A Short History of Honda

Dec 09, 2021 View Comments by

Great Things Have Small Beginnings

By: Jeff Buchanan

Honda stands as an incredible success story. The company grew from extremely humble origins to blossom into a major global presence. What makes this story especially remarkable is that the company’s enormous success and prominence wasn’t achieved over generations of familial growth, but within the sole lifetime of its founder.

 

Soichiro Honda was born in 1906 outside Hamamatsu, Japan. As a toddler, he was mesmerized when the first automobile came through his village. He never forgot the smell of oil the car left in its wake. Perhaps it was that simple incident, that passing mechanical wonder, that set the stage for Soichiro’s lifelong passion for machines. Certainly no one in the village could have imagined that the child, so fascinated with that automobile, would have such a significant impact on the world.

As a boy, Soichiro worked on bicycles in his father’s blacksmith shop. Fascinated with engineering, he apprenticed himself to an automotive garage in Tokyo. In 1928, at the age of 22, Soichiro returned to Hamamatsu to open his own repair shop. Enamored with speed, he built and raced his own race car. A 1936 accident brought his racing career to an end, but Soichiro never lost his love of competition.

The following year, Soichiro partnered with an investor and founded a company called Tokai Seiki to produce piston rings. After a number of setbacks, the business eventually became the primary supplier for Toyota. The company was put under government control when World War II broke out and adapted their manufacturing capabilities to produce aircraft propellers. In 1944, the factory was destroyed by a U.S. B-29 bomber attack. After the war, Soichiro sold the remains of Tokai Seiki to Toyota.

 

Supplying a Demand

As an economically depressed Japan emerged from the war and began to rebuild, Soichiro saw the need for inexpensive transportation. Using the proceeds from the sale of his piston ring company, Soichiro founded the Honda Technical Institute in 1946. Seeded with a supply of 500 surplus 50cc two-stroke radio generator engines, the company produced motorized bicycles.

Soichiro liquidated the Honda Technical Institute in 1949 to found Honda Motor Co. Ltd. Later that same year, they released their first motorcycle, the 98cc two-stroke D-Type Honda, which became known as the Dream—the name rumored to have come from an employee’s observation of the machine’s first test ride.

The massive growth of two-stroke-powered scooters and motorbikes in post-war Japan contributed to a dramatic increase in air pollution. Realizing that his own machines were contributing to this, Soichiro focused on developing cleaner-burning four-stroke engines. In 1951, Honda released its first four-stroke production motorcycle, the 146cc Dream E.

Honda was becoming a major manufacturer and, in 1958, released the Super Cub, known as the Honda 50. With its distinctive step-through design and dependable four-stroke engine, Honda unabashedly established itself as an innovative market leader with broad appeal. The Super Cub would go on to become the most popular, best-selling motorcycle of all time.

 

Racing Success

Another significant year for Honda came in 1959. Soichiro, an avid racing fan, believed that racing served as the best arena for mechanical development. Going up against the powerhouse European manufacturers at the Isle of Man, Honda entered five 125cc twin-cylinder machines in the ultra-lightweight division. Although their best finish was sixth, Honda won the coveted manufacturers’ trophy, whetting Soichiro’s taste for success in competition. That same year, American Honda Motor Company was established in Los Angeles to grow the company’s presence stateside.

Honda reached a significant milestone in Grand Prix racing in 1961, where the company scored its first wins—both first places—in the 125cc and 250cc classes. Honda would make an audacious statement at the Isle of Man as well by sweeping the 125cc and 250cc classes, taking the first five places in both classes.

In a famous move, which dramatically affected the general public’s perception of motorcycles in America, in 1963 Honda’s advertising agency Grey Advertising introduced a campaign that featured the phrase: “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.” The campaign would prove so effective that it would remain Honda’s marketing mantra for the next 12 years. Honda also made yet another bold move—the company started using television ads.

