Despite the fact most automotive enthusiasts automatically think Accord and Civic when they hear the word ”Honda”, the fact remains the company is also the number one manufacturer of motorcycles in the world. Further, the company’s origins stemmed from manufacturing what basically amounted to motorized bicycles. In what is perhaps one of the most remarkable success stories of the modern age, the Honda Motor Company literally started out fitting engines to bicycles in a small wooden shack.
Honda Motor Company is the brainchild of Soichiro Honda, who started the company in 1948. Born in 1906, Honda spent much of his youth helping his father repair bicycles in the family’s blacksmith shop. Demonstrating very little interest in formal education, Honda did make his “mark” in the local school system nonetheless. Noting the school would send home reports to the families of the students, with the requirement they be returned stamped with the family seal, Honda forged his family’s seal using an old rubber bicycle pedal cover.
The subterfuge worked nicely, until Honda started producing them for other students—overlooking the fact the stamps needed to be made as the mirror image of the seal they reproduced. His family seal was symmetrical, so it didn’t matter. Others were not, so when he made them they came out backwards. His fledgling enterprise was killed due to inadequate R&D. Which is a claim no one can make about Honda products today.
At the age of 15, Honda left his hometown of Tenryu, Shizuoka for Tokyo. There, he apprenticed in a garage, where he learned the auto mechanic trade. Honda did that for six years, then returned to his hometown and opened an auto repair business of his own. He eventually got the idea of producing piston rings for Toyota, and formed Tokai Seki in 1937. Unfortunately, quality was subpar and Toyota canceled the contract. Undeterred, Honda attended engineering school and visited factories around the country to learn to do them well. By 1941, Honda was mass-producing piston rings with an automated process that ensured quality as well as made the work so simple unskilled laborers could do it.
Tokai Seki was impressed into the service of the emperor at the onset of World War II, and placed under the control of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. During the war, Honda’s company produced piston rings for aircraft engines, as well as propellers. This made his factories military targets for Allied bombers. His factory at Yamashita was destroyed by a B-29 attack in 1944, and his Itawa factory subsequently collapsed in an earthquake in 1945. Undaunted, he sold the salvageable remains of the enterprise to Toyota and used the money to start Honda Technical Research Institute in 1946.
The first product to carry the Honda name was a 50cc two-stroke engine for bicycles. Honda adapted them from war surplus Tohatsu radio generator engines. The Honda A-type bicycle engine was affectionately referred to as the Bata Bata because of the sound it made. Working out of a 172 square-foot shack, Honda, along with a staff of twelve, handcrafted the engines from scratch when the Tohatsu surplus units were no longer available.
Honda’s first true motorcycle—engine and frame both made by Honda—was the 1949 Honda Dream D. Its two-stroke, 98 cc engine rendered it capable of speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. Honda’s Juno scooter soon followed, in an effort to capture a slice of the market being dominated by Vespa scooters in Japan. Ten years after the introduction of the Dream D, Honda brought the C100 Super Cub to the United States as the 1959 Honda 50. That bike went on to become the best selling motorcycle in history and became the basis of the American Honda Motor Company.
The real breakthrough for Honda in the American market came with the 1963 “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” advertising campaign. Positioning Honda motorcycles away from the sordid outlaw image of bikers and giving them a wholesome appeal worked wonders. The company sold more than 100,000 motorcycles that year.
Seven years later, American Honda Motor Company offered its first car—the 1970 Honda N600. The N600 was followed by the Z600 Coupe and the S600 roadster (the forerunner to the Honda S2000 sports car). The cars languished on the market though, until the 1973 Arab oil embargo triggered the first American energy crisis. The Honda Civic two-door hatchback— introduced that year—found a very ready audience because of its fuel efficiency.
That car’s follow-up, the 1974 Honda CVCC was the first car to meet the standards imposed by the 1970 U.S. Clean Air Act. In fact, the Honda automobile met those standards running on either regular or unleaded gasoline and did so without using a catalytic converter. Further, it was ranked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the most fuel-efficient car sold in America in 1974. Honda could claim its cars were both good on gas and good for the air. The public responded favorably, Honda has been a household name in automobiles ever since.
The Civic was followed in 1976 by the highly successful Honda Accord, which eventually went on to become the best selling passenger car in the U.S. between 1990 and 1992. The Honda Accord was also the first Japanese car to be built in the United States. Today, Honda operates nine production facilities in the U.S.
The larger Honda car attracted middle class car buyers, which opened the door for Honda to become the first Japanese manufacturer to introduce a luxury car to the U.S. market. The company launched its upscale Acura brand in 1986 to considerable acclaim. The ready acceptance of Acura inspired Honda to offer the world’s first Japanese mid-engine exotic sports car—the 1990 Acura NSX. Using a high-revving V6 engine and an all-aluminum monocoque, the NSX was both powerful and lightweight.
The success of the NSX didn’t sway the company away from environmentally sensitive undertakings. Honda introduced the first mass-produced gasoline/electric hybrid car in 1999—the Honda Impact. Honda was the first to market with a fuel-cell electric car in 2002—the Honda FCX Clarity. Further, the Honda Civic GX was the first natural gas powered automobile offered by a mainstream auto builder.
Soichiro Honda ran the company until his death in 1991.