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Soichiro Honda Biography

by Bob Hagin

June 11, 2001

In the fast-paced automotive world, auto brand names have a place in corporate history but only as company spin-doctors intemperate them. Henry Ford I is portrayed as a backyard racer/genius who pioneered the auto business in its early days but in the 1930's, he was a tyrant who had goon squads beat up his dissident workers. Bad-tempered Louis Chevrolet left the company that bore his name when he disagreed with his financier in 1912 and later beat Anton Champion (of spark plug fame) so badly he was hospitalized. David Buick was a tinkerer who stumbled out of the Buick Motor Company in 1908 and died impoverished in 1929.

But we know little, if anything, about the background or history of Asian auto makers and some of them read like typical American success stories. Honda has been a top-three seller here for many years yet most who drive cars bearing the name have no idea of the social and business adversities overcome by its originator, Soichiro Honda.

By the turn of the century, the bicycle craze had swept the world and the emerging "Westernization" of previously feudal Japan became enthralled with the idea of high-speed personal transportation. Honda's father was a village blacksmith to whom the citizens of his home town of Konyo looked to when repairs were needed. Honda took after his father at an early age and became mechanically adroit enough to be able to enter into the then-rudimentary automobile business. He was only 16 but he was confident enough to relocate on his own to Tokyo, some 70 miles distant, apprentice mechanic in a shop that sold and maintained vehicles. It's said that the company was a dealership for the Ford Model T. Honda must have impressed his employer since six years later, his employer financed him into his own repair shop in his hometown.

Everything Western was embraced with enthusiasm in Japan in those days and that included auto racing. Honda built and drove a race car of his own design, 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 laid up for many months. At that point, Honda hung up his helmet and concentrated on operating his business.

But Honda soon came to realize that he'd never get rich working with his hands and that manufacturing auto parts would be much more profitable. He borrowed enough money to start a small company that made piston rings but unfortunately, his enthusiasm was greater than his technical knowledge and the company was soon in financial trouble. He knew nothing about metallurgy and when on the brink of disaster, he went to a professor at Shizuoka University where he learned the rudiments of alloying. This must have been particularly onerous to Honda since he had a lifelong dislike and distrust of higher education and was later said to have stated that "...a diploma has less value than a ticket to a movie."

With a more technical background and his inborn drive, his piston ring factory was successful, so much so that it was prime target for American bombers during World War II and the plant was totally destroyed.

The economic and industrial infrastructure of Japan was in a shambles when the war ended in 1945. In 1946, the resilient Honda established a small company that repaired and refurbished gasoline engines of all sizes and makes. Since the parts supply business was virtually nonexistent, his shop sometimes had to make the necessary repair parts from scratch. In '48 he upgraded the business and gave it the grandiose name Honda Motor Company, Ltd., a name the company carries to this day.

The primary choice for personal transportation after the war was the bicycle and while it was better than walking, the Japanese public eventually wanted to step up a bit. This fact was not lost to Honda and he bought a number of tiny two-stroke engines that were war surplus. These he convert to auxiliary power plants for bicycles and was soon into the designing and building of his own two-stroke engines.

Soon after he teamed up with business partner Takeo Fujisawa and the Honda Motor Company quickly became the largest producer of motorcycles in the would. Its products won so many motorcycle championships worldwide with factory machines that it would be impossible to list them here. It evolved into the current auto manufacturing organization that has more factories around the globe than in Japan itself. It became the first Japanese manufacturer to build a plant in this country and produced ultra-high-tech motors for world championship Grand Prix Formula One cars and for Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) front-runners. It's a world leader in the production of gasoline- powered implements such as lawn mowers, electric generators and almost anything else that requires a small gasoline motor. Both he and Fujisawa retired to live the good life of successful industrialists.

Soichiro Honda died ten years ago and since then the company that bears his name has only gotten bigger and its products have gotten better.

And to his credit, no one has uncovered any skeletons in his closet like those of Ford, Chevrolet or Buick.