After having won world titles in the 50, 125, 250, and 350cc classes, Honda put its muscle behind winning the 500cc title in 1966. Although it missed out on the championship, Honda once more secured the manufacturers’ title. The following year, Honda withdrew from Grand Prix motorcycle racing to focus on F1.

 

To New Heights

In 1968, Honda’s 10-millionth motorcycle rolled out of the factory. It had been 19 years since the company was officially founded, and Honda dominated the motorcycle world. The company flatly awed the world with the introduction of the CB750 in 1969. The groundbreaking in-line four-cylinder motorcycle represented a major step forward, ushering in a modern phase of motorcycle design and engineering.

Aesthetically pleasing and with unparalleled performance, the CB750 sat atop the wave of popularity that had been building for motorcycles, which crested and finally broke, seeing enormous sales and pushing the two-wheel craze into full bloom. Honda entered four highly modified CB750 machines (Racing Type) in the prestigious Daytona 200 in 1970. Only one finished, but that sole finisher was the winner. Rider Dick Mann piloted the machine to the astonishing victory, establishing Honda as a force to be reckoned with.

During this period, Honda released a string of appealing motorcycles that electrified the general public, helping to push the motorcycle boom to its zenith. The Mini Trail 50 and Trail 70 won the hearts of young people, while the CB line was expanded to include the Street and Scrambler models 175, 350, and 450. With its wide range of motorcycles, there was a Honda for everyone. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Honda was the company’s ability to create motorcycles that had visceral appeal, in many cases inspiring non-riders to visit a Honda dealership. Honda had become a household name, with many people arbitrarily referring to any motorcycle as a “Honda.”

Along with the immense popularity of street-going motorcycles came the new excitement for trail and off-road riding, with the sport of motocross coming to prominence. Motocross was an enthralling import dominated by European riders and machinery. In 1973, Honda stepped outside its wheelhouse to produce the CR250 Elsinore. A striking motorcycle, it performed beyond anyone’s expectations for a first-year model machine in an entirely new realm for the company. Honda capped the release by winning the 1973 AMA 250cc national motocross title with rider Gary Jones in its first attempt.

That same year Soichiro Honda retired from his duties as company president, joining the Board of Directors. Just 24 years after Mr. Honda founded Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and created his first motorcycle, Honda had not only taken over the motorcycle industry, but had also established itself as a major auto manufacturer.

 

Dave Mungenast, Sr. began his relationship with Honda as a motorcycle dealer in 1965. Dealers learned about Honda through a program called “Holiday in Japan” where they toured Honda facilities and spent time with Honda founder, Soichiro Honda.

 

Continued Success

In 1975, Honda introduced the Gold Wing in yet another innovative breakthrough. A modern, technologically advanced performance touring machine, the GL1000 was a water-cooled, shaft-driven motorcycle that created an entirely new segment of motorcycling—large displacement luxury touring. In 1981, Honda made news when it moved production of the Gold Wing to America.

The company finally won its long-desired 500cc World Championship in 1983 with the phenomenal Freddie Spencer. The same year, Soichiro Honda was appointed as the firm’s supreme advisor. Three years later, in 1986, Honda once again proved its engineering prowess when they created the VFR750F. The Interceptor became the first true superbike, starting a performance war among manufacturers.

What followed was a rapid succession of development, with full fairings, suspension advancements, and increasingly powerful engines creating a new generation of sport riding and rabid competition between manufacturers. The creation of the World Superbike Championship in 1988 was in no small way fostered by the popularity sportbikes had garnered thanks to Honda.

In 1991, the Honda Corporation mourned the loss of its founder. Soichiro Honda passed away at the age of 84. What he left behind is a phenomenal legacy of innovation, driven by passion. To look at the world today, the name Honda is everywhere. It remains the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer and, by 2020, was the seventh largest automobile manufacturer. Honda is the most successful manufacturer in MotoGP with 21 world titles.

The company continues to thrive in its lineage of innovation beyond traditional motorized vehicles, exploring artificial intelligence and robotic engineering, along with aerospace engineering. And to think, it all started when a curious child saw his first automobile in a small village in Japan.

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