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How Honda Started

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  • How Honda Started

    Soichiro Honda was born in Yamahigashi on November 17 1906. His father, Gihei Honda, was the local blacksmith but could turn his hands to most things, including dentistry when the need arose. His mother, Mika, was a weaver.

    Honda's subsequent spirit of adventure and determination to explore the development of new technology had its roots in his childhood. The family was not wealthy, but Gihei Honda instilled into his children the ethic of hard work, and a love of mechanical things. Soichiro soon learned how to whet the blades of farm machinery, and how to make his own toys. A nearby rice mill was powered by a small engine, and the noise fascinated him. He would demand daily that his grandfather took him to watch it in action. At school he got the nickname 'black nose weasel', which is less derogatory in Japanese than it sounds in English, because his face was always dirty from helping his father in the forge.

    By 1922 Honda was working in an auto shop in Tokyo called Art Shokai (Art Automobile Service Station). Initially he had done menial tasks, but he gradually became a trusted mechanic. He worked on the racing car Art Daimler, the then famous machine born from the marriage of a Curtiss ai****** engine and an American Mitchell chassis. The need to make parts for this monster taught him things that would be invaluable later in life.

    In 1923, When Shinichi Sakibahara raced the car for the first time at Tsurumi, and won the Chairman's Trophy, the young man riding alongside, as his mechanic was Soichiro Honda. He was 17 years old.
    Four years after that first race, After six years with Art Shokai, Honda was permitted to open his own business using the firm's name. An art Shokai auto shop in Hamamatsu.

    In 1936 Honda's own machine, a supercharged, Ford-based special he had built himself, crashed heavily, rolling over three times and tossing the driver out. The broken bones and facial lacerations he suffered would keep the 29-year-old auto repair shop owner away from his business for a year and a half.
    That accident marked the end of Soichiro's own race driving career, but not of his love of racing. Not by a long way.

    A new direction

    In 1937 Honda started a new business called Tokai Seiki Heavy Industry to manufacture piston rings. Since piston rings required only a small amount of raw material but could be sold for a good price, he reasoned the piston rings would produce large profits with fairly easy metal casting techniques. However, when he poured molten iron into the die the objects that resulted were judged useless. Earlier Honda felt that school education was not important and that: "If a theory led you to an invention, all schoolteachers would become inventors". Now, however, he realised he lacked all the basic knowledge of casting. Honda went to Hamamatsu High School of Technology where Professor Takashi Tashiro analysed one of Honda's piston rings. Professor Tashiro found the ring did not contain enough silicon. Honda realised he did not understand simple metal casting techniques so enrolled in school as a part-time student. His plan was to sell the idea to Toyota. He laboured night and day, even slept in the workshop, always believing he could perfect his design and produce a worthy product. He was married by now, and pawned his wife's jewellery for working capital.
    Finally, came the day he completed his piston ring and was able to take a working sample to Toyota, only to be told that the rings did not meet their standards! Soichiro went back to school and suffered ridicule when the engineers laughed at his design. He refused to give up. Rather than focus on his failure, he continued working towards his goal. Then, By 1941 Honda's company was supplying piston rings to Toyota Motor and Nakajima Ai****** Company. In addition, at the request of the military, Honda invented machine tools for making ai****** propellers.

    During the war

    By now, the Japanese government was gearing up for war! With the contract in hand, Soichiro Honda needed to build a factory to supply Toyota, but building materials were in short supply. He invented a new concrete-making process that enabled him to build the factory. With the factory now built, he was ready for production, but the factory was bombed twice and steel became unavailable, too. He started collecting surplus gasoline cans discarded by US fighter planes ."Gifts from President Truman," he called them, which became the new raw materials for his rebuilt manufacturing process. Finally, an earthquake destroyed the factory.

    Rebuilding after the war

    After the war, an extreme gasoline shortage and the high damage of transportation forced people to walk or use bicycles. Honda built a tiny engine and attached it to his bicycle. His neighbours wanted one, and although he tried, materials could not be found and he was unable to supply the demand. Soichiro Honda wrote to 18,000 bicycles shop owners and, in an inspiring letter, asked them to help him revitalise Japan. 5,000 responded and advanced him what little money they could to build his tiny bicycle engines. Unfortunately, the first models were too bulky to work well.
    As a result Honda's first business venture after the war was the formation of the Honda Technical Research Institute (the forerunner of Honda Motor Company) in 1946. Honda bought cheap, recycled small 50cc war-surplus generator engines designed to power military radio sets, burning turpentine-based fuel, attached them to bicycles, and sold them at high profits. They produced all of half a horsepower.

    The birth of Honda Motor Co.

