945, Honda established a small company that repaired and refurbished gasoline engines of all kinds, making them over and sometimes having to make the necessary repair parts from scratch. In '48 he reorganized the company and gave it the title Honda Motor Company, Ltd., a name the company carries to this day.

At war's end, Japan was in a shambles both physically and economically. Like other war-ravaged countries around the world, personal transportation was obviously very difficult but necessary. Gasoline was controlled by the occupation forces and almost impossible to get. Before the war, private transportation for the masses was generally supplied by urban street car systems and passenger trains while individual transportation was provided by the energy-efficient use of bicycles. This is satisfactory means of getting around but it has its limits.

But public transportation had been devastated by U.S. bombers and the Japanese public had been exposed to the fast-moving pace of their conquerors. This set of circumstances was not lost to Honda and he arrived at a pivotal point in his business career. He bought a number of tiny two-stroke engines that had been designated as war surplus and converted them to auxiliary power plants for bicycles, taking a lead from American companies such as Whizzer. From there is was a natural precession into designing and building his own two-stroke engines.

Within a very short time, Honda teamed up with business partner Takeo Fujisawa and the meteoric rise of the company truly began. Honda eventually became the largest producer of motorcycles in the would, first appearing in this country in 1958. The following year American Honda Motor Company was established. The first tiny Honda automobiles were produced in 1962 and were powered by air-cooled motorcycle-type engines but success really began with Honda's first four-cylinder Civic in 1973. Always a leader, Honda was the first Japanese manufacturer to build a plant in this country.

Parenthetically, Honda is the world-wide leader in the production of small gasoline-powered implements such as lawn mowers, electric generators and almost anything else that requires a gasoline motor. Both he and Fujisawa retired in 1973 to live the good life of retired industrialists.

In retrospect, maybe Soichiro Honda should have chosen the name Lotus for his company 50 years ago. In truth, the present-day Honda company grew out of the mud.