    Honda renamed his company "Honda Motor Co. Ltd". which was officially established in September 1948, initially building small capacity motorcycles, meant to get Japanese workers mobile in the first place. With success in Japan, Honda began exporting his bicycle engines to Europe and America.
    Takeo Fujisawa, a very handy businessman, was a frequent visitor to Tokyo and in the summer of 1948 accidentally met his old friend Hiroshi Takeshima. Takeshima told Fujisawa about a young inventor by the name of Soichiro Honda who was looking for an investor for his business. They met in August 1949, and after hearing about Honda's ideas, Fujisawa said he would invest in Honda's technology.
    He told Honda: "I will work with you as a businessman. But when we part, I am not going to end up with a loss. I'm not talking only about money. What I mean is that when we part, I hope I will have gained a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment."

    While Honda focused his considerable energies on the engineering side (using all the experience he had painstakingly accumulated, including time-out taken to study piston ring design at Hamamatsu tech and subsequent experimentation with a small engine-powered bicycle), he left the running of the company in the hands of Takeo Fujisawa, his most trusted friend and urged him to look to the long-term. They complemented one another perfectly.

    The Dream

    In August 1949, the first fruits of their partnership hit the streets - it was a 98 cc two-stroke motorcycle appropriately named 'Dream'. Full-scale operations of their motorcycle, the Dream Type D, began in March 1950 after buying a sewing machine plant in Tokyo and remodelling it into a motorcycle factory. The Dream Type D motorcycle, however, did not sell as well as expected. There were few paved roads in Japan so when the weather became wet the narrow gap between the wheel and the fender became clogged with mud. Fortunately, the Dream Type D motorcycle was a strong motorcycle and Honda conceived an idea to improve it.
    In May 1951 Honda told Fujisawa the idea for a Type E motorcycle that had a 4-stroke, overhead valve (OHV) power plant displacing 146 cc, and having an output of 5.5 horsepower. It turned out that the OHV engines were not to become available from other motorcycle companies for another ten years. Its popularity quickly increased so that planned production of 300 units per month soon became 900 units per month.

    A growing company

    Honda Motor Company did not have an organisational structure at this time. It also did not have sufficient employees to produce at the demanded rate. They hired nearly everyone who applied. Those hired early in the week soon were training the new employees who were hired later in the week. Honda knew all the employees and issued orders directly to the employees whom he knew would carry out his wishes. However, Honda would also walk down to the factory floor to check on the assembly of the motorcycles. On one occasion Honda had to tighten a bolt two turns. Honda yelled at the young worker saying, "You damned fool. This is how you're supposed to tighten bolts." He then hit the employee over the head with a wrench. Honda shouted at his employees in order to educate them on the proper way to perform their jobs. This leadership style had the desired effect as the employees learned how to build motorcycles. However his actions also made everyone nervous when he walked through the plant.
    Several times Honda Motor Co. sailed close to the rocks in the years that followed, for both Honda and Fujisawa were gamblers who knew that expansion would only be possible with risk. Growth at one stage was unprecedented, until the purchase of state-or-the-art machinery in the early Fifties led them perilously close to bankruptcy. But Honda was never faint-hearted. During these early years Fujisawa worked on the distribution network. The prototype Cub Type F motorcycle was completed in March 1952. At the time Japan possessed only 400 motorcycle distributors, greatly limiting their network. Fujisawa observed, however, that there were 55,000 bicycle retail outlets in Japan

    Honda's motor racing history starts

    By 1953 Soichiro's dreams were showing signs of becoming nightmares for his competitors in speed and enduro contests around Japan. That year a Honda finished second in an event at Mount Nagoya.
    Two years later, in November 1955, came the marque's first important victory -- a double victory at that. At the inaugural All-Japan Endurance Motorcycle Road Race, running over unpaved routes in the forests of Mt. Asama, Honda riders took the top five places in the 350cc class, and were also best of the 500s.

    In March of 1954, having expanded into Brazil, the company had entered a motorcycle for a race in Sao Paulo. A 13th place result in Honda's first international appearance doesn't sound very auspicious, but Soichiro's determination to crack the world market remained unbent. That summer he went on a fact-finding tour of the European motorcycle industry, including a personal evaluation of the famous Tourist Trophy (TT) races on the Isle of Man. Honda came home impressed with the level of technology he'd observed in Europe -- and promptly announced a five-year plan to surpass it.
    Later, his reaction was to embark on the Tourist Trophy race program that would eventually make Honda's name as an international motorcycle manufacturer.
    Although the Juno bike flopped and bankruptcy again beckoned, Honda debuted in 1958 with their revolutionary light motorbike called the "super cub", which engine design is still the blueprint for up-to-date small Honda 4 stroke motorbikes.

    Right on schedule, in 1959, Honda was back at the TT with a team of five 125cc machines. Machines that drew respectful interest from the Europeans; finely-crafted parallel-twins, they featured shaft-driven double overhead cams and four valves per each tiny cylinder. Cranking as high as 14,000 rpm, these little jewels put out from 16 to 18 hp, impressive performance for the displacement.
    Neither bikes nor riders were yet ready to race to win that year, but three did finish in sixth, seventh and eighth, and Honda was proud to carry home a prize for fielding the best team. In this year they were the talk of the TT. Honda USA opened his doors in San Francisco in the same year.

    When Soichiro Honda proclaimed in 1954 that his small, inexperienced motorcycle company would compete against the world's best race teams a scant five years hence, his dreams really did outstrip, not only his factory's existing capability, but his entire nation's technological know-how. But this entrepreneurial pioneer was determined. "Only by winning at the Isle of Man can we open the way to becoming a world enterprise and selling our products internationally," he declared.

    As for the mountainous technical barriers in the way, they would simply have to be climbed -- on Honda's own terms. "We should never imitate foreign technology...we must win the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Race through our own technology, however hard it is to develop." (from "Honda Motor," by Tetsuo Sakiya)

    To create the right conditions, Honda, an unconventional thinker himself, chose to bypass Japan's traditionalist seniority system in favour of younger scientists and engineers. They may have been unseasoned, he reasoned, but they were independent-minded, adventurous, and excited by the challenge.

    Technology improves

    Honda also set up research facilities dedicated to deeper understanding of precisely what was happening inside his engines, particularly their combustion chambers.
    Advancements came rapidly, and not only for the race program. Early flywheel failures on hot rodded engines resulted in higher revving racers, plus tougher consumer motorcycles. Better bearings, stronger connecting rods and pistons, finer valves and valve trains, more efficient combustion; all these improvements improved machines for both road and track.
    In world racing, as well as on the world's highways, Honda quickly became known for high-speed engines with high power outputs. At times, the company almost seemed to be taking its relentless pursuit of multi-cylinder and multi-valve technologies to extremes; witness the 125cc Grand Prix bike of 1967 with five cylinders, which could spin safely to beyond 20,000 rpm and make some 35hp -- 280 per litre.
    Talk about Dreams.

    From 2 to 4 wheels

    At the end of 1967 Honda Motor Company pulled out of motorcycle racing, at least at the top levels, to focus effort on its growing presence in the automobile industry. Production had begun late in 1962 of the company's first small trucks and cars, notably the S-360/-500/-600 series of sports cars. Mr. Honda and his engineers intended to follow the same routes to success on four wheels that they had on two -- with one difference.
    This time they would start at the very summit of the racing mountain: Formula One.

    Keep on racing

    Honda Motor Company didn't completely vanish from racing for the next decade. Such motorcycling high points as Dick Mann's 1970 Daytona 200 victory with a modified CB750 street bike, and Honda's 1978 manufacturers' title in European Moto-Cross, first of several, showed the corporation's competitive fires were still aglow. But during that period most engineering energies were being devoted to growing the range of vehicles and to meeting various new safety, emissions, and fuel consumption standards coming into place around the world.
    When Honda's in-house racers finally saw the green flag again, the Grand Prix motorcycle they unveiled for 1979 showed they'd lost nothing in the innovation department. The 500cc, four-stroke engine of the NR500 was a V-type with four "cylinders" which weren't cylindrical at all, but oval. Mr. Honda's kids really wanted to build a V-8, but the rules now limited them to four cylinders. So they combined each pair of pistons in their theoretical Eight into one, which they mounted on twin connecting rods. Each bathtub shaped combustion chamber had eight valves and two spark plugs.

    From 4 to 2 stroke racing engines

    What a good thing that Mr. Honda had once been a manufacturer of piston rings! Who else dared to think of rings that weren't round?
    Despite several redesigns over three years of hard trying, though, the four-stroke NR500 could not be made competitive against two-stroke engines of the same displacement being campaigned by other manufacturers. Honda finally joined them, and soon began beating them. The NS500 two-stroke V-3 (two cylinders upright, one horizontal) won three GPs in 1982, and four in 1983. Its successor, the V-4 NRS500, won several races in 1984 and the World Championship in 1985. The champion rider that year was Freddie Spencer; since then Wayne Gardner, Eddie Lawson and Mick Doohan have ridden Hondas to their own world titles, and the company is still in the thick of the Grand Prix fray. In fact, Doohan has won the world championship in 1994, '95 and '96.
    What about horsepower progress? The only word is dizzying. Honda's two-stroke triple of 1982 spun out 125 hp. Two years later the first four-cylinder was rated at 140 hp, while succeeding V-4 designs quickly passed 160 hp and reached toward 200 -- ample poke for a featherweight two wheeler.

    Honda's later years

    After retirement he devoted himself to the Honda Foundation which aimed to harmonise technology with ecology. He also served as vice-president of both the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Japanese Automobile Manufacturer's Association.

    He died in August 1991, aged 85, leaving a wife, Sachi, one son and two daughters.

    Soichiro Honda's unique leadership has allowed the Honda Motor Company to become a world power in the automotive fields. Mr. Honda's views went counter to the direction of his own government and yet his company has prospered. With innovation developed by Mr. Honda as a basis, the Honda Motor Company has become a technological force in the motorcycle and automobile industries in Asia, Europe, and North America. Today, Honda stands as the largest motorcycle manufacturer and the 9th largest automobile manufacturer in the world.
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  • #2
    Success represents the 1% of your work which results from the 99% that is called failure.

    Soichiro Honda